A Cambodian Awakening

The Cambodian opposition is flooding the streets. But success depends on whether it can play politics.

Omar Havana/Getty Images
Omar Havana/Getty Images

Four months ago, Cambodia’s political opposition made a strong showing in parliamentary elections — and now the country’s political situation seems to be headed toward a stalemate. On July 28, the opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), won 55 seats of a total of 123 — 26 more than in the last election. Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won just 68, a 22-seat loss from its previous 90. Despite its gains, the opposition’s leaders have demanded an independent investigation into the elections, as they believe a fair election would have secured their party more seats. Since Oct. 23, the CNRP has been hosting peaceful demonstrations to protest the election results. The most recent took place on Dec. 10, with CNRP leader Sam Rainsy leading thousands through the streets of Phnom Penh. (In the photo above, a woman distributes lotus flowers, a symbol of peace, to the demonstrators in Phnom Penh.)

For its part, the CPP has shown no willingness to compromise. On Nov. 25, the regime’s Interior Minister, Sar Kheang, offered the opposition talks without "preconditions," that is, ruling out the CNRP’s demands — and is proceeding with running the country. Last month, the body passed the country’s budget for 2014 without the presence of opposition members in the National Assembly.

What happens from here on out depends on whether Rainsy can convert his party’s strong showing — and the demands of a younger generation of Cambodians — into the kind of international support that will convince Hun Sen his authoritarian rule has peaked.

Election fraud is nothing new in Cambodia, but Rainsy believes a fair count would have given his party control of Parliament. He might be right. Election fraud is nothing new in Cambodia, but Rainsy believes a fair count would have given his party control of Parliament. He might be right. Several observers have described the July 28 election as even dodgier than usual. "Nearly all of Phnom Penh’s communes have voter registration rates in excess of 100 percent," reported the Phnom Penh Post, "with one commune topping the 200 percent mark." According to Transparency International Cambodia, an "unusually high" number (some 500,000) of temporary identity cards that can be used for voting were issued by government officials.

Hun Sen may have held on to a majority in the legislature, but it’s clear that his base of support has eroded. The opposition made inroads into the countryside, which had long been Hun Sen’s territory. Land concessions to foreign companies — including some from Vietnam, a country much resented in Cambodia — is breeding discontent. (Indeed, Vietnamese investment in Cambodia is a frequent target of nationalist, even racist rhetoric from the opposition.) Hun Sen has also lost considerable support from his own party. According to the Economist, an estimated 50 percent of CPP members deserted their party on election day, remarkable considering the nexus between party patronage, government jobs, and business opportunities.

In advance of the election, few people predicted the outcome. Hun Sen has stayed in power for 28 years first by refusing to accept defeat, and later thanks to cheating and patronage. He lost the 1994 United Nations-sponsored election intended to deliver Cambodia from the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge era, but forced his way into a coalition, and then seized control in a bloody coup in 1997. Since then, he has staged two widely criticized national elections (in 1998 and 2003) and presided over mounting corruption and a climate of impunity that has let the murders of journalists, human rights defenders, and even his own mistress go unpunished.

Writing in advance of the election, Joshua Kurlantzick, of the Council on Foreign Relations, concluded that, this time, Hun Sen was popular enough that he wouldn’t need to steal the election. Even the opposition concedes that Cambodia’s economy has improved under Hun Sen. (The economy grew last year, and before the global economic downturn in 2008, it grew nearly 10 percent every year for a decade.)

In addition to delivering economic growth, Hun Sen controls the media and electoral apparatus — so what can explain the opposition’s electoral gains? For one thing, voters feel that Cambodia’s economic benefits go disproportionately to a small coterie of regime cronies. Another explanation is that Cambodia’s up-and-coming generation has higher expectations of its government. On my way to the Oct. 23 rally, I gave a lift to three college-age volunteers for the CNRP on a tuk tuk (a motorized rickshaw that serves as a cheap taxi). These students expressed their opposition to Hun Sen’s party in terms of their desire for political rights and responsibility for their own futures. In another instance, in a leafy hotel courtyard, a young hotel manager explained his support for the CNRP by questioning how Thailand, just an hour’s flight away, could be so much wealthier and more developed than his own country. More than any particular political view I heard from him and other opposition voters, I was struck by the contrast between their current demeanor and the fear I saw in voters during the 1998 election. This time, I was the one who kept looking around to see who might be listening.

