An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884—1962) (Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt): “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
James Madison (1751—1836) (Federalist Paper #47): “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
Theodore Roosevelt (1858—1919): “Order without liberty and liberty without order are equally destructive.
Prime Minister Hun Sen once said, he derived his forte from his opponents’ weaknesses. I couldn’t agree more. The opposite is also true: the opposition may gain strength from Hun Sen’s missteps.
The gift that keeps on giving
Cambodia’s unnecessary political impasse has dragged on since the July 28, 2013 election. Despite alleged election irregularities and fraud by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, the CPP acknowledged half the country voted for the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, nearly doubling the number of seats—to 55—held by the opposition CNRP in the National Assembly. The ruling CPP reduced the number of seats it holds from 90 to 68.Had Premier Hun Sen and his CPP associates opted for a (logical) win-win political compromise through which the CPP would control of the executive and the CNRP the legislature, Cambodia’s best interests would have been served.
The CNRP says it has been robbed of election victory. It called for an independent investigation that was rejected by Hun Sen and associates, who also rejected anything else the opposition proposed, including a delay in inaugurating the National Assembly. Lines of voters carrying boxes of petitions to the King urging the delay were ignored. With an upsurge of popular discontent, the CNRP seized on “people power,” challenged CPP rule and legitimacy. With Cambodians wanting change and in need of leadership, the CNRP promised that change and offered to lead. They called on Hun Sen to resign.
Domestic and international rights groups have for years compiled records of Hun Sen’s violations of human rights, suppression of free expression and justice, among other abuses of power. Greed and misjudgment propounded by Khmer cultural propensities toward A’thmaAnh (“I’ism,” self-love, self-adoration), have led iron fisted ruler Hun Sen to use arrests and raw power against opponents, thereby alienating more people with whom he should build bridges. Recently, Hun Sen could have managed to keep garment workers out of hot politics, but he sent his military to crush them for demanding a minimum monthly wage of $160, imposed a ban on peaceful assembly, dismantled Freedom Park. By so doing, he sent garment workers—who toil in an industry responsible for about 35 percent of the country’s GDP—into the CNRP’s waiting arms.
Some Hun Sen antagonists never tire of enumerating his wrongdoings, and foreign rights groups chronicle Hun Sen’s rights abuses. Cambodian Center for Human Rights president, Ou Virak, described Hun Sen in a recent lecture at Stanford as a figure whose behavior and speech make people “love to hate.”My objection to Hun Sen’s rule is seen in what political theorist James Madison, fourth President of the United States (1809-1817), described as “tyranny”: anyone holding the powers of the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary altogether.
Someone recently posted a Khmer text on the Internet that is a trigger to Cambodians’ emotions. “Every member (“sakmachoekteangors”) of the Cambodian People’s Party is barbarian who doesn’t recognize his/her own (Khmer) blood, nor his/her own (Khmer) race…” More productively, CNRP Sam Rainsy told The Diplomat:“You don’t have to dismiss every civil servant, the whole bureaucracy (recruited by and officially affiliated with the CPP) … We have to keep the same personnel, but the important thing is the spirit, the orientation.”
Returning to The Diplomat, Sam Rainsy said, “The pressure from the grassroots is [for the CNRP] to remain strong, not to negotiate or bargain for any position.” Does Sam Rainsy stand to lose support if he chooses to negotiate? Does the CNRP pander to the worst elements of populism by assenting to the anti-Vietnamese element of nationalism? CNRP vice president KemSokhatold The Diplomat, which described anti-Vietnamese “nationalist rhetoric …[as] a strategy of unapologetic populism”: “It’s the supporters that want to hear it from the politicians … Cambodians are very sensitive about the issue [of Vietnamese influence] and if any politician doesn’t respond to that frustration you will be framed as unpatriotic or unaware of the truth.”
My former students at university would affirm that I have long taught them to consider how responsible elected leaders must resolve the temptation to parrot what voters want rather than taking a perhaps less popular but wiser and more just course of action on the people’s behalf.
“Talks” or just talk?
