In the slim span of some 120 days, the Royal Government has initiated such a radical
about-face in its approach to dissent and defamation that officials and analysts
are still scrambling to define the new political landscape and discern just what
remains of the longstanding three-party equation.
The previous, politically volatile four months - starting with the arrest of radio
journalist Mam Sonando on October 11 and ending with Sam Rainsy's return to Cambodia
on February 10 - witnessed Prime Minister Hun Sen's government arrest, jail and release
its foremost social critics, broker a compromise homecoming and pardon for self-exiled
opposition leader Sam Rainsy, then agree to review the same criminal defamation law
that it had wielded to muzzle its detractors.
In return, the activists - excluding Community Legal Education Center President Yang
Virak- issued public letters to Hun Sen expressing regret for their actions. Rainsy,
leader of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), went so far as to publicly withdraw his longstanding
accusation that Hun Sen orchestrated the March 30, 1997 grenade attack on an SRP
demonstration that killed more than a dozen people, and retract allegations accusing
Funcinpec and National Assembly President Norodom Ranariddh of accepting millions
of dollars in bribes to form the current coalition government.
The unprecedented reversal, which resulted in dropped charges for the activists and
the restoration of parliamentary immunity for two opposition leaders, has some diplomats
and observers applauding a new political atmosphere they claim is dedicated to constructive
dialogue and democracy.
Others believe the government's maneuvering has simply been an attempt to neutralize
a growing civil society movement and to corral the opposition Sam Rainsy Party into
a junior, less vitriolic coalition partnership.
As one senior Funcinpec official put it, "It is better to have the tiger in
the cage than in the jungle."
A change of tactics
The abrupt shift in government policy first surfaced with Hun Sen's decision on January
17 to release on bail four detained activists - Sonando, Cambodian Center for Human
Rights (CCHR) President Kem Sokha, CCHR deputy director Pa Nguon Teang, and Rong
Chhun of the Cambodian Independent Teachers' Union. Initially the motivation for
the releases was ascribed to international pressure led by US Assistant Secretary
of State for East Asian Affairs Christopher Hill, and the impending Consultative
Group (CG) donor meeting on March 2-3.
But a range of analysts and foreign diplomats have downplayed the importance of these
factors and told the Post the move to free the activists, and ultimately to allow
Rainsy's return was, in fact, brokered by Cambodian politicians and influential individuals
acting as third party mediators.
"Only in the movies is there one particular moment or turning point in something
like this," said US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli.
"Our understanding is that in the course of discussions there were go-betweens.
Both sides found Cambodians they trusted to talk to. The prime minister had a role
as did other Cambodian leaders and civil society. The real emphasis is that it was
a Cambodian solution and a Cambodian initiative."
Mussomeli said that assumptions that the turnaround was performed only to create
a more positive environment for the CG meeting were "off-the-wall."
"To get to the CG meeting all the prime minister had to do was what he did on
January 17 - release the detainees. Most of the donor community was satisfied or
was at least willing to back down and not cause trouble. The Americans weren't satisfied,
nor were the Canadians or the Brits, but for the most part it would have been clear
sailing after that," Mussomeli said.
"But the prime minister went much further and faster than anyone anticipated
with the rapprochement with Sam Rainsy and the release of Cheam Channy and the call
for decriminalizing of defamation. These things were way beyond what he would have
to do to create the right environment for the CG. Moreover, he would have put himself
in a corner in the sense that there is another CG next year. He couldn't be nice
and democratic in front of one [CG meeting] and then revert back a few months later."
An official at the German Embassy, who declined to be named, described the change
of tactics as an evolution of Cambodian politics.
"The current changes are welcome, in particular the change from confrontation
to reconciliation and political dialogue," the diplomat said.
Some Cambodian leaders have heralded the move as an encouraging sign for future political
"I think all the leaders, including Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh,
have put their personal interests behind and have been working for national reconciliation
and power sharing," said Funcinpec parliamentarian Ly Thuch. "I think it
is a good time for Cambodian leaders to make a move by themselves for the interest
of the country. I think the time has changed and the leaders have changed too. They
made the right move."
"What Samdech Hun Sen needs is a culture of dialogue," Minister of Information
Khieu Kanharith said on February 23. "Actually Hun Sen never graduated from
a university. But now he has graduated from the highest university, which means that
he has political maturity."
Rainsy, who has re-entered the political arena with calls to overhaul his SRP, describes
the change in historic terms.
"The decision was made against the backdrop of - call it 'pressure' or 'friendly
advice' - but in the end Cambodians decided for themselves to talk and establish
a new relationship between the government and the opposition," he said.
"I think we are opening a new chapter in Cambodian history. I don't pretend
that Cambodia is a democracy. It's more façade than substance, but we can
catch up very fast with this new culture of dialogue. Maybe this time we are seeing
Rainsy also claimed that a new culture of reconciliation translates into good business.
"I have received information that since this dialogue has been established,
property prices have increased and investment projects that have been shelved have
now been restarted," he said. "The government and opposition have sent
a message to the world and the business community that Cambodia is a safe place to
But despite glowing assessments from the opposition camp, many observers have adopted
a wait-and-see approach to the new environment.
"It's real, but that doesn't mean its permanent," Mussomeli said. "I
don't think it's contrived on anybody's part.
"The prime minister is sincere and Sam Rainsy is sincere, but this is the real
world where unexpected things happen. It could all unravel in a couple of months
and everyone will call it a farce. But I will never believe that. I think this is
real, but very fragile. It still may not turn out like a Hollywood movie."
A new arena
Although a new, albeit ill-defined, political configuration is presently taking shape,
some observers and NGOs are claiming that the government's moves have diverted attention
from more pressing domestic concerns.
"The drama surrounding the recent arrests and displays of prime ministerial
largess have served to divert attention from a host of pressