An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission
As per his usual custom, sixty-year-old King Norodom Sihamoni clasps his hands in a show of traditional Khmer respect, his face wears a ready soft and gentle smile. The king was a graceful dancer in his youth and is known never to have wanted to be king.
Buffeted by the political winds, however, on Monday, Sept 23, the king acceded to the demands of the Cambodian People’s Party leaders, who insisted that the king perform his constitutional responsibility and open the inaugural session of Cambodia’s fifth parliament despite ongoing challenges to the legitimacy of the election that gave the CPP a slim majority. The National Assembly was half empty. Only 68 of the 123 seats were occupied. Elected delegates from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party were 200 kilometers away at Angkor Wat, taking their own symbolic oath to be faithful to the people’s will.
Last Sept 7, tens of thousands of voters and supporters of the CNRP gathered at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh, and gathered again on Sept 15, 16, 17, carrying candles, incense, and lotus flowers, protesting alleged election irregularities and fraud that sanctioned the awarding by the CPP-appointed National Election Committee of a 13 seat advantage in the National Assembly to the CPP – 68 seats to 55 for the CNRP. Protesters endorsed CNRP’s persistent demand for an independent election probe to investigate the allegations of fraud and provide voters with “truth and justice.”
The king, who “shall reign but shall not govern” (Article 7 of Cambodia’s 1993 Constitution), was pressed to fulfill his constitutional duty to convene the first session of the National Assembly, “no later than sixty days after the election” (Art. 82), though in fact the convening could have occurred as late as September 26th, 60 days after the July 28th election.
A Pandora’s box was opened with the king’s fateful action. Tossed aside were some half a million signatures from Cambodian citizens and Buddhist monks who were blocked from reaching the royal palace to submit cartons of petitions pleading for the king to delay the opening of the National Assembly. Also ignored was the opposition’s warning that it would boycott a parliamentary opening that occurred before CNRP-CPP talks aimed at resolving the election disputes were concluded.
The king’s action transformed the half empty assembly of 68 lawmakers from a single party into a National Assembly. A day after, on Sept 24, in an oral vote 68 CPP legislators approved Hun Sen as Prime Minister, and his new cabinet as the Royal Government of Cambodia. A royal decree formalized the events.
Increasing numbers of Cambodians have become vocal. They see the king as having disregarded the popular will which seemed to support a delay of the opening of the National Assembly. As such, these protesters assert that the king has failed two other of his constitutional roles. He does not in this instance represent a “symbol of unity and eternity of the Khmer nation” (Art.8), or to have fulfilled his “august role of arbitrator to ensure the faithful execution of public powers” (Art. 9).
Upset Cambodians also question the royal decree that installed Hun Sen as Prime Minister, as he was rejected by voters in his home province according to the CPP’s own ballot count, trailing his CNRP challenger by 104,000 votes. Nor, logic follows, should Hun Sen’s cabinet appointees have been approved to comprise the Royal Government of Cambodia for the five year term ending in 2018.
Where, Cambodians ask, is an impartial investigation of what most agree was an election plagued with significant irregularities? What, they ask, has happened to the free and fair elections espoused in the 1991 Paris Peace Accords that ended the long Cambodian civil war?
Protests have been largely peaceful, but as the regime long in power sought to move events along, its hands off façade began to shred. The evening before the opening session of the National Assembly, men in surgical masks wielding riot guns, watched by military police who later joined them, attacked protesters with batons, slingshots and electric prods, injuring seven journalists, mostly photographers, covering the peaceful protest. Reporters Without Borders referred to the attack as “Deliberate violence against journalists covering peaceful protests.”
In truth, even people who sympathize with the CPP think there is a need for change, a need for new leadership. An overwhelming number of Cambodia’s 15 million people have been born since the Khmer Rouge were ousted and chafe at the continuation of the Hun Sen regime, now in place since 1985. The CPP, in fact, has ruled even longer, since 1979. This is the only government most Cambodians have known. They are ready for change.
Even as the official election results show a reduction in CPP-held seats from 90 to 68, published findings in several audits, including the government’s own, report one in ten registered voters was left off the voters’ lists; and the US-based National Democratic Institute’s audit found another tenth of names on the new list did not belong to real people, but to “ghost voters.” The CNRP claimed more than 3 million votes were “misappropriated” by the CPP.
For his part, Hun Sen insists on the constitutional rule that a 50 percent plus one majority allows the CPP to form a new government regardless of what anyone thinks. For Hun Sen, a government decreed by the king is legitimate. The CNRP sees it as a product of a “constitutional coup.”
Constitutionally a new Khmer government comes into being with the approval of the National Assembly, which, as Art. 76 stipulates, “consists of at least 120 members.”
The United States and the European Union have been consistent in their calls for “a transparent review of irregularities” in Cambodia’s elections, the participation of both political parties in the National Assembly, the working together of the CNRP and the CPP to resolve electoral reforms, among other suggested reforms.
China, too, has been consistent in her immediate support for Hun Sen and the CPP. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang congratulated Hun Sen on his reappointment as Prime Minister at the opening of the National Assembly.
According to the Phnom Penh Post, 18 foreign envoys attended the opening ceremony of the National Assembly, including US Ambassador William Todd, who created a political flap when he, perhaps inadvisably, was photographed with both arms raised and both hands signaling a “V” sign. The import was, at best, ambiguous. The embassy insisted the “V” was meant to indicate Peace, but others took the alternative meaning, Victory. It was observed that Ambassador Todd avoided Hun Sen and the embassy noted that the ambassador’s presence did not imply support for the election results.
As Cambodians debated endlessly each capital’s policies toward the two major political parties, UN Special Rapporteur on Cambodia Surya Subedi noted, “roughly half of the population voted for one party and half for the other,” and “It is critical for the New National Assembly to be represented by the two key parties . . . to be truly representatives of the whole of the Cambodian people.”
The Old Fox is back
Feeling safe and again empowered at a ceremony re-installing him as Prime Minister, Hun Sen cast aside the low-key persona he had adopted over the last few months in favor of the bellicose leader more familiar to the Cambodian people. In lengthy remarks, Hun Sen sought to sow doubts among CNRP supporters worldwide by asserting that during their talks to find a solution to the disputed election outcomes, Sam Rainsy had abandoned his demand for an independent investigation committee into alleged election irregularities and fraud and requested for himself the position of parliament president. According to Hun Sen, “Sam Rainsy added that the CNRP would accept (the official result that) CPP (won) 68 (National Assembly seats) and CNRP, 55.”
Hun Sen claimed the CNRP-CPP talks collapsed because he, Hun Sen, refused to give the presidency of the National Assembly to Sam Rainsy. Hun Sen listed what assembly posts Sam Rainsy wanted for the CNRP, and what Hun Sen said he was willing to give.
While Hun Sen told the press that the CPP still maintained “the door open for negotiation” with the CNRP, he threatened at a cabinet meeting to release an audio recording of the conversation with Sam Rainsy if the CNRP persists in holding demonstrations.
CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha hit back immediately: Hun Sen is “concerned and nervous” about the mass movement in support of the CNRP and popular demands to know the truth about election irregularities. To CNRP officials, Hun Sen’s threat to release the audio recording is a familiar tactic, one he has employed in the past, taking comments out of context to serve his purposes. The CNRP said it welcomes the release of the unedited tape in its entirety. Kem Sokha said the CNRP has nothing to hide. There were 6 other CNRP officials with Sam Rainsy at the first talks; 14 at the second. Kem Sokha contended that at the Sept 14-15 CNRP-CPP meetings, the CNRP persistently demanded investigation of election fraud.
On Sept 25, Sam Rainsy told a press conference at CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh that the opposition’s boycott of the National Assembly will continue: “We will not cooperate in any manner with the present National Assembly and with the present government unless there are guarantees that there will be an investigation committee to investigate the election irregularities and to find justice for the voters, whose will has been distorted,” and “a program of reforms that both parties can agree upon.”
He also said, “We will conduct a worldwide campaign to delegitimize this government, which is the result of a constitutional coup and which does not represent the Cambodian people.”
Yet, the best way to delegitimize this government is for the Cambodian people to stop their submission, obedience and cooperation with it.
Sam Rainsy announced the opposition’s intention to hold a one-day nationwide general strike of factory workers, civil servants, and shopkeepers.
A senior official of the CNRP told me the CNRP has the people on its side; the CPP’s only remaining tool is brute force; the CNRP has opted for nonviolence to oppose armed men. It is like a breath of fresh air to be told of Cambodians’ brave efforts to disassociate themselves from a culture of violence.
The Water Buffalo
Generally, Cambodians’ behavior is guided more by outbursts of emotion than by reasoned, calm thinking. Another observer has suggested that this tendency to react emotionally reflects the persistent theme of violence in Khmer culture generally. He referenced Australian scholar John Tully, who wrote about the late King Father’s grandfather, King Norodom. King Norodom said, “Cambodia is like a water buffalo, placid but capable of becoming terrible in his rage.”
Hun Sen is one such water buffalo. He wants what he wants and when he wants it. His rage has allowed him to commit incredible acts of inhumanity. One can imagine that the public face of equanimity he displayed during the election was founded in his supreme confidence of victory, not by a desire to avoid violence.
Back to Negotiations?
Hun Sen’s rejection of an independent election probe committee shows he fears that fraud will be revealed. He is not prepared to relinquish power, having said he intends to remain as Prime Minister until he is (at least) 74. Instead, in a marathon speech of more than six hours, Hun Sen enumerated the reforms he and his government will undertake. One might think this reform agenda was motivated by his realization that his popularity is waning. But according to the Cambodia Daily, “Hun Sen’s 6-Hour Reform Promise Met With Yawns.” In the Phnom Penh Post, political analyst Kem Ley expressed skepticism about Hun Sen’s reforms: “I’ve listened to him for 20 years, I hear the same song sung around the election every year.”
Surely Hun Sen knows he cannot govern indefinitely with a government and a parliament devoid of opposition members. And surely Sam Rainsy, too, knows he cannot stay forever on the sidelines of the political process that requires fixing, that the CNRP will have to take its seats in the National Assembly in order to affect the legislation and have a legitimate political platform from which to speak. This stand-off cannot continue for long.
As of this writing CNRP leader Sam Rainsy has let it be known that opposition legislators will take up their seats in the National Assembly “after we hold negotiations with the CPP.” First on a list of 10 demands is investigation to “assess and address” election irregularities. Sam Rainsy was reported in the Phnom Penh Post to have said the CNRP is interested in “transparent” negotiations: “We want to present our ideas clearly, and we want to (share them).”
Reality and the Wonderland
There are men who see reality as it exists and deal with it. They can use imagination, creativity, and positive thinking to deal with problems, or they can learn to cope with predicaments while searching for an acceptable solution. Inflexibility keeps situations frozen in place and destroys any hope of progress.
There are those who embrace a world of make believe, where shortcomings are denied and others are blamed when things go wrong. Hun Sen rewrites history to serve his purposes. Sam Rainsy chooses to blast the Vietnamese “swallowers of Khmer soil” to deflect awareness of his own inability to bring Hun Sen to justice.
I don’t expect some Cambodian democrats to like what I write today. But the sooner democrats come to realize that Hun Sen is not going anywhere in the short term, the better. It is wiser to invest energy in building unity and solidarity through nonviolent approaches, to use this five year period to consolidate resources, develop depth in a leadership cadre, learn the skills of governing in order to chip away little by little the regime’s autocracy and injustice through existing political mechanisms and processes. In this way, democrats may help the Khmer nation reach its highest interests in liberty, justice, and the rule of law.
I would like to repeat what I have often written: Democrats must work tirelessly to build leaders by the thousands and to focus seriously on nation building.
Dr. Gaffar: 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 email@example.com.