Contributors: Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth
An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission

I must admit to being pleasantly surprised when my (reluctant) suggestion that 40,000 Cambodians would likely greet Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy on his arrival from self-imposed exile on July 19, turned out to be way off the mark. In fact, the road to the airport was clogged with more than 100,000 people who showed up to welcome Rainsy home – emotionally and fearlessly despite the warnings and intimidation from authorities.

I never doubted that pent up popular anger, frustration, dissatisfaction among many Cambodians would erupt when time and circumstances offered fertile opportunity. Sam Rainsy vowed, “I agree to sacrifice my life for national homeland, daring to die myself to rescue the nation from catastrophe.” On July 19, Sam Rainsy showed up, putting action to his words. From then on, there was no let-up of popular support, and Sam Rainsy has ridden an incredible wave of populism that displays the fierce desire of the multitude for change of the status quo. As I have said to many, leaders often emerge in response to circumstances and situations. Such has been the case with Sam Rainsy.

I am not a member of any Cambodian political party. I am not an Independent, but I am independent-minded. I have expressed publicly my political preferences. I side with Cambodian democrats in their struggle but not with everything they do. My opposition to many policies and practices of the ruling party and the current regime are well known, expressed in my writing and in the several YouTube presentations I have posted. I am aware that I’ve disappointed some admirable Cambodian democrats by my failure to join some of their projects; though I believe I have helped intangibly and in other ways less public. My last political activism is described in Kenneth Conboy’s The Cambodian Wars (2013 University Press of Kansas) – contributions made with all my heart to the Khmer Motherland.

On election day I was able to hear announcements of preliminary electoral results courtesy of my brother-in-law, who receives TV broadcasts from Cambodia. I never expected the CNRP to win in 2013 to form a government, but, considering Cambodians’ dissatisfaction with the regime I believed the CNRP would win an increased number of seats in the National Assembly and I had told many so. That did occur. Some who heard the election results were disappointed and expressed their opinions that the CPP cheated. That is a belief I share, but I was proud that so many Khmer citizens did vote. I read with chagrin emails from Cambodia from correspondents who reported that their names were registered in multiple locations, presumably allowing false votes to be cast in their names.

On July 29, preliminary results made the CPP winner with 68 seats and the CNRP, 55, in a National Assembly of 123 seats.

The CPP’s loss of representation from 90 seats to 68 seats is not a political “win.” It is a wakeup call. Unless the CPP can repair damages in the next five years, its extinction is foretold. On the other hand, the CNRP’s increase from 29 seats to 55 seats is not a “defeat” even if it is not able to form a government yet. Furthermore, losses by CPP leaders to the CNRP in their home provinces by 127,000 votes (Chea Sim in Phnom Penh); 118,000 votes (Heng Samrin in Kompong Cham); and 104,000 votes (Hun Sen in Kandal) raise a question about why those who did not win popular trust have not left office. The CPP has been greatly damaged and the CNRP has a reasonable expectation of victory in the 2018 election.

As expected, the CNRP rejected the results of the election and called for the immediate establishment of a joint committee to investigate what it terms irregularities.

The CNRP charged that voter registrations were manipulated to the effect that 1.3 million voters’ names were removed from voter lists, denying them the opportunity to vote – a charge echoed by non-partisan groups; that names of voters were missing, misspelled and about 200,000 names were duplicated; that there were people who voted in areas where they were not residents. The CNRP claimed if the election were conducted properly, it would have won with 63 seats and the CPP would have obtained only 60 seats.

And so the Khmer political circle dance, the Ramvong, has started. Days have passed without an agreement on the composition of the joint committee other than that representatives of the two political parties would be members. The CNRP wanted the United Nations to mediate, but the CPP objected; the CPP wanted the NEC to investigate, but the CNRP objected. By August 6, the CNRP declared it would call for street protests if its demands for an impartial investigation of irregularities are not met. This prompted a response from the government with a letter warning that “the leaders of the demonstration and those who breached the law will be held responsible…” And so until today, soldiers, APCs and tanks are seen around and in the capital. The CNRP threatened to boycott parliament to prevent the formation of government by Hun Sen and the latter has said he would take over the CNRP’s seats.

On August 12, the government-appointed National Election Committee released official preliminary results of the July 28 election, broadcast on TVK, reconfirming the victory of the CPP with 68 seats to the NCRP’s 55.  In a joint statement, a coalition of some 40 non-governmental organizations termed the announcement of preliminary results by the NEC as “potentially destabilizing the nation,” noting that the announcement flies in the face of progress in negotiations between the two parties. The statement reads, “The consequences of such would lie with the NEC and be noted in history.”

As expected, on August 14th, the CNRP lodged a formal complaint against the official results announced by the NEC.

What is needed now is for the investigation process to begin.

On the day the election results were announced, August 12, the King left Phnom Penh for Beijing for a routine medical check-up, leaving the country in the hands of CPP leader Chea Sim, President of the Senate, who acts as head of state.

And so the Ramvong circle dance continues.

As bleak as the seeming deadlock is between the CPP and CNRP, and despite Cambodians’ general tendencies to repeat the same behavior and the same actions as they expect different results, I am not so pessimistic about what’s to come.

Just as Cambodians in general shrugged off their 2000-year tradition of respect, admiration and fear of governmental power, and emerged in large numbers to express themselves in the recent electoral campaigns and went to the polls to vote despite threats and intimidation, I would like to believe that there are leaders in the CPP and the CNRP with cool heads who can see that their respective inflexible posturing brings no victory to either side.

There is no way to keep the masses orderly and peaceful; there are those ready and willing to inject agents provocateurs among demonstrators to create chaos and invite soldiers with firepower to shoot and kill. Actions breed reactions. Death and destruction shall occur. Eventually, the dust will settle and leaders of both parties would have to answer to the Khmer people and to humanity.

CNRP leaders must be aware that since 1985, the old pagoda boy, Hun Sen, Cambodia’s cunning and shrewd prime minister, has been in virtual control of all personnel and governmental machineries. These embedded bureaucrats are positioned to impede the CNRP if it should take over the government – a similar problem confronted by royalist FUNCINPEC in 1993. I suggest that the opposition make use of this time where there is an opening to share power to seek reforms. CNRP should work simultaneously to educate and build democratic cadres and leaders so that it can lead after likely electoral success in 2018. Building leadership capacity and nation building are areas where the CNRP should devote its energy.

Whereas Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy both appear inflexible in their rhetoric, both politicians are no strangers to the necessity and art of political expediency, of developing an acceptable political arrangement that allows each room to breathe and time to build for a future. Compromise is a technique, not a win or lose proposition.

The Cambodia Daily’s Simon Lewis has written an informative article: “Editorial Hints at Beijing’s Recognition of Cambodia Opposition” (8/9/13).  Lewis examines an opinion piece by China’s Communist Party newspaper The People’s Daily’s senior editor Ding Gang, published in China’s state-owned English language paper, the Global Times (8/7/13). Ding observed that during his recent trip to Cambodia before the July 28 election, the Beijing-backed Cambodian People’s Party’s support among Cambodian grassroots voters had become shaky. Ding wrote: “I came across many ordinary people from all walks of life: young people, taxi drivers, store owners and hotel receptionists. They worked at different jobs, but without exception, they were all complaining about one thing: government corruption.”

Ding commented that the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party’s populism threatened the ruling CPP and warned, “Social turmoil is lying in wait. . .China has to face great challenges in its future ties with neighboring countries if it wants to maintain a good, sustainable image in the long term.”

Lewis quoted Australia’s Professor Carlyle Thayer on China’s historical political flexibility: China once supported and backed communist insurgencies throughout Southeast Asia but then abandoned them in the 1970s; she backed the Khmer Rouge against Hun Sen and then in 1991 supported Hun Sen. If “Hun Sen exits power, China will be pragmatic and switch sides,” Thayer said.

Two days earlier, an Associated Press article was reprinted in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Beijing Loses the Cambodian Election” (8/7/13). The AP article identifies China as Cambodia’s largest source of foreign direct investment, but asserts that ordinary Cambodians are growing uneasy with China’s domination of the country’s economy, and now that the opposition CNRP has won almost half the seats in the National Assembly, it “will be no surprise” if “self-preservation” would cause Hun Sen to tack away from China and tack back toward the West.

It wasn’t a coincidence that Cambodia’s government is backtracking on its earlier announcement to terminate Cambodia-US military cooperation.

The end of the Cambodian autocracy is in sight. This is the time for democrats to think, imagine, be creative, play smart and act smart, distinguish between tactics, strategies, short term objectives and long term goals.


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-028-2013
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 16-08-2013