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CAMBODIA: Old politicians in a new society

CAMBODIA: Old politicians in a new society

by Ou Ritthy
June 23, 2014

The political deadlock in Cambodia has lasted almost a year as the negotiations have produced little common ground for both the opposition and ruling parties. After the elections, the CNRP's weekly mass demonstrations became a daily event in Phnom Penh. Almost half million peaceful demonstrators took to the streets to join the CNRP calling for a fresh election and for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. Local and international media referred the CNRP demonstrations the "Biggest in Decades" and Cambodia's "CNRP Tsunami."

Some believed a "Khmer Spring" was likely to occur in Cambodia. The Arab Spring succeeded in removing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was in power for 29 years, in just 17 days with only 60% of population under 30 years old. Cambodia, however, did not remove Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was also in power for 29 years, in spite of having 70% of the population under 30 years old because the CNRP leaders adhered to the principle of nonviolence, discouraging their supporters from using power to take over the government. Perhaps CNRP leaders estimated that it was impossible to use force to topple the government as PM Hun Sen controlled all major forces and was ready to crush dissent, whereas the international community would not support a violent deposal to create change. Also, the CNRP was not persuasive in convincing the world community that it won 63 parliamentary seats in the 2013 election as its leader Sam Rainsy claimed.

However, the CPP was fearful that the CNRP was planning to use people power to topple its government. PM Hun Sen called on the armed forces to protect the King and the constitution. Soon after, Defense Minister Tea Banh told the annual meeting of National Military Police that the armed forces remained committed to defending PM Hun Sen's government in the ongoing political dispute with the opposition CNRP. A statement was released accusing CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann of "looking down" on the government and the royal armed forces, after the latter referred to the current CPP government and the troops serving it as "illegal". Soon after, Deputy PM Sar Kheng CPP's Minister of Interior accused the CNRP of attempting to "topple" the government and engaging in a "constitutional coup." These CPP strategies attempted to illegalize the CNRP, to prevent it from getting international support and especially the support of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces should the CNRP come to power.

CNRP's pawn for political negotiation with the CPP

From July 2013 to early January 2014, the CNRP gained strong momentum from farmers, students, monks, garment factory workers, teachers, civil servants, and low and middle ranking government officials. The CNRP also received indirect support from the Election Reform Alliance (ERA) composed of election-monitoring and rights NGOs. ERA reported election irregularities and recommended better election management. The ERA report also fueled the fight by the international community against the CPP.

Physically, only senior government officials and the armed forces showed no support for the CNRP. However, the CPP was concerned that the armed forces might join theCNRP's mass demonstrations should they be permitted. The whole CPP system would collapse should the RCAF support mass demonstrations.

Fearfully, the CPP decided to crack down and cut connections between the opposition and the garment workers who protested for a minimum wage increase. The crackdown at Veng Sreng Street and the eviction of CNRP protesters from Freedom Park were successful and there were no more protests by CNRP and union leaders.

This occurred after PM Hun Sen returned from his visit to Vietnam where he delivered a speech in Vietnamese. The speech and the bloody crackdown traumatized Cambodians, especially CNRP supporters. Most believed PM Hun Sen went to Vietnam to ask Vietnam for help in the crackdown. Subsequently, CNRP leaders and supporters, and garment workers who for months stayed at Freedom Park were no longer confident to conduct future mass protests.

Before the crackdown, the CPP quietly studied its strategy to crackdown on garment workers and dispersing CNRP supporters from Freedom Park on the one hand, and opening the door for CNRP to negotiate on the other. After the CNRP leaders returned from diplomatic tours abroad, the CNRP was back at the negotiation table with the CPP to the disappointment of CNRP supporters who felt it was a CPP's trick to make the CNRP unpopular among its supporters.

Before the April 2014 Khmer New Year, Mr. Sam Rainsy spoke by phone with PM Hun Sen to negotiate while Deputy Kem Sokha was in the US. We could not know what both leaders were saying to one another, but shortly after they spoke PM Hun Sen said if the negotiations fail that would be due to Mr. Kem Sokha. PM Hun Sen said that CNRP and CPP conducted two different negotiations, one on stage, another behind. Many Cambodians thought this was a trick the Premier always played to divide his rivals.

Sharing legislative power, reforming the National Election Committee, and the CNRP's demand for TV and radio stations have been the subjects of CPP-CNRP negotiations. During the first consecutive three-day mass protests on Sep 14, 15, 16, a series of CPP-CNRP negotiations also took place until Sep 22, a day before the National Assembly was convened. Mr. Kem Sokha told supporters at the Freedom Park that if by Sep 22 negotiations failed to produce results then the CNRP would not attend the first meeting of the National Assembly on Sep 23.

The National Assembly has 12 top legislative positions with one president, two vice presidents and nine commission chairmen. The CNRP had two different demands. It told supporters at the Freedom Park it wanted an investigation of electoral irregularities by a Joint Independent Investigation Committee. However, while negotiating with the CPP the CNRP demanded legislative power sharing. According to CPP negotiators, the CNRP wanted to control the legislature and left the executive to the CPP. The CNRP wanted the presidency of the National Assembly and four commission chairmen, leaving the 1st and 2nd vice-presidents and the other five commissions to the CPP. But the CPP rejected both demands.

Following this high-level negotiation, PM Hun Sen declared that never in history has the losing party been allowed to control the legislature. As a result, only CPP elected-lawmakers attended the first National Assembly meeting convened by His Majesty King Sihamoni, despite Mr. Sam Rainsy's appeals for a delay until November 2013.

CNRP running out of strategies

Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth's "political Ramvong" (circle dance) comes into play time and again. Both political parties have been dancing around the issues. The CPP is devoted to reforms that would allow it to win the next elections as the CNRP balances demands by its financial backers, the Khmer Diasporas, and the voters who are the local people in Cambodia. Both groups are CNRP supporters. But they represent two different kinds of fishes from fresh and salt waters, and both have dissimilar understanding, endeavor, demands, ways of life and awareness of social realities and realpolitik. CNRP leaders find difficulties in securing a political equilibrium between these donors and voters.

The CNRP strategies included mass demonstrations, diplomacy, International Criminal Court (ICC) lawsuit against PM Hun Sen and his CPP government, and negotiations with the CPP. The CNRP has applied these strategies to pressure the CPP into accepting its demands.

But the CNRP appear to have run out of effective strategies. Its financial backers and the local voters have appeared to be tired and sick of these unworkable strategies which have been used time after time. To energize its supporters the CNRP has tried to create political events. For instance, CNRP MP-elect Mu Sochua developed a strategy of showing up at Freedom Park every morning. This had captured local and international media attention and had excited CNRP political and financial backers abroad and Cambodian voters at home. After several successful news grabbing morning walks and sit-ins, the CPP decided to barricade the Freedom Park. Madame Mu Sochua abandoned her strategy. Mr. Sam Rainsy and Mr. Kem Sokha took advantage of the 15-day district and provincial council election campaign to launch their political rhetoric against CPP leaders and Vietnam.

During the Khmer Krom 65th Anniversary, Mr. Sam Rainsy strongly accused PM Hun Sen of facilitating the loss of additional Khmer territory through economic land concessions to Vietnam, and engaged in strong rhetoric against the Vietnamization of Cambodia. According to Mr. Sam Rainsy, granting land concessions is inviting "colonization" that repeats the history of losing Kampuchea Krom to Vietnam. From his side, Mr. Kem Sokha accused Vietnam of plotting the Koh Pich bridge stampede that killed more than 350 people in November 2010 in the scheme to destroy Khmer race, tradition and culture.

As I see it, this new CNRP strategy seeks to provoke the CPP to embroil itself in a new political game in order to keep the political situation hot. But the CPP, which controls all of Cambodia's institutions, refrained from falling into the game of lawsuits against CNRP leaders.

Some examples of political leaders of both parties becoming increasingly irrelevant in the context of a new Cambodian society in globalization era:

CPP leaders

PM Hun Sen has promised no tax on arable land. This policy aims at winning farmers' support for the CPP. At first glance, this seems to be a win-win mechanism for the farmers and the government. In reality both are losers. In any country, tax is the main source of income for the government, and a zero tax policy on farmland is inconsistent with sustainable development. Worse, the policy benefits mainly CPP-affiliated tycoons who own most of the country's land; the farmers are its victims since most of the land belongs to the rich and foreigners. The German development organization GTZ has reported in the last several years that Cambodia's landlessness has risen to 20% and some 40% of households own land of less than 0.5 hectare.

