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CAMBODIA: Time to get to work

FOR PUBLICATION
AHRC-ETC-036-2013
October 17, 2013

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

The more Hun Sen attempts to ignore grievances of the increasingly vocal cohort of Cambodian voters who allege election irregularities and fraud, the more the emboldened and determined opposition party demands an independent impartial joint CNRP-CPP investigation committee to seek more accurate accounting of ballots cast in the July 28th national election.

A metaphor seems appropriate. Imagine spectators gathering around a glass jar filled with water to watch one of Cambodians' passtimes, chul trei krem or fish fighting. Two fish swim around, looking for one another's weak area to attack. Gills open, fins and tails flapping, their scales turn dark colors, the fish seem to contract, poised to attack. Would it be a fight to the death or will an owner interrupt the fight to save his fish for the next fight?

The Cambodians' political deadlock is a tragedy. There cannot be a winner. Hun Sen and his CPP know, and concerned foreign governments, too, know, the ruling party can in no way continue to govern as a one-party government and a one-party parliament devoid of opposition members who were duly elected by at least half of the country's voters. Half of the country has openly rejected Hun Sen's 28 years of autocratic rule and the CPP's 34 year domination of Cambodian governance. Even many CPP partisans acknowledge that fresh leadership is overdue. In fact, reliable reports assert that increasing numbers of civil servants are unhappy with the status quo and that officers in the armed forces are overtly questioning if they are on the wrong side of history.

Hun Sen and his close associates are vehemently against an investigation committee. His reluctance is suspect if, as Hun Sen asserts, the CPP won the election fairly. Sam Rainsy is on the record as saying he would abide by the findings of a nonpartisan investigating committee.   Would the true reason be that Hun Sen has no intention of ceding power? The aftermath of Cambodia's recent election has surely made clear that Hun Sen and the CPP are no longer secure nor uncontested as they once were. More Cambodians agree it's time for change, ph'do.

Hun Sen seems aware of his tenuous hold on power. So, on Sept 26 he spoke at his first new cabinet meeting for more than 6 hours about reforms, addressing corruption, nepotism, the rule of law and other issues. But Cambodians say Hun Sen and the CPP have made many undelivered promises before. Hun Sen's proposed reforms may come too late.

Baek Chea O, Ho Chea Stoeng

To "open Pandora's box" means to take an action that seems small and benign, but that produces harsh and sweeping results. Such a Pandora's box was opened when King Sihamoni acted to convene Cambodia's Fifth Parliament on Sept 23 despite popular appeals not to do so, including even the delivery to the Royal Palace of the signatures of about half a million voters who petitioned the king to refrain from opening the Assembly until after an investigation, and warnings from the opposition that it would boycott the National Assembly if convened on that date.

The Khmers' expression Baek Chea O, Ho Chea Stoeng, refers to a disagreement that takes a life of its own as it spreads like flowing water that creates water stream and turns into a river. The king's opening of the National Assembly of 123 seats total, with only 68 members of the CPP attending, left 55 seats empty of opposition members. This one-party Assembly approved Hun Sen as Prime Minister and his cabinet as the Royal Government of Cambodia. The stream of opposition quickly grew from a stream into a river.

The CNRP immediately characterized the new Parliament and the Royal Government as unconstitutional and urged the world's nations not to recognize the government. The CPP countered by calling the CNRP's actions unconstitutional as the opposition rejected the Assembly and the Government sanctioned by the King.

This, again, is like the Khmer folk dance the Ramvong circle dance. Here, politicians from both parties are participants. They dance around and around in a circle as long as the drumbeats thak theeng thong sound. Like trei krem samdaeng tuor or fighting fish showing their aggressive postures, the dancers perform their chak kbach showing off their skills in leg and hand movement.

"The ballet of dueling press conferences has begun. But the playbook has changed," writes Elizabeth Becker, author of When The War Was Over, in "Cambodians Refuse to Accept Rigged Elections" in YaleGolobal Online. "Cambodians are far less likely to accept Hun Sen's promises and say so in social media. Foreign partners are watching, worried about their investments," she says.

On Oct 6, the CNRP held a people's congress at Freedom Park where its leaders met with some 15,000 to 20,000 voters who passed a 10-point Resolution instructing the party to demand the establishment of an investigation committee, to carry on mass protests, undertake a general strike of civil servants and workers across the country, intensify diplomatic contacts, to submit "millions of thumbprints" to the UN and to the 18 signatory governments of the Paris Peace Accords, among others.

On her Website, CNRP leader Mu Sochua reaffirmed her party's commitment to nonviolent mass protests and a general strike, and announced a mass rally at Freedom Park on Oct 23, the date of the 22nd anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords that ended Cambodia's conflict involving four Khmer warring factions: "We will be coming from all national roads and will meet at Freedom Park at 3PM." Sochua remarked, as soon as CNRP vice president Kem Sokha declared "we would organize a mass protest during the Water Festival," the government immediately cancelled the annual Water Festival, Bon Om Touk, for 2013.

