Prospects for Political Dialogue Wither in Cambodia

By Abby Seiff

Kem Sokha of the Cambodian National Rescue Party has been ousted this week by parliamentary vote.

Cambodian National Assembly vice president Kem Sokha of the Cambodian National Rescue Party was ousted on October 30 by a possibly illegal parliamentary vote. Source: UN Special Rapporteur on Assembly & Association’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

After promising a “culture of dialogue” and political reconciliation, Cambodia’s ruling party has moved from carrots to sticks.

On Facebook, an image has been floating around in Cambodian circles over the past few days. It is a photograph of a tombstone with words pasted on it. Above, it says R.I.P.; below, in Khmer, “culture of dialogue.” It has a short life listed, just May – Oct 2015.

On October 30, deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha was ordered to step down from his position as National Assembly vice-president following a hastily called parliamentary vote. The decision, illegal, it would seem, as death or resignation are the only means by which a replacement can take place, capped a week of escalating tension. Five days earlier, Prime Minister Hun Sen made a speech threatening legal action against opposition leader Sam Rainsy and defending his own strong-arm tactics.

The following morning, ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)-backed protests broke out with hundreds of thuggish men descending on the National Assembly to call for Sokha’s removal while another group was simultaneously posted to pelt his house with rocks. With little warning or provocation, their protest came to a head when a group of men pulled two Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) legislators from their cars and savagely beat the pair in front of non-responsive policemen. A day later, Cambodia’s military joined the calls, holding their own anti-Sokha protests. When Rainsy accused Hun Sen of “fascist methods,” the prime minister responded with threats to cancel the “culture of dialogue.”

In truth, such “culture” has long lain dormant. The idea dates back to July 2014, when — a year after Cambodia’s contentious national election — the opposition and ruling parties vowed to turn the page on decades of mistrust and hostility.

The rare promise of dialogue (and certain key positions in the National Assembly) convinced the opposition to drop its yearlong boycott over vote-rigging claims and join parliament. It is a decision that surely rankled many party members at the time, and one that has proven utterly ill conceived.

Over the past few months, arrests and harassment have mounted. Eleven opposition activists were arrested in July and sentenced to between 7 and 20 years on insurrection charges after participating in a rally that turned violent when security officials moved to break it up with blows. In August, three more activists from the rally were arrested, followed by a senator who was charged with forgery and incitement for posting an old video on Facebook featuring a fake border treaty.

While the presence of the CNRP in parliament has seen some small successes, such as the passage of a more equitable local election law, it has been unable to carry any real weight. A highly controversial nongovernmental organization (NGO) law that is being used to clamp down on free assembly was passed with unanimous approval from the ruling party and a boycott by the opposition. Land grabbing, corruption, and rights abuses continue unabated. Little, in other words, has changed since the opposition joined the government.

The tactic is not a new one. In 2004, Hun Sen played a similar game with royalist party Funcinpec, which refused to join a weakened ruling party and successfully held the government in deadlock for over a year. Promised a slew of reforms and powerful positions, Funcinpec eventually caved and joined parliament. The CPP then rapidly passed laws solidifying its grip on power (such as changing the number of votes needed to pass a law) while systematically undermining the royalist party and its key players. By the next election, Funcinpec had withered to almost non-existence, dropping from 26 to just two seats.

For years, the CNRP have shot down the comparison and insisted they could not fall prey to such tactics. But here they are, barely one year after joining the government: one leader has been pushed out, two parliamentarians have been beaten in broad daylight, a senator faces trial on spurious charges and more than a dozen activists have been sentenced to seven years in prison or longer. With three years to go until the next election, one wonders what more awaits Cambodia’s opposition.

Ms. Abby Seiff is a Southeast Asia-based journalist. Follow her on twitter @instupor.


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