Hun Sen’s long-running justification of his authoritarian rule has hinged on lingering fears of renewed genocide — but this tactic no longer works in a Cambodia where the majority of the population is under 30 years old, too young to remember the 1970s genocide or the Vietnamese occupation that followed. (Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, died in 1998, and the rest of the party’s cadres have either defected to the government or given up the fight. A few surviving octogenarian leaders are on trial at a U.N. tribunal.)

The CNRP’s strong showing also brings about a dramatic change for Rainsy. Just weeks before the election, he was in his fourth year of exile in France, avoiding criminal charges he rejects as politically motivated. Then a royal pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni, almost certainly designed to give the elections a veneer of legitimacy, allowed him to return.

Shortly before the Oct. 23 demonstration, I met Rainsy for a conversation at CNRP headquarters on the southern outskirts of Phnom Penh. Dressed in a blue dress shirt and dark slacks, the opposition leader cheerfully admitted his surprise at the "new consciousness" he found among Cambodia’s voters, especially young people. He was determined, he told me, to keep pressing for an investigation — not to overturn the results, he insisted, but in order to find the truth. He stressed that he was in no hurry for his party to take its seats in the assembly: "Our leverage is strongest when we are outside parliament."

Afterward, I watched as an estimated 20,000 people rallied in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, sheltered under awnings set up against a strong mid-day sun, their heads covered by baseball hats or traditional Khmer checkered scarves. Comedians warmed up the crowd and a band played a tune that compared the past two decades of CPP rule to a dirty shirt worn every day. Just before 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha addressed the crowd before leading thousands of their supporters on a march through the streets of the capital to present a petition pressing their demands, bearing 2 million signatures and thumbprints, to the office of the U.N. Human Rights Commission Office. In the past, however, Rainsy has not used his popularity and skill, or damning evidence of Hun Sen’s corruption and malfeasance, effectively. According to Peter Sainsbury, a former Phnom Penh Post editor, "Rainsy’s problem is that he’s a French politician of the intellectual style, not a filthy street fighter like Hun Sen," says Peter Sainsbury, a former journalist in Phnom Penh. "If Rainsy was a right bastard, he could be running Cambodia today." "If Rainsy was a right bastard, he could be running Cambodia today."

For his part, Hun Sen has no intention of giving up power. He has said, on various occasions, that he intends to remain in power until he is 74. (He is now 61.) At the same time, he is grooming his three sons for leadership posts. He has never shown any respect for the democratic stirrings among his people. He responded to the prospect of an Arab Spring-like movement sweeping Cambodia unequivocally: "If anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat those dogs and put them in a cage."

So far, the opposition rallies and the government’s low key response have kept things largely peaceful. However, negotiations between the opposition and the ruling party now appear to be at an impasse. One possible outcome is that Hun Sen will wait until the international community accepts the election results as a fait accompli, before crushing any lingering opposition. So far, the United States and various European countries have sent mixed signals, maintaining support for an investigation into the election results but also sending ambassadors to the inaugural session of the National Assembly on Sept. 24. (Washington has also invested in Hun Sen’s sons, one of whom was educated at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and another at the National Defense University in Washington.) Hun Sen must be figuring this into his calculations.

Another possibility is that, much as he has in the past, Rainsy will look abroad for help that is not forthcoming — before cutting a deal with Hun Sen and his party. That would further disillusion Cambodia’s reinvigorated voters, who are unlikely to be satisfied unless Hun Sen makes real concessions, including reforms of the electoral system and measures to stanch corruption and end shady land dealings. The long-running tug of war between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy could give way to violent protests led by aggrieved rural voters and factory workers, among others.

One thing is clear: the July elections have shown a major shift in the expectations of Cambodia’s voters. Without a corresponding change of heart among Cambodia’s leaders, there is likely to be prolonged stalemate, or worse. 

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