The Bon Om Touk festival, which takes place in November, has typically been attended by as many as two million spectators from across the country that come to Phnom Penh for three days of boat races to celebrate the seasonal reversal of water flow from the Tonle Sap Great Lake into the Mekong. In this heated political atmosphere, Hun Sen has reasons to fear.

Meanwhile, Hun Sen's RGC has moved swiftly to fill all nine parliamentary commissions with CPP members thereby keeping elected CNRP members who boycotted the Parliament effectively outside of the National Assembly.

CNRP leader Sam Rainsy has been visiting foreign capitals for two weeks to drum up support for an investigation committee and non-recognition of the current regime. He also calls on the signatory governments of the Paris Peace Accords to intervene in Cambodia's deadlock.

However, the Oct 9 Phnom Penh Post reported that some lawyers and analysts question Sam Rainsy and the CNRP's "legal basis" for charging the National Assembly as "unconstitutional."

Article 76 of the Cambodian Constitution stipulates "The National Assembly consists of at least 120 members." In Cambodia's Constitutional Council's Decision No. 054/005/2003 CC.D of July 22, 2003, the Council interpreted paragraph 1 of Article 76: "This means that there shall be at least 120 deputies (assembly members) to be able to form the National Assembly at every legislature. Electoral law cannot limit the number of parliamentarians to less than 120. This paragraph 1 is a necessary condition for the formation of a National Assembly but not its functioning."

For Prime Minister Hun Sen, the King's stamp of approval on the CPP-only National Assembly and the RGC makes both creations legitimate although half of the country refuses to accept them and insists on asking, "Where is my vote?"

As Becker writes, Cambodians are "an awakened citizenry (who) refuses to play along. Integrated with the world, many Cambodians have become too aware, too sophisticated, to accept the rule of a corrupt elite that relies on force and openly steals the fortunes of the country while trampling on individual rights."

Realpolitik

In the world in which nation-states seek to maximize national interests, idealism and humanity take a back seat.

Mu Sochua's frustration is understandable as governments that push for electoral investigation and reform also call on disputants to work together as these governments congratulate Hun Sen for his election "victory" and deal with him as legitimate. They speak ambiguously. "You can't go both ways," Sochua says.

On Oct 14, France and Australia joined other countries such as China, Singapore, Japan, India, Brazil in congratulating Hun Sen on his "victory" and on becoming Prime Minister. Which country will be next? And one has to question whether Sam Rainsy and the CNRP are engaging in a futile exercise.

Unfortunately, that's what Realpolitik is: to seek maximization of power and influences, and of national interests. Everything else is secondary. Justice for the half of Cambodia's people who reject Cambodia's current regime is secondary. In practice, a government does recognize another on the basis of political expediency that serves its goals, more than on some ideal principles.

Facing Reality

Cambodia is not going to develop or improve if democrats who want ph'do continue to repeat thinking and behavior that has brought no positive result. They should reassess their ways of thinking and their actions rather than feeling victimized and blaming others for their misfortune. Lord Buddha taught 2,500 years ago, "What we think we become," and "We are responsible for what we do or not do."

Facing reality, democrats must learn and understand the world in which they live. Learn to imagine, to create, and to apply positive thinking as Buddha preached. Critical thinking does not mean criticizing someone for something, but assessing our actions and behavior to determine whether they have brought us closer to our goals. Rather than fueling racism against the Vietnamese immigrants in Cambodia, democrats should re-examine and introduce reforms to Cambodia's existing immigration policy. As the late King Father once said, the divine placed Khmers and Vietnamese as neighbors eternally, Cambodians cannot pick up their borders and move. It is long past time for democrats to brush up on and apply Buddha's teachings.

I believe the CPP is incapable of effective reform. Its image is too deeply embedded in the minds of the Cambodian people for the CPP to rebound. To survive, the CPP's only viable tactic is to divide the opposition. This, it does well. Hun Sen will not cede power, and with each passing day the likelihood that an impartial investigation into the July election results becomes less likely. By attending the opening of the Assembly, international players were, in fact, signaling to the CNRP that the time for work is here. Even if an investigation was now to be launched and the CPP found culpable, Hun Sen would not relinquish power.

In response, the CNRP must remain united and resolute. This is required both to counter the government's attempts to divide it, and to keep faith with the hundreds of thousands who have cast their lot with this new coalition party as the best hope for themselves and their nation. But at this time, keeping faith with the voters must mean taking the seats in the National Assembly that it has rightly earned. It's time to work change from the inside, master the levers of power, and train those who will assume leadership after the next election. By remaining outside the Assembly, the CNRP leaves the CPP free reign to introduce laws and projects to its advantage.

These next five years offer the CNRP an opportunity for leadership development and consolidation of political gains across the nation. Building thousands of democratic leaders involves cultivating leadership capacity through training and continuing the leadership's openness to voices and ideas from those who have been denied that voice for decades. These challenges are formidable, but not insurmountable. When the next election approaches, the CNRP will be ready to take the reins of government, at last.

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 peangmeth@gmail.com.




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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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