Despite the hand-wringing over the current impasse in Cambodian politics, only two major events are likely to definitively change the dynamics at play fundamentally. One is that the United States and the European Union could actually make a decision on whether they’ll impose sanctions on senior government and military officials and remove Cambodia from their preferential trade schemes. Another is that leaders from the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) can return from exile.
The former is unlikely to happen until next year, unless conditions deteriorate further. As for the latter, CNRP members have made numerous promises for their fated return, and have so far failed to deliver on each. Indeed, public sentiment is starting to turn against the party, which is losing much goodwill thanks to its big talk and small deeds.
Nonetheless, there is still good reason to believe that the CNRP’s latest pledge to return in September will be met, after the party’s leaders agreed to the deadline when they met at a party conference in Minnesota in June. There, it was agreed they would return and “participate in a nonviolent political campaign to demand Kem Sokha’s freedom, restore democracy and rehabilitate the CNRP,” according to a party statement.
But the real ingenuity of the plan would be if, as they’ve stated, they arrive back in Cambodia alongside foreign politicians. According to Mu Sochua, one of the CNRP’s deputy presidents, at least six European parliamentarians have agreed to accompany them, she told the Phnom Penh Post on June 27. Unconfirmed reports contend they’ll also be joined by Ted Yoho, a Republican representative, who has introduced punitive bills in Congress against the Cambodian government. “We also have commitments [from politicians] from Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and Asean,” Mu Sochua has said.
Symbolically, the September deadline will mark two years since Kem Sokha, the CNRP president, was first arrested (he has been in detention since). By then, the U.S. embassy will likely have its new ambassador in place, as Patrick Murphy’s nomination has been held up for the last few months but now appears to be moving through the Senate. And it will be just before many senior EU officials are replaced with new appointees.
The presence of foreign politicians changes the game. Sam Rainsy has numerous politically-motivated convictions against him, which combined would add up to decades in jail, and the government has said it intends to arrest him immediately if he ever returns to Cambodia. Some commentators speculate a worse fate might befall him. So, for him, the presence of international politicians nearby when he touches down at Phnom Penh’s International Airport would most likely prevent the worst-case scenario imagined by some.
A conference — “What would happen should Sam Rainsy return to Cambodia?” — was held at the Royal Academy of Cambodia last month, at which government spokesman Phay Siphan said that if CNRP supporters gathered to greet them, a “crackdown would be carried out without tolerance.” Yet it’s hard to imagine even the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) turning soldiers on a crowd when foreign politicians are in attendance, and Interior Minister Sar Kheng has told colleagues not to underestimate the CNRP supporters, who “are still gathering and formulating their evil plan,” he said in late June.
For the CNRP, returning with foreign politicians will garner more international media attention than without them, and it will force the CPP’s hand: Does the ruling party immediately arrest the opposition leaders, as it has promised it would do, or not wanting any more international criticism heaped upon itself, does it offer to sit down and talk with them?
It will also force the hand of the Cambodian people. Since the CNRP dissolution in November 2017, there have not been any real major demonstrations of note in protest of the decision. By returning in September, the CNRP leaders will be hoping to attract tens of thousands of supporters to rally behind them – similar to the jubilant crowds that greeted Sam Rainsy when he returned from a previous stint in exile just before the 2013 general election.
In preparation, Sam Rainsy has been calling on the military not to fire on civilians, although this was ratcheted up when, on June 20, he called on the “patriotic armed forces to rise up and topple the traitorous regime led by dictator Hun Sen’s family,” as he wrote on Facebook. In April, Sam Rainsy really irked the government by calling on the people to protest in the streets and oust Prime Minister Hun Sen, just as the Algerians did that month to remove President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
In the short term, then, it all makes sense. But what happens when the foreign politicians leave (they will presumably not be there permanently) and the CNRP politicians are alone with a government that considers them traitors and criminals? The sense is that they are prepared to be arrested, and no doubt believe that this would prompt the U.S. and EU to speed up their punitive measures against the Cambodian government. “My family is prepared to see me arrested. I’m prepared. Everyone must be prepared. We r all going home. Bc it’s our right n duty,” Mu Sochua wrote on Twitter on June 30.
But by returning home with foreign politicians, the CNRP will be writing the ruling party’s propaganda for them. Cast your mind back to the fact that it was dissolved by the Supreme Court because it was accused of conspiring with foreign governments, namely the United States, to launch a coup and overthrow the CPP government. And that Kem Sokha was arrested for treason on similar accusations.
Now, no evidence has ever been provided to prove such allegations – a speech made by Kem Sokha years ago, which seems to be the basis of the trial, is tenuous at best. But arriving back in Cambodia quite literally arm-in-arm with American and European politicians to launch a “nonviolent political campaign” will provide ample fodder for the CPP to claim it is the party that protects Cambodian sovereignty against foreign interveners. This must be a calculated risk the CNRP is aware of. There must be a sense that, among ordinary Cambodians, domestic politics would trump any sovereignty concerns.
The second longer-term question, then, is once the CNRP have returned and, we assume, they haven’t been shot at or immediately arrested, what are they to do about the political situation? An actual dialogue appears impossible – and everyone remembers the failure of the “culture of dialogue” attempted by Sam Rainsy in 2014. The party remains banned, its national and local political seats have been handed to over parties, and the next election won’t take place until 2022. In the end, the current impasse in Cambodian politics likely won’t be solved just by what the opposition politicians do, but also what decisions are made in Washington, Brussels, and elsewhere.
If Cambodia is removed from the US and EU’s preferential trade deals, the economy will falter, and, with it, the ruling party’s support. And if senior government and military officials are sanctioned, and the elite begin to see their wealth dribble away, questions will be asked about how the current leadership got them to this position. Indeed, one already hears that not all is harmonious inside the CPP camp.
By returning, then, the CNRP leaders will test the restraint of the Cambodian government, and test the seriousness of the international community in supporting Cambodian democracy. It’s a leap headfirst into the unknown, but one that the CNRP cannot delay making any longer.