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Cambodian opposition leader-in-exile, Sam Rainsy, is trying to mount a strong challenge to long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen in Cambodia's upcoming elections – from and with the help of Europe. Kris Janssens reports.
Last Saturday, February 3, about 200 Cambodian expats met in the outskirts of Paris to discuss the political situation in their home country. Taking center stage was 68-year-old Sam Rainsy (main picture), the former Cambodian opposition leader who went into self-imposed exile to avoid imprisonment on trumped-up political charges.
The crowd cheered when he took the floor to address them.
Firm and self-assured, Rainsy declared, "One day we will decide to tell the people to stand up, and they will stand up!" He demanded the release of all political prisoners in Cambodia, starting with Kem Sokha, the current opposition leader who was charged with treason last September after being accused of trying to topple the government with backing from Washington. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison.
Cambodia's political history reads like a thriller. Sokha and Rainsy originally belonged to separate opposition parties. But in 2012 they joined forces and founded the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
One year later, the CNRP won a significant number of seats during the general election. However, the party accused PM Hun Sen of electoral fraud and demanded an independent investigation. This protest led to riots, which were then quelled violently.
Last year, several CNRP members became commune chiefs after local elections in June.
And in the national elections scheduled to be held this year, the opposition party is expected to further erode the parliamentary majority enjoyed by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).
But Prime Minister Hun Sen is loath to allow that to happen. Besides the treason charges against Sokha, he also shut down the only independent newspaper, The Cambodia Daily, and some American non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The PM says he wants to prevent a so-called color revolution, a political takeover backed by the United States. The CNRP has denied plotting such a revolution.
In November 2017, the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and 118 senior party members were also barred from politics for five years. Critics describe this move as Hun Sen's intensified crackdown on political opponents ahead of the election.
'Let Hun Sen live his destiny'
Hun Sen has been Cambodia's prime minister for 33 years now. He came into power in the 1980s, in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. A few years later, the first free elections were held, under the supervision of the United Nations. But the process of democratization had been manipulated by Hun Sen from the very start.
Whoever opposes the regime could easily end up in jail, or even be killed. One prominent example is Kem Ley, a political analyst who was shot in July 2016. The shooter is behind bars, and officially Ley was killed over a debt issue. But the assassination is widely believed to be politically motivated and organized by the CPP.
Rainsy dared to say this out loud. Consequently, he was accused of defamation and had to leave the country; something he had to do even before.
During his speech in Paris, Rainsy constantly referred to Hun Sen and his undemocratic behavior.
"Let Hun Sen live his destiny. He plays a personal game, because he clings to power. He will go on killing people and destroying his own country. If you go on like this, Hun Sen, you will be finished soon. I, Sam Rainsy, am ready to lead this movement to save the country!"
Critics, though, doubt whether Rainsy has a solid plan to rule the country, should he come to power. Yet he strongly believes in his political program that was written with the help of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), a conservative and a liberal German political party respectively.
With a little help from Europe
However, could Rainsy's movement be useful when its members live far away from their homeland?
André Gattolin was one of the few non-Cambodian guests at the Paris meeting. He is a French senator of the La République En Marche party and he cares about Cambodia's future. "Europe can help Cambodia, and France has the duty to do so because of the common history between the two countries," he told DW.
He added that Cambodia, Laos and some other least developed countries currently benefit from the European Union's Everything But Arms (EBA) initiative. "This means they can sell all products, except arms, to the European market without restrictions and without extra taxes." Europe could opt to suspend this agreement with Cambodia, until the opposition party is allowed to participate in the elections again.
This is exactly what Rainsy is hoping for. He wants to raise awareness about the political situation in his country. But it is not clear whether Europe will actually react. In December, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the European Commission to review the human rights clauses of the EBA agreement. But no decision has been made so far.
And even if Europe acts, would Hun Sen be intimidated by economic sanctions? China is already investing billions of dollars in Cambodia, without looking at its human rights track record.
A fortune maker
Meanwhile, Hun Sen has even threatened to "attack” Rainsy with Soviet-era rocket launchers if the latter were to show up "anywhere in Asia."
Rainsy, however, says he is undaunted. "This only shows Hun Sen is afraid. It is not China or Russia who makes the laws. Only democratic countries can do so, like the European Union or the United States. The free world should make Hun Sen understand that elections without an opposition party are not legitimate."
His words in Paris spurred his followers into a frenzy of cheering, shouting and singing. It is unclear what will happen next in Cambodia, but the political situation is tense. When asked about the future, Rainsy told DW, "It depends on us. In politics, you are not a fortune teller, you are a fortune maker."