There is no problem that lacks a solution. Any problem can be solved through imaginative critical thinking. A predicament requires one to develop ways to cope with a situation while searching for a better alternative. Reasoned compromise may leave neither party fully satisfied, but it is the road to incremental, sustainable change that will move a productive society forward.
UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, who visited Cambodia on Jan 12-17, believes that “change” is “possible” in Cambodia, “if underpinned by serious and comprehensive reforms of State institutions as spelt out in detail in four of my reports to the Human Rights Council.”Not only is change “possible,” it is also “inevitable to meet the aspirations of the population in a dynamic world,” Subedi told a press conference.
“Change is coming to Cambodia faster than many had anticipated. The challenge forthe current political leadership within both of the main political parties is to embrace change and to find a way to manage it in the best interests of the country.” (Italics mine)
“(P)olitical reconciliation was the only way forward for the country,” Subedi affirmed as he called on leaders of both parties to “overcome their mistrust and immediately return to the negotiating table without further delay, possibly in the presence of a third party either to witness or mediate if deemed helpful.”
Of course, CPP and CNRP leaders say they are always ready to negotiate.
Upon his return to Phnom Penh on Feb 10 from a two-week trip abroad, CNRP leader Sam Rainsy told supporters, “We have a lot of friends in the world”; that he would “lay out a strategy to come out victorious” in the political deadlock, hence, “Citizens, don’t be hopeless.”
Yet, earlier in the same day Hun Sen told a university graduation ceremony he will continue business as usual despite the opposition’s boycott of the National Assembly. “I will not talk about the political situation,” he said, but immediately he fired shot at the CNRP: “We must not allow . . . any reactionary group to hold the country hostage.”
Then came the usual political Ramvong circle dance ritual. On Feb 13, the CPP invited the CNRP to send representatives to discuss measures for election reforms. Radio Free Asia in Khmer broadcast its headline, “Cambodian Parties Voice Optimism on Breaking Deadlock,” and reported Sam Rainsy’s speech in Kompong Speu: “The political deadlock will be resolved soon in order to allow Cambodia to have national unity.” Did this imply both parties would be working together, mutually recognizing each party’s legitimacy?
The CPP Interior Ministry’s Secretary of State welcomed the CNRP’s decision to resume talks, “If they [CNRP] have good intentions.”Were their intentions in doubt? RFA reported Kem Sokha as saying on Feb 12 that the CNRP will continue to press for an early election. Was this not rejected by the CPP from the start? The Phnom Penh Post reported the CNRP demanded to be part of an already established committee of 10 senior CPP officials approved by Hun Sen since Dec 9; that CNRP public affairs chief Mu Sochua rejected CPP’s “exclusivity.”Fair enough. Nothing can be long lasting if it is not inclusive.
However, China’s Xinhua News Agency’s Feb 15 reported CPP and CNRP representatives will meet on Feb 18 to discuss the “establishment of a mechanism for an electoral reform.” It quoted CNRP spokesman Yem Ponharith: “The CNRP will end boycott of parliament if the two sides agree on the establishment of a mechanism for an electoral reform and an early election.” Xinhua reminded readers that Hun Sen has said he would neither step down nor agree to a re-vote.
In brief, the CNRP wants a new election; the CPP says, no way. The CPP insists that the CNRP must occupy its Assembly seats for talks to begin; the CNRP says it doesn’t sit with an illegitimate government. Nearly seven months have passed. Neither the CPP nor the CNRP has sufficient leverage over the other to end this stalemate. An ideology of pluralism that would advance the nation based on the needs of all its members is lacking in either of the two influential political parties.
Exclusiveness—exclusion—pitches people and groups against one another. Inclusiveness—inclusion— gives people and groups a place in a society or a system. But it is pluralism that represents a model of democracy: Different groups with different ideas, opinions, and interests interact and share power and responsibilities. Pluralism is not live and let live. It is a commitment to differences through an understanding and a tolerance of others. It means continuous dialogue and interactions, give and take, compromise, and determination to engage with diversity. Pluralism must be born from within, and the will for it must come from within. All signatories of the Paris Peace Accords cannot implant pluralism for Cambodians.
Lord Gautama Buddha taught 2,500 years ago, “We ourselves must walk the path.”
The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.
About the Author:
Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.