While Facebook is popular among the country's new voters and the CNRP is the "Facebook Party", PM Hun Sen said last year he has no time for Facebook. PM Hun Sen is obviously not in the loop with globalization and remains ignorant of the potential impact of Facebook on voters. With a great number of high-ranking officials out of touch in the era of globalization, the CPP has lost 22 National Assembly seats, reduced from 90 to 68. If the trend continues, the CPP is likely to lose more seats in the next national election.

PM Hun Sen's political tactics consist of running a one-man show in the election campaigns, with the premier's picture posted solo on billboards ignoring other top CPP leaders like Senate President Chea Sim and National Assembly President Heng Samrin. Plus, despite being long-serving and experienced, PM Hun Sen seems to have no win-win strategy to end the country's political deadlock or to solve issues. He uses violence, and divide-and-rule tactics against peaceful protesters and his political rivals.

Since knocking out the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, PM Hun Sen still tells the opposition, "You have already got enough, what else do you want?" In early March 2014, the Premier told teachers nationwide not to feel down about their poor salaries; had they taught in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime their pay would not be more than a few sacks of rice each month. This is a statement of pessimism towards PM Hun Sen his ruling CPP. At the time, Mr. Rong Chhun, President of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA), was organizing a teachers strike for a $250 monthly minimum wage and the CNRP was calling for better pay for civil servants.

The Premier's 11 June speech in Kampot province is worrisome. He declared he is the only person who can command the Cambodian armed forces and warned that if he dies, opposition leaders in particular must pack and ready to run, no one else can control the armed forces. This clearly shows the autocracy of the CPP political leadership. After almost 30 years in power, PM Hun Sen has created no system with conflict-resolution mechanisms and peaceful political power transfer. He has made the entire nation dependent on his leadership and his alone.

CNRP leaders

When Mr. Sam Rainsy headed the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), the party was popular among party's supporters due to his daring criticism and sarcasm against CPP leaders' Khmer Rouge connections. He allegedly revealed the CPP government's corruption, nepotism and environmental destruction, and engaged in political rhetoric against Vietnam's encroachment on Khmer soil, the border issues and so on. But Mr. Sam Rainsy failed to produce convincing and clear-cut socioeconomic policy benefiting the voters. For some 15 years, Mr. Sam Rainsy kept on criticizing and complaining about border issues and territories lost to Vietnam. Yet he failed to provide his party's youth with opportunities for higher education, necessary expertise in International Law with specialization in land or water borders, electoral, political and international affairs and so on. Mr. Sam Rainsy has so far depended solely on Mr. Seang Peng Se, President of Cambodia's Border Committee in Paris, who is not in Cambodia.

Political mass protests driven by Cambodian expatriates in different continents who are strong CNRP political and financial backers has made Mr. Sam Rainsy less popular or even irrelevant with the local Cambodians. Mr. Sam Rainsy's political networks at grassroots levels has been very weak; he keeps on traveling abroad too often, especially to the US and the EU, to complain about Cambodia's internal situation to the foreigners. He has spent most of the time speaking to please Khmer Diaspora for financial support and meeting with foreign diplomats. Political agendas are always changed when meeting with his supporters and rival CPP. His supporters do not know what he actually talked about with the CPP. Mr. Sam Rainsy should start convincing the rich and the middle class in Cambodia, the potential and main financial sources for the opposition party. To mainly depend on financial supports from Khmer Diasporas, the CNRP will find it difficult to be independent and prosper and to win against the ruling CPP as the CNRP financial donors abroad and the local voters have different political demands and beliefs.

However, when Mr. Sam Rainsy and Mr. Kem Sokha joined hands to create the CNRP, its political platform became more relevant and touched the hearts of the people. Undeniably, more and more Vietnamese people are migrating to Cambodia. In terms of economic and demographic issues, Cambodia-Vietnam relations are unbreakable. Politically speaking, many non-Khmer scholars have pointed out Cambodia has been moving gradually away from Vietnam. The 2011 Wikileaks cable revealed the US-Vietnam diplomatic talks and Hun Sen traveling to China as Cambodia tried to break away from Vietnam. Hanoi wants Washington not to remain behind the stage but come on stage to confront China to make Vietnam feel secured. Mr. Sam Rainsy has never told his supporters this. To the contrary, he keeps fueling anti-Vietnamese sentiment for his political benefit. By so doing, both the opposition leader and his supporters become irrelevant in the international political context. Anyhow, without having sound policies to better quality education and employment for the Cambodian people, no matter how much Mr. Sam Rainsy criticizes Vietnam, nothing is going to change.

