In about nine weeks, Cambodia opposition figure Sam Rainsy will presumably return to his country, along with other exiled CNRP politicians, after spending the last four years in exile. Or that is what he has promised, anyway. Previous such pledges have failed to materialize.
At this stage, it remains to be seen whether he will return on November 9, Cambodia’s independence day, as he has failed to come back twice this year despite promising dates to do so. But a statement released this week nevertheless make his intentions clear.
“To seek to re-establish democracy in the face of blind power which refuses dialogue with an opposition of which it denies the very existence, I have only one lever: a direct appeal to the people to use “People Power” as in the Philippines in 1986,” he wrote in his statement “Why I Have Decided To Return To Cambodia.”
“I am convinced that the long-suffering and silenced Cambodian people will massively and peacefully rise to demand a democratic change that it can’t secure at the ballot box since the regime in place refuses to hold any real election with opposition participation.” In other words, he is returning to lead a peaceful revolution. Since political change can no longer come from the ballot box, he intones, it must come through direct public action.
Whatever some people think of Sam Rainsy – his critics find him a gadfly and braggadocio, but even most of them would admit that he is the politician most able to rally people to the opposition cause – his comments are a correct reading of the political situation. Quite clearly, Prime Minister Hun Sen is no longer willing to moderate his own rule. In the past, he would launch a coup or purge and then retreat by opening up the political arena for a short spell. And, ordinarily, he would be scolded by the international community but then receive an avuncular pat on the head and a warning “not to do it again, this time.”
But the repression that was started in 2017 cannot be undone. The military is now in the hands of Hun Sen’s eldest son, Hun Manet. The opposition CNRP was dissolved on accusations of treason, so by reinstating it, as the EU and US demand, Hun Sen would either have admit he was wrong or he now accepts “traitors.” Tens of thousands of politicians have been removed from their posts, and the next election isn’t until 2022. The government has burnt most of its bridges with the US and EU – and could see itself thrown out of the EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, a report on which is expected next week. And it has got itself in a position where it likely can no longer say “no” to Beijing.
As I have argued previously, what the U.S. and EU demand would essentially return Cambodian politics to how they were circa early-2017 – but that no longer appears possible. Even if Hun Sen now wanted to accept the EU’s demand to keep Cambodia in the EBA scheme, he probably cannot.
But just because Sam Rainsy is correct in his assessment, that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t question his solutions or think more generally about what scenarios would come to pass after his return. There are four likely outcomes of what happens if he does return. Most likely, he will be immediately arrested and hauled to prison, as the government has repeatedly said he will be. I have lost count of the number of charges and in absentia convictions against him, but combined they would likely see him jailed for several decades and left owing Hun Sen millions of dollars from defamation charges. If Sam Rainsy returns and is immediately arrested, any supporters gathered to greet him will likely be violently dispersed, and Hun Sen’s reign will endure.
A second outcome is he meets a similar fate to the founder of the referenced People’s Power Movement, Ninoy Aquino Jr, who was gunned down at the Manila International Airport immediately upon his return from exile (Rainsy would likely prefer a return like the South Korean opposition exile Kim Dae-jung, who, after some time under house arrest, was voted in as president.)
A third scenario is that Sam Rainsy doesn’t actually return on November 9, in which case he must seriously question his own role. If he is not in Cambodia on November 10, then he should probably step down as CNRP acting president and allow others to take the helm. Breaking of his third promise in a year would be too much for his supporters to bear and would be yet another reason for supporters to lose faith in the party, at a time when it really cannot deal with distrust.
The last scenario is that he returns, hundreds of thousands rally to support him and, as he pictured it in his latest statement, he removes Hun Sen from power. It’s certainly bold and optimistic – but, sadly, also highly unlikely. While there may be opposition to the Cambodian government, comparing it to the People’s Power Movement in Philippines is a stretch: there has been no evidence of such mass movement in Cambodia, and, presumably, nor would the Cambodian government allow an environment to be created for this to occur as well.
Other comparisons also make the Philippines-Cambodia contrast clearer. The senior members of the Buddhist sangha aren’t on the opposition’s side – unlike the Catholic Church which was in the Philippines. Other opposition parties have been bought off by the CPP and now plump themselves in the soporific Consultation Forum. Liberal students and urbanites that support the CNRP tend to dislike Sam Rainsy’s solipsistic and churlish ways. Half the party is worried about how Rainsy’s return would harm Kem Sokha – the CNRP president still in detention after being arrested for treason in September 2017 – and so probably won’t demonstrate upon his arrival. There is no perceivable faction of the military willing to defect. Nor, despite his entreaties, is there much interest from disgruntled CPP officials to abandon what Rainsy hopes to be an ancien regime.
Perhaps most importantly, the CNRP’s grassroots activists, who are so essential for organizing the scenario Rainsy imagines, are facing even greater repression nowadays. Writing in mid-August, Human Rights Watch stated that since the beginning of the year, “the authorities have summoned over 147 CNRP members and supporters around the country for questioning,” many of whom were subsequently arrested. Things seem to be getting worse. Three senior activists from Kampong Thom province were arrested just this month for alleging insulting Hun Sen through Facebook posts. Without confident activists from across the nation able to organize the sort of demonstrations Sam Rainsy needs for his return, his People’s Power re-enactment will fail before it even starts.
Yet Sam Rainsy’s beau geste, if it happens, would finally provide an answer to a decades-old question in Cambodian politics: Are most Cambodians happy to accept authoritarian politics if it means stability, or are they willing to jeopardize stability to try grasping political autonomy and freedom?