World Politics Review, The Editors, June 16, 2016
Since late May, Kem Sokha, vice president of Cambodia’s opposition party, has remained in the party headquarters to avoid arrest over charges that he procured a prostitute. The case is the latest in what the European Union has condemned as a campaign of “judicial harassment” against the opposition. In an email interview, Stuart White, the national news editor at the Phnom Penh Post, discusses Cambodia’s current crackdown on the opposition and the prospects for reform.
|Welcome to Cambodian politics
ហ្នឹងហើយនយោបាយខ្មែរ ប្រសិនបើបរទេសវិញ ឱនលំទោនឱ្យញ័រ។
|Cambodia human rights advocates arrive at an appeals court, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, June 13, 2016
(AP photo by Heng Sinith).
WPR: What is driving the current crackdown on Cambodia’s opposition, and what explains Prime Minister Hun Sen’s decision to end the truce represented by the “culture of dialogue”?
Stuart White: Some analysts have suggested that the situation currently facing the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) is just the latest iteration of the cycle of crackdowns and concessions that have been a hallmark of the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) since the 1991 Paris Peace Accords. However, this latest crackdown does appear to be particularly wide-ranging, having also swept up NGO staffers, and even an election official.
Whether it represents the abandonment of the so-called culture of dialogue between the two parties depends on whether you believe that culture ever actually came into effect. It seemed from the outset that both sides had fundamentally different understandings of what “dialogue” entailed.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, himself currently in exile to avoid politically motivated charges, appeared to believe that the new culture signaled an era of CPP openness to constructive criticism and incremental reform. Hun Sen, on the other hand, appeared to believe that it meant an end to criticism altogether. When opposition members, including the party’s currently embattled vice president, Kem Sokha, failed to stop publicly airing their long-standing grievances with the government, Hun Sen seemingly gave up on the culture altogether.
WPR: Has the opposition made any gains on its core demands since the disputed 2013 elections, and what impact has its decision to enter parliament, as well as the recent crackdown, had on its political support?
White: The opposition has gained little ground in terms of enacting the sort of legislation it called for in 2013, though Cambodian parliamentary rules make it very difficult to achieve much as a minority party.
Ironically, the CPP has co-opted one of the opposition’s most politically popular ideas, namely its call for a $250 minimum monthly salary for all government employees. The idea was widely popular when the CNRP campaigned for it in 2013. The CPP, however, has since been bumping up civil servants’ pay unilaterally, and taking the credit publicly. Earlier this year, Kem Sokha tried to cast the government’s reappropriation of opposition ideas as a measure of his party’s influence, and was promptly denounced by Hun Sen for “deceiving citizens.”
The opposition was also promised a permit to start its own TV station as part of the post-election deal, a big step in a country where broadcast media is almost entirely aligned with the ruling party. However, efforts to start the station have been stalled repeatedly, most recently by local officials’ refusal to issue the party a permit to build an antenna. Authorities said the decision was based on concerns of nearby residents, who feared its emissions would impact their health, although medical consensus says they won’t. But locals later said the health fears had first been drummed up by a CPP village official.
The opposition did manage to secure the reform of the National Election Committee, which had long been seen as an instrument of the CPP, but even that victory has proved to be tenuous. One CNRP appointee to the committee was recently summoned to court over years-old charges, and one of the body’s apolitical staffers with a background in human rights has been arrested as part of the ongoing case against Kem Sokha.
It remains to be seen whether those who voted for the CNRP in the last election will withdraw their support after its rocky record in parliament. Given Cambodia’s longstanding tradition of personality-driven politics, it’s even debatable how much the party’s performance will impact voters’ opinions.
WPR: Has Hun Sen instituted any of the reforms he called necessary following the CPP’s relative loss of electoral support in 2013, and has the CPP shored up its political base since then?
White: Rather than institute painful reforms, the CPP has seemingly gone in the opposite direction, passing a handful of deeply unpopular laws—on NGOs, unions and telecommunications, for instance—all of which, critics say, give the government undue powers to stifle dissent.
However, a recent Cabinet reshuffle was seen by some as an effort to put more modern, reform-minded ministers in charge of key sectors, particularly foreign affairs, public works and land management. The government’s approach to tackling corruption, however, is still less than vigorous, and the country’s main anti-corruption body is currently spearheading the action against Kem Sokha.
To rebuild popular support, Hun Sen has given out a handful of what he has called “gifts” to everyday people, for instance by taking unilateral action to cancel the concession for an unpopular toll road, among other things.
Aside from that, the party appears to have returned to its old strategy of touting its twin pillars of peace and development, though the peace element is increasingly irrelevant to a growing population of young people who grew up long after the country’s years of war.