Claiming something without evidence is a culture of Khmer politicians. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy says something effortlessly and often claims something without proof. For example, immediately after the July national election 2013, Mr. Sam Rainsy claimed said the CNRP won 63 seats but had nothing to back up his claim to the Cambodian people and the international community. Similarly, Mr. Kem Sokha was saying during the Khmer Krom Anniversary that Vietnam is behind the November 2010 Koh Pich stampede. This was no evidence to back that up. Cambodian politicians are at ease making such statements. Worse, on June 8 Mr. Sam Rainsy became a rumormonger as he was officially quoted by The Cambodia Daily claiming that PM Hun Sen experienced a massive stroke and was sent to Singapore for treatment. As the leader of the opposition party, Mr. Sam Rainsy should exercise great care when spreading information. The CPP may just want to create rumors to ruin the opposition leader's integrity. Likewise, on his Facebook page, information should be more useful and should not be too much about his routines and personal issues. It's worth remembering Sam Rainsy's oftentimes mood-swing international diplomacy is to manipulate public opinion. For one example, after a failed negotiation with the CPP, he collected petitions from his supporters to request the UN to remove Cambodia's UN membership by accusing the CPP-led government as illegitimate regardless of the advice of legal and political experts.

Opposition leaders should spend more time strengthening local networks and creating a system assigning reliable individuals as fundraisers to collect financial support from Khmer Diaspora. Moreover, the Khmer expatriates should also understand this logical necessity. Most of the time, Mr. Sam Rainsy undertook foreign trips while the people back home were suffering, for example, from the Koh Pich stampede, the King father's death, severe nationwide floods, repatriations from Thailand, among others. He should be with the suffering people. Meanwhile the CPP, the CPP-affiliated youth groups, tycoons, the NGOs, the Cambodian Red Cross are actively helping the sufferers.

CPP's strategies for next election victory

Before the national election, several high-ranking officials closely linked to Senate President Chea Sim were arrested, frightening CPP members close to President Chea Sim and others closed to National Assembly President Heng Samrin. PM Hun Sen's solo photo rendered CPP members and supporters frustrated and worried.

It took the loss of CPP National Assembly seats by 22 for PM Hun Sen to rethink his internal strategy to reunite all CPP family members. He released those arrested, promoted 29 four-star generals, created two more ministries, three new districts in Phnom Penh and a new province for sharing by CPP members, and to maintain security and political stability, at a time when CNRP's mass demonstrations gained momentum. Smartly, the CPP became united in the fight for survival against the strong opposition CNRP.

To satisfy voters, the CPP demonstrates its commitment to reform starting with government bodies like the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Economics and Finance. Gradually aware of the importance of social media like Facebook, last year PM Hun Sen told his CPP ministers and members of parliament to use computers and Internet. Now, CPP high-ranking officials are actively using Facebook to compete for popularity and share information.

In the legislature, PM Hun Sen showcases reforms to public. For instance, CPP MP from Stung Treng province, Mr. Loy Sophat, openly criticized the current judicial system, appealing to the Minister of Justice to take action against judges and prosecutors not following and implementing the law. Mr. Sophat said, "As you perhaps are aware that our court before had a good reputation and now people don't value and trust the court." Additionally, with green light from PM Hun Sen, the CPP-monopolized National Assembly called on Minister of Mines and Energy and plans to summon three more Environment Minister, Water Resources Minister and Agriculture Minister to appear before parliament for questioning concerning development projects. By these showcases, PM Hun Sen tried to regain public trust.

The CPP has begun to gather more youths and to control youths' political activism especially online activities. The CPP Cyber Law draft was leaked to test public reaction. The CPP's dilemma is, if CPP MPs adopted this politically-motivated draft cyber law, the CPP would generate hatred from among the young people – an electoral game changer - risk to lose the next elections. However, if CPP does not adopt this Cyber law, the Facebook party CNRP will benefit and attract more new voters given the cyberspace is a free and open democratic space. The best strategy for the CPP appears to be to adopt the Cyber Law but to remove the ambiguous terms in and politically-motivated articles 28 from the Law. Based on the principle of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the creation of Cyber Law is only for tech-based online crimes by ill-willed people to steal or destroy property or data online. Cyber has nothing to do with contentions, negative or positive.

