By Abby Seiff
It’s been a strange few weeks in Cambodia.
On July 15, opposition lawmakers-elect staged a protest calling for the restoration of freedom of assembly, a constitutional right that the government abruptly canceled in January during a heavy-handed crackdown. The protest, like dozens held over the past seven months, convened at a public square known as Freedom Park that today stands encased in a heavy ring of razor wire and metal barricades.
Like at almost every protest, speeches were made, and demonstrators shouted jibes at the riot police posted behind the wire. And, like at almost every other protest, a thuggish group of para-police were sent out to disperse the protesters by chasing them down and beating them with sticks.
Unlike at every other protest, however, demonstrators fought back. For reasons that have yet to be explained, no professional police force was sent in as back up and so the protesters retaliated brutally against the months of government-sponsored violence. More than 30 security guards were injured, some of them critically, as protesters chased them down, isolated them, and savagely beat back.
The opposition quickly denounced the attacks assuring the public it preached non-violence (indeed, opposition officials could be seen stepping between protesters and guards to prevent further beatings); the government however seized on the opportunity. Eight officials, including seven lawmakers-elect, were swiftly imprisoned and handed charges of incitement and insurrection – steep allegations that could carry sentences upwards of 30 years.
Despite the rolling fear among the international and business communities, on the streets, people crammed around smartphones to watch videos of the attacks – gleefully cheering the rare role reversal. In many ways, had the opposition wanted to launch an oft-hinted revolution, the timing was ripe.
In the backrooms, however, the leaders of both parties appeared to have a different take: This incident could allow, at long last, for an end to a year-long political deadlock.
Since the July 28, 2013, election, the anniversary of which will fall just two weeks after the attack, the opposition party has been denouncing the results. All 55 elected lawmakers boycotted their seats, at times variously calling for a re-election, re-count, or international intervention.
While negotiations have repeatedly fallen apart, the latest incident seemed to kick them into overdrive: Exactly one week after the attacks, opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha signed an accord with Prime Minister Hun Sen that would see the Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers take their parliamentary seats. The imprisoned opposition officials were released on bail just hours later.
Announcement of the deal was met with accolades from foreign governments and the United Nations. Opposition supporters, far less impressed, are nevertheless unlikely to abandon the sole alternative to the ruling party. The intervening days have been a flurry of activity for the opposition, with Sam Rainsy fairly shining in the afterglow.
Of course, that hardly spells the end.
For one, they haven’t yet taken their seats. Key to the accord is an agreement that would see a neutral election commission for the first time in modern history. Membership will be divided equally among parties, except for a ninth “consensus” member, which has to be agreed on by both sides. Rainsy has said that lawmakers will not be sworn in until the member is chosen, proof of the Cambodian Peoples Party’s “good faith.”
Should the ninth not be agreed upon, the body defaults to the current CPP-leaning National Election Commission (NEC) and, presumably, all returns to how it was.
While changes to the NEC would have major repercussions for future elections, the opposition has found itself with few other prizes. The accord agrees to give the party chairmanships of half the parliamentary committees and a parliamentary vice-presidency, but none of the party’s other original demands have made it through.
That steady neutralization has led some observers to wonder whether Rainsy has been bested by Hun Sen, a supremely savvy political player with decades of experience of obliterating threats.
Many have been quick to bring up comparisons to the defunct royalist party Funcinpec, which in 2004 ended a year-long deadlock by signing an agreement with the ruling party. The promised reforms and rewards were never given, and, instead, the party steadily diminished over the subsequent years.
Rainsy has brushed aside such comparisons, calling the latest deal “unprecedented.” Some are less sure. Even Rainsy’s partner, party vice president Kem Sokha, looked decidedly unhappy after the negotiations. In photos of the group posing after ending the deadlock, Sokha can be seen frowning in the background.
Barely two years old, the CNRP is a merger of Rainsy’s Sam Rainsy Party and Sokha’s Human Rights Party. Previous attempts to combine the two opposition parties had failed, and historically the pair has shared intense antipathy of one another. The party’s success in the 2013 election took everyone by surprise, and it has in intervening months managed admirably to remain united.
The coming months will be a key test for the nascent CNRP. If they take their seats, as seems likely at this point, they will be unusually well poised to publicly challenge the ruling party and push for legislation of their choosing. They will have traded “street fights for parliament,” as one political analyst put it.
There is a good chance the ruling party, recognizing the changing tide of societal opinion, is eager to leave a positive legacy in place and shift at least the perception of its government.
There is, however, an equally good chance that the ruling party has zero interest in loosening its iron grip and has simply set into motion a larger gambit.
It took a single week to undo a year of political convulsions. Only time will tell if that can stick.
Ms. Abby Seiff is a Cambodia-based journalist. Follow her on twitter @instupor.