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Cambodia's fractured politics

Robert CarmichaelOctober 22, 2015

Over a year after Cambodia's two main parties agreed on a "culture of dialogue," the deal looks to have unraveled, with the PM warning only his re-election would keep the nation from civil war. Robert Carmichael reports.

Kambodscha Sam Rainsy und Premier Minister Hun Sen geben sich die Hand 22. Juli 2014
Image: Reuters

The July 2014 agreement between Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy was born of a close-run general election the previous year and a subsequently deadlocked, and at times bloody, political process that saw the opposition refuse to take the 55 seats they had won until allegations about electoral fraud were addressed.

But eventually, after months of opposition-led protests and increasingly violent suppression by the authorities, the two sides came to an arrangement. Under its terms, Hun Sen and Rainsy agreed to discuss key issues, while party worthies would resolve lesser disputes.

The idea behind the détente, which saw a marked improvement in relations between members of the two parties, was to ratchet down tensions. For a few months, at least, it worked. The bonhomie reached its high-water mark in mid-July this year when the two men and their families dined together at a luxury hotel.

Situation has 'turned around'

Now, laments opposition chief whip Son Chhay, it appears to be at an end. "To have [the two leaders] able to sit down, to talk, at least to get to know each other, was a very good thing," he told DW. "That the situation has now turned around is very disappointing."

When it comes to the culture of dialogue, Chhay says, both Hun Sen and Rainsy were focused less on the national good and more on what they could get from it for themselves. He says the two leaders share the blame for its failure.

Kambodscha Proteste in Phnom Penh Mai 2014
The July 2014 agreement was reached after months of opposition-led protests and increasingly violent suppression by the authoritiesImage: Getty Images

"When you're only thinking, 'what can I gain, what can I manipulate from this kind of dialogue to benefit my personal interest,' it's not going to work," he says.

But the truth is that things were going awry before July's landmark evening meal. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), for instance, repeatedly angered Hun Sen by engaging in months of rhetoric over allegations that Vietnam was annexing Cambodian land - a deeply sensitive issue - and that included tense visits to the border by opposition supporters and legislators.

For his part, Hun Sen had called months earlier for - among other things - the country's pliant courts to consider charging CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha with trying to overthrow the government.

The wheels finally came off just days after the hotel dinner when a court jailed 11 opposition officials and supporters for up to 20 years each for insurrection, a charge that was widely seen as politically motivated. The case against them followed a violent clash in Phnom Penh a year earlier in which some opposition supporters had turned on often-violent government thugs.

A subsequent prosecution for forgery and treason of opposition senator Hong Sok Hour, who posted a faked border treaty document on his Facebook page, was described by one prominent commentator as "the nail in the coffin" of the culture of dialogue.

Little wonder that, more than a year after the smiles and handshakes that launched the deal, the culture of dialogue has been dismissed variously as "a charade," "a culture of monologue" and "a farce."

No Surprise

Given the deep divisions and mistrust that characterize Cambodia's politics, this apparent demise comes as little surprise, says Sebastian Strangio, author of the book Hun Sen's Cambodia. Its very existence is simply part of Hun Sen's standard carrot and stick approach.

"This pattern - making nice with his enemies and rivals when it suits him to do so, and then turning on them when the political tides shift - is one that's been going on for the whole of Hun Sen's career," says Strangio.

Ultimately, the culture of dialogue is a means for Hun Sen to try and win the 2018 election by creating tensions within the opposition and then trying to divide it.

"So when they announced the culture of dialogue in mid-2014, there was every reason to be skeptical and there was every reason to believe that at some stage this would break down," he says. "It's always been a strategic pact."

For his part, Rainsy presented the culture of dialogue as "a fundamental rethinking of the destructive patterns in Cambodian politics," although Strangio sees little evidence that either the prime minister or the leader of the opposition has done much to implement any such changes.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan, however, insists the culture of dialogue remains in play, citing as proof an August meeting between Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng and the opposition deputy leader Kem Sokha.

However, he adds, opposition statements about possible prosecutions of the wealthy if and when it comes to power (among other "provocative" comments) need to be more measured. The culture of dialogue requires staying within the law.

"I think the opposition party will adjust [its behavior]," he says of the future direction of the culture of dialogue. "And we will [be patient] as much as we can."

Poisoned Atmosphere

The genesis of the culture of dialogue was the close-run 2013 general election when Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) came within a few hundred thousand votes (in an electorate of nearly 10 million) of losing the popular ballot to Rainsy's CNRP.

With a youthful population tired of the cronyism, poor services and lack of opportunities available to them under a CPP government - and unreceptive to the ruling party's mantra that it brought peace to Cambodia by defeating the Khmer Rouge - the trend was towards change.

The opposition is banking on that continuing and, with two-thirds of the population under 35, is confident of its chances in 2018. The CPP is understandably fearful, and has begun improving education (whose budget in 2016 will, at nearly $500 million, be double its 2013 level) while at the same time, perhaps ominously, shoring up the amount allocated to defense and the police (up nearly two-thirds over the same period to a combined $650 million).

In April, Hun Sen announced his candidacy for 2018 and said that a civil war could be averted only if he was re-elected prime minister.

All eyes are now on the next general election. Meanwhile, new political parties are springing up claiming disillusionment with the CNRP, leading to suspicions that the ruling party is funding them in order to split the opposition vote.

Kambodscha Ministerpräsident Hun Sen
Hun Sen announced his candidacy for 2018 and said that a civil war could be averted only if he was re-elected prime ministerImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Quite what that means for the culture of dialogue remains to be seen. Hun Sen is headed to France for an official visit from October 25-27. Given that Sam Rainsy is in France too, a meeting is not out of the question, says the CNRP's Son Chhay. But nothing has been arranged.

Strangio predicts the culture of dialogue, such as it is, will "limp on in a sort of rump form" as both parties seek to gain the advantage ahead of 2018 - with Hun Sen seeking to sow discord in the ranks of the opposition, and Rainsy "trying to keep the peace" until as close to voting day as possible.

Beyond that Cambodia's political culture, centered as it is on dominant personalities rather than strong institutions, hampers meaningful forecasting.

"When individuals are in charge, there's nothing that any seasoned observer would put beyond the scope of possibility," Strangio says.