With a decision on the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party looming ever closer, some – mainly those within the opposition itself – have clung to the notion that the government will abort its campaign against the opposition at the last moment.
Whether due to international pressure or fears of local backlash, or both, the government – proponents of the theory, like ex-CNRP President Sam Rainsy, argue – “will not dare” to eliminate the country’s largest opposition party and the only legitimate competitor to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in next year’s scheduled national elections.
A last-minute reprieve may be the longest of long shots – Prime Minister Hun Sen himself put the odds at 100-to-1 in a recent speech – but even if the Supreme Court declines to disband the party over purportedly treasonous activities, observers and experts said yesterday that months of pressure have left the CNRP so scattered and weak that the CPP would likely coast to victory in 2018.
Hun Sen has been known to engage in cycles of political pressure and clemency, tightening the screws – sometimes for months at a time – only to ultimately relieve the tension.
Perhaps nobody is as familiar with this strategy as Rainsy, who has been convicted and pardoned of various crimes multiple times at politically advantageous moments.
According to Sebastian Strangio’s book Hun Sen’s Cambodia, in 2006, Hun Sen embarked on one such campaign to pressure opposition figures and civil society. Rainsy fled the country to avoid a defamation charge, while fellow opposition politician Cheam Channy was jailed for purportedly having a “secret army” and seeking to topple the government.
Journalists and activists were locked up on similar charges, and international pressure was applied. Hun Sen relented, freeing all the political prisoners, allowing Rainsy to return and reaping the benefits of international approval.
“Hun Sen’s political timing, as always, was exquisite. He reaped political benefits twice, firstly in the repression and then again in the loosening,” Strangio wrote.
Rainsy was forced into self-imposed exile by a new set of charges in 2010. In the lead-up to the 2013 elections, however, Hun Sen requested another royal pardon, allowing him to return and lead his newly formed CNRP to stunning gains in the National Assembly. Rainsy was forced abroad yet again in 2015, and remains overseas.
In a similar cycle in 2016, the CNRP’s co-founder and current president, Kem Sokha, found himself facing jail time after refusing to honour court summonses related to a case surrounding an alleged affair. He was pardoned in December after avoiding arrest by spending months holed up in the CNRP headquarters.
The ruling party called the pardon a “compromise”, and Hun Sen later claimed it was because Sokha “followed my instructions”.
Rainsy yesterday appeared convinced a similar reprieve was in the offing, but said he would welcome the CNRP’s dissolution, if only because it would hasten Hun Sen’s own political demise.
“I personally would prefer him to be silly enough to do so, and not to back off, because this would mean his inevitable downfall. But he will not dare because he starts to realise the danger for him and he will try to buy time on November 16 (postponement of the court decision) in order not to lose face,” he said via email.
“It will be a big political and moral victory for the CNRP,” he added. Analysts, however, were not so sure. Veteran Cambodian political analyst Lao Mong Hay said the chances of CNRP not being dissolved were “very slim”.
“The prime minister set out to dissolve the CNRP from the beginning,” he said.“Knowing the character of our prime minister, he’s more like Samson in the Bible. He would destroy the temple altogether” rather than compromise, Mong Hay added.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, agreed it was unlikely that Hun Sen would “stop short of dissolving the CNRP”, but acknowledged it “might be smarter politically”.
However, Robertson said, at this point reversing direction would make him look “totally foolish”.
“Even if he did surprise us all, preserving the hollow shell of the CNRP while imprisoning or chasing its leaders out of the country is hardly an indicator of respect for democracy or human rights.
There is so much that needs to be done to even hope to get back to the prospect of a free and fair election in 2018, but nothing positive is going to come from the international community’s continued silence,” Robertson said via email yesterday.
In an interview yesterday, Strangio said clemency for the CNRP would be “consistent with history”. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the CNRP gets a last-minute reprieve,” Strangio said.
“The crackdown has gone far beyond what is in the Cambodian government’s interest,” he explained, going on to say that “Western governments are looking for something like that to reestablish engagement”.
Still, he added, even with a reprieve, the damage has been done.
“The party’s been put under so much pressure it’s hard to see them mounting an effective campaign,” he said, citing divisions within the party, absence of leadership on the ground and a general culture of fear.
Deputy CNRP President Mu Sochua said no matter what the future holds, neither the upcoming elections nor the next government would be “legitimate”.
“Free and fair elections [are] out of the question,” she said.
Mong Hay agreed, saying that any chance of an even playing field went out the window with the first round of amendments to the Law on Political Parties in July – amendments that effectively banned Rainsy from the political arena.
Koul Panha, director of election monitor Comfrel, said the organisation had not yet done a full “assessment on [the] damage” to the credibility of the 2018 election, but noted a “low turnout” for voter registration, which ended today.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan, meanwhile, shrugged off the concerns and promised the party “will be dissolved by the Supreme Court” for “treason”. Siphan maintained that the elections would still be free and fair, despite acknowledging that the CNRP was the only party that posed any credible threat to the CPP.
For Strangio, that credible threat to Hun Sen’s rule had doomed the CNRP from the start.
“Hun Sen will not allow an election in which he stands any chance of losing.”