Since the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) took power in 1979, it has seen off at least four opposition movements. By the late 1990s, it had finished off the remnants of the ousted Khmer Rouge, the last of Cambodia’s far-left revolutionaries. The anti-communist nationalism that coalesced around Son Sann and the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front in the 1980s was a spent force by the close of the 1990s, too. The royalist movement around Funcinpec, a party that actually won the 1993 general election and remained electorally strong until 2008, lost its appeal because of the party’s hopeless years in coalition governments and the death of Norodom Sihanouk, the country’s “founding father.” The CPP’s own brand of nationalism and royalism also weakened those movements, as did its enticements that saw senior figures in those movements defect to the ruling party. Repression of these opposition movements goes without saying.
Arguably the most durable of Cambodia’s opposition movements was the one that formed around Sam Rainsy and his various political parties, including the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), from the mid-1990s onward. That movement was driven by the corollary emergence of muscular trade unionism and a rumbustious independent civil society. It also catered to an emerging middle class in the cities who saw liberal democracy as the future and were aggrieved by the blatant corruption of the CPP-linked tycoons, as well as of an emerging working class in the country’s booming garment factories who was drawn to the social welfare policies of the Rainsy-led movement. Ideologically, the movement could be described as social democratic with a flavor of anti-Vietnamese prejudice (a vote winner in Cambodia) and historical grievance; it presented the 1979 overthrow of the Khmer Rouge by what became the CPP not as Cambodia’s “salvation” but as yet another damnation to foreign control and tyranny.
Today, however, that movement resembles a spent force. The trade unions have been decimated by repressive government policy and the ruling party’s patronage of its own aligned unions. The country’s 800,000-plus garment workers have been somewhat placated by union-busting and higher wages; the minimum wage is now two and a half times higher than it was in 2013, when the CNRP also beat the CPP in an election. Independent civil society is a shell of what it was in the 2000s. Many professionals have been tempted to join the government ranks by the ruling party’s claims to now reward competency and meritocracy. More neutral voices have accepted the status quo, preferring a quiet life away from politics as the economy grows at a healthy rate.
The CNRP, forcibly dissolved in 2017 on the spurious charge of plotting a U.S.-backed coup, is unlikely to ever return as a legal entity. Kem Sokha, one of its two main leaders, was arrested for treason in late 2017 and convicted in March this year. He will only be released from detention if, in return for a royal pardon, he vows to retire from politics. Sam Rainsy, the other CNRP grandee, has been in exile since 2015 and, as things stand, there appears zero chance of him ever being allowed back into the country. (Prime Minister Hun Sen recently threatened to shoot him with a BM-21 grade rocket if he ever crosses the border).
The other CNRP figures are either aging, in exile, or have defected to the ruling party. Neither does it appear that the CNRP can operate as it did before its dissolution; splits between the Rainsy-Sokha factions are now irrevocable, while the party’s activist base is desolate and dispersed. The attempt to resurrect the Candlelight Party (the rebranded Sam Rainsy Party, which had “merged” with Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party in 2012 to form the CNRP) led to a decent stab at last year’s local election but the party has been barred from competing in this month’s general election. It, too, appeared a Hail-Mary relic from the past.
As such, a new opposition movement is needed. To be clear, it wouldn’t need complete reconstruction. Just as the Rainsy-led movement inherited and adopted much from Funcinpec royalists and Son Sann nationalists, a new movement would have much in common with the CNRP. However, unlike the CNRP, it won’t be able to create such a formidable base around civil society, trade unions and the garment factories. Anti-Vietnamese hatred is still palpable, but it looks ever more hollow now that Phnom Penh’s closest partner in Beijing is hardly an ally of Hanoi. The constant harking back to 1979 will appear moth-eaten as Hun Sen orchestrates a “generational succession” within the ruling party, which plans to see his eldest son Hun Manet, 45, take over as prime minister, while the “princelings” of other CPP elites, also mostly in their forties, will rise up the ranks, too. By comparison, the Rainsy-centered opposition appears unwilling to rejuvenate: Sam Rainsy, after all, is four years older than Hun Sen.
But alternative bases are available. In 2013, domestic tax revenue was just $900 million, or around $60 per capita. By last year it had spiked to $3.45 billion, or $206 per capita, so more than a threefold increase in just a decade. Over the same period, the national budget rose from $3.1 billion to around $9.6 billion. In other words, ordinary Cambodians are paying more to the state, and the state is spending more on behalf of its citizens. The CPP’s six-point manifesto ahead of the July 23 general election promises even more welfare. The ruling party claims performative legitimacy; Cambodia’s GDP per capita grew from $247 in 1993 to around $1,625 today. Yet, for most of that period, a majority of ordinary Cambodians were rarely in direct contact with the state. That’s increasingly changing: the middle classes are expected to pay more in taxes, and the poor are more dependent on state benefits. Importantly, state welfare is now increasingly bureaucratic, with many payments made directly to beneficiaries through mobile phone transfers. That makes it harder for the CPP to conduct its style of noblesse oblige, of ruling party grandees personally handing out money or opening schools or hospitals bearing their own names.
A new opposition would compete with the ruling party on the basis of performance. It wouldn’t just have more honorable abstract ideas (such as democracy and human rights); it would offer ordinary people more competent governance. If Cambodians are paying more in tax, it might say, they warrant a greater say in how the government spends their money. Its messaging would focus less on personal spats with Hun Sen and, instead, on mismanagement and misuse of state funds. “We would spend your money more wisely,” would be the theme. That, however, would require a new opposition to focus far more on the skills of its leaders and devise a genuinely coherent manifesto compared to past opposition movements.
Second, it could embrace eco-nationalism. Climate change is a considerable threat to Cambodia; most of the population still live in rural areas and depend on agriculture. Cambodia ranks 144th out of 185 countries on the latest ND-GAIN Country Index, which summarizes countries’ vulnerability to climate change. (Of the Southeast Asian states, only Myanmar was lower in the rankings.) Early this month, as campaigning got underway for the election, parts of the country including the capital were hit by reportedly the heaviest rain in three years. Swathes of Phnom Penh were flooded. Many Cambodians took to social media to reminisce about the lakes and wetlands but which have now been filled in to make way for condominiums and urban sprawl.
A focus on eco-nationalism could do away with the toxic anti-Vietnamese nationalism that drove popular opinion but which now looks not just illiberal but staid and outdated. Moreover, it would be a unifying message. The poor rural farmer and urban professionals have a common interest in curbing flooding and pollution. It would cater to nostalgia by trying to conserve a bucolic image of Cambodia, but would also be forward-looking, focusing on what new technologies and developments could mitigate the worst of climate change. Eco-nationalism would challenge the utter destruction of Cambodia’s nature that has taken place under the CPP, mostly by its business cronies. It would confront the CPP’s confection of being the only nationalist party. And it would allow an opposition party to take on the CPP in its rural heartlands. Importantly, it would also cast foreign engagement in Cambodia in a better light. Rather than Hun Sen’s constant claims that the West wants to instigate regime change, Western funding and support for climate action could weaken those narratives about defending national sovereignty.
It won’t be easy to create a new movement. But activists have time. Hun Sen won’t allow anything that threatens his succession, including during the first years of an inchoate Manet administration. Although he will step down as prime minister, Hun Sen will continue to call the shots behind the scenes, at least until Manet is stable and trusted. That means there will be no space for a formal opposition party to rise until at least the 2027 local elections, if not the general election the following year.