A last vital point that the CPP needs to think in meaningful reforms is about its "patron-client relationship" system. Patron-client relationship and patrimonialism are best to describe the CPP leadership. It is impossible to stop the clients from whom the CPP needs large amount of financial support, but the CPP needs to reduce the number of its unpopular clients or tycoons whose financial resources are derived from logging, mines, and economic land concession. These CPP tycoons are actually destroying the CPP popularity. They are potential causes for the CPP to lose the 2017 and 2018 elections. The CPP leaders need to undercut their excessive activities.

CNRP's strategies for the next election victory

While the CPP has made remarkable reforms, the CNRP has not focused enough on strengthening its local and national political networks, expert committee inside the party administration, a better fusion among former officials of the Sam Rainsy and the Human Rights parties, and a reduction of CNRP leaders' foreign trips.

To pave the way for landslide victory, most important of all CNRP leaders must remove the political inclinations of CNRP members to feel of being with Kem Sokha or Sam Rainsy. There is no Kem Sokha nor Sam Rainsy, only the CNRP. The mechanisms of securing financial donations and recruiting party members should be based on one-single CNRP gateway not by different individuals. CNRP leaders need to convince their supporters, the Khmer Diaspora and the local voters to agree on common demands and to support CNRP joining the National Assembly – the electorate voted for CNRP MPs-elect to be their representatives in the legislature. Then CNRP ends the National Assembly boycott to make those 55 MPs-elect aware of how things work in the legislative body, to get salaries and use the money to strengthen the party's internal political structures, expert committees, youth networks, local representatives, among others. Time flies; CNRP has only three years left to strengthen forces among farmers, students, monks, NGOs, garment factory workers, civil servants, and especially to befriend and win over members of the armed forces.

The CNRP must no longer depend entirely on fund from the Khmer Diaspora. It needs to develop a new strategy to get businessmen and the middle class to provide financial and material resources for the party to function and compete, to become more pragmatic as the donors and the voters are brought in same situations with sustainable financial resources. Sounding like Niccolò Machiavelli's advice to the Prince, the CNRP should consider an eloquent political psychologist to mesmerize members of the armed forces to support and then to join the CNRP.

In my thinking, even if the CNRP should win the elections in 2018, if members of the armed forces are not supporting, the CNRP will never be in power to govern. We should learn the lessons from the FUNCINPEC and the CPP in 1993, and from politics in Burma. The Burmese opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) of Aung Sang Su Kyi won the elections in a landslide with over 80 % of the total vote. Yet, the military regime declared the elections invalid and repressed protesters. Aung Sang Su Kyi was arrested and kept under house arrest for many years. For the CNRP, such situation should never be ignored; Cambodia never has a mechanism for peaceful transfer of power.

Current unsuccessful political negotiation

In his Kampot speech, PM Hun Sen agreed to grant a TV license to the CNRP and create an additional chapter in the Constitution for the National Election Committee (NEC). This has thrilled CNRP leaders. A day after the speech, CNRP MP-elect Son Chhay told VOA Khmer that CNRP and CPP had agreed to share legislative power, the CNRP gets six and CPP gets seven top legislative positions; the CNRP gets first vice president position and five Commissions in the National Assembly (a new commission, "Anti-Corruption Commission" was created); the CPP gets the president and second vice president positions, plus five commissions in the National Assembly. On June 12, the CNRP and CPP working groups started negotiations and exchange of dossiers of their demands. CNRP wanted to create selecting committee to recruit new NEC members who are not affiliated to political parties, and submitted a shortlist of NEC members to the National Assembly to discuss and sign off, based on a two third majority. The CNRP demanded the Constitutional Council of Cambodia (CCC) to be reformed.

Negotiations failed. The CPP insisted on a 50%+1 formula to elect NEC members. Seemingly, the CPP was never ready to reform the NEC. Then CNRP leaders restarted their diplomatic tours abroad. Mr. Sam Rainsy and Mr. Kem Sokha have been to Europe and New Zealand respectively. Using the "political ramvong" as a guide, CNRP and CPP will soon be back to negotiation table, again.

*************

Ou Ritthy is a Co-founder of Politikoffee and he graduated with BA in Political Science from Fergusson College, Pune University in India (2008-2011). He can be reached at Twitter: @ritthyou.

The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

Visit our new website with more features at www.humanrights.asia.

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