June 23, 2014

An article byDr.Gaffar Peang-Methpublished by the Asian Human Rights Commission

Last month I was, again, hopeful as leaders of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and ruling Cambodian People’s Party announced their respective desire to end the 10-month political deadlock. Subsequently, the working group that has met periodically to discuss solutions to the political stalemate convened on June 12. A skeptic, I thought this might just be another round of the chakk’bach choreography of the Khmer Ramvong circle dance, even as I reminded myself that eventually any dancer must take a seat.

The talks failed as the CPP wants members of the National Election Commission to be selected by an absolute majority of members in the National Assembly while the CNRP insists upon a two-thirds majority. Each side blames the other for the failure of the working group to settle these differences. Behind it lies a positive occurrence ignored by many.

The Phnom Penh Postreported a “parliamentary power-sharing” agreement has been reached, according to CNRP whip Son Chhay: The CNRP agreed to accept the first vice presidency of the National Assembly and chairmanships of five of 10 parliamentary commissions; and there are “ongoing” discussions to reform the National Assembly’s internal rules to enable the opposition to function effectively. One is reminded of CNRP lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua’s statement on her website regarding Sam Rainsy’s sacrifice to “dance with the devil” for the Khmer nation’s sake.

On June 20, CNRP Vice President KemSokha told visiting UN special rights envoy Surya Subedi that the CNRP will not join the National Assembly until the NEC is reformed in order to avoid being “ignored” by the ruling party. The Ramvongchakk’bachgoes on.

While I see in the “power-sharing” deal an encouraging sign of CNRP’s political pragmatism and maturity, I wonder if this apparent solution isn’t too little and too late. The longer CNRP seats in the National Assembly remain vacant, the more irrelevant the institution (and the CNRP) become. For Premier Hun Sen, seat vacancies don’t matter anymore. He and his government will continue their work, regardless. Significantly, though international actors are not happy with a government in which half the seats in parliament are empty, they continue to do business with the Premier and the government opposition leaders insist is “illegitimate.”

Hun Sen’s days are limited, yet…

Premier Hun Sen successfully orchestrates executive, legislative, and judicial powers.  The premier has long demonstrated political cunning and an instinct for survival. Aware that after 30 years in power, his days of dominance are waning, he manipulates election results and comes down hard on the thousands who have engaged in political protests, limiting their access to conspicuous venues and inserting undercover operatives to keep book on participants.

Hun Sen likely suspects that he would not win a free and fair election.  Even supporters of the regime acknowledge that 35 years of CPP governance is enough.  The climate of hunger, ignorance, and fear – khliean, khlao, khlach – must be dislodged.  Hun Sen is not blind to the writing on the wall. As Khmer is a culture of face, he cannot allow himself to be hauled out of office by an opposition that has many flaws. Yet he is likely to be defeated in 2018 if the CNRP can present itself as a credible alternative to the CPP.


The CNRP, however, particularly in the person of Vice President KemSokha, diminishes the party’s credibility and foments national discord when, as Sokha did on June 4, it initiates unsubstantiated allegations that Vietnam orchestrated the KohPich bridge stampede in Cambodia’s annual Water Festival in November 2010 that killed 353 people in a plot to “eliminate the Khmer race, tradition and culture.” In an earlier demonstration of disregard for facts, Sokha told The Diplomat in an interview that (Khmer) politicians need to tell their audience what the latter wants to hear.

Sokha is not alone in making assertions that ultimately serve to delegitimize the CNRP. On June 8, CNRP President Sam Rainsy was quoted by The Cambodia Daily as saying that he had information from “internal sources in the CPP” that Premier Hun Sen suffered a massive stroke, was rushed to Phnom Penh’s Calmette Hospital, and then flown to Singapore for treatment. News spread like wildfire through cyberspace, especially among Cambodian expatriates, the CNRP’s major financial and political backers. Some Cambodians intervened by posting appeals on the Internet against spreading such rumor. One posting advised, this rumor may even be initiated by the CPP to destroy the CNRP’s reputation and credibility. A Cambodian in Phnom Penh lamented, it’s this kind of “rumormongering” that the regime can use to justify its need for a Cyber Law.

While there are internal divisions in both political parties, CNRP supporters are notorious for slandering leaders and members of the ruling party whom they accuse of being servants of the “yuon” (Vietnamese) and traitors to the Khmer nation who should be put on trial for treason. True democracy welcomes all perspectives, a pluralism necessary for the development and health of a democracy. Alas, self-proclaimed CNRP supporters regularly engage publicly in backbiting and infighting. The fusion of the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party led by KemSokha, to form the present CNRP has brought enormous strength to the opposition. While Rainsy and Sokha have no choice but to remain together, the followers of each side have not moved beyond their original allegiances to the individual leaders, a weakness exploited by the CPP.

Many Internet postings have called on CNRP supporters to stop their public quarrels. Recently, I was impressed by a posted discourse, “The dumbing down of Cambodia.” It discusses how “uneducated people attempt to lead groups of lesser educated people.” The essay encourages “Khmer nation lovers” to look into the mirror: “You will know that you are an extremist if you boycott existing rules; protest anything that doesn’t support your beliefs and values; refuse to compromise with different values; hold meetings in private places; spread rumors about others; you make deliberate (and calculated) attempts to divide people; or you lie to others in order to defame or de-characterize another so to make your ideology/opinion superior.” The writer advises, “We don’t need unity from extremists.”

I was privileged to have received an e-mail fromPhievTonghim, who holds a Master’s degree in sociology and anthropology from Phnom Penh’s Royal University. Phievgave me permission to use his real name. He believes “the new wave of young people … can lead the country toward real democracy, human rights and justice”; that they are “educated in new ideas and contemporary style of leadership rather than communism.” “In today’s Cambodia, young people dare to exercise their rights everywhere, to change from the old self-egoism and selfishness behaviors to cooperation and compromise in order to reach the Khmer nation’s higher goals.”

Upper-hand, under-hand

As he put the lie to Sam Rainsy’s declaration that Hun Sen had suffered a stroke, the premier appeared publicly and, in a speech on June 10 in Kampot province, announced that CPP members of the National Assembly have acted to make the National Election Commission a formal body enshrined in the national constitution, as the CNRP had demanded; and further, he said the CNRP shall now have its own television station.

Having thus extended the carrot, Hun Sen brought forth the stick. He announced that the CPP government will continue to function even without elected CNRP lawmakers in the National Assembly; CNRP members who continue to boycott the Assembly, who “continue to provoke problems,” will be arrested. The CNRP’s demand for a new election in 2016 will not be granted. Rather, the election will occur five months earlier than scheduled – in February 2018. “Don’t hope for a re-vote before 2018 … You join the National Assembly or not, it’s up to you.”

Additionally, as reported by the Associated Press, Hun Sen asserted: “In case I had a massive stroke as was reported, you please should pack up your things and flee … The ability to command all armed forces belongs to only one person” – Premier Hun Sen himself. And he said he intended to live for another 30 years!

But it is not for Premier Hun Sen to decide how much longer he will remain in power. No government can remain in office without the support of the people. Ultimately, the CPP government will not be able to function if popular support continues to erode. The day the people approve of an opposition party as a credible alternative to the status quo, they will energize a “Khmer Spring” that neither Hun Sen nor his armed forces can stop. Hun Sen’s authority will be usurped when the political opposition convinces voters that the opposition is prepared to put a functional, inclusive government in place.  Think about it.

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


Document ID :AHRC-ETC-014-2014
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 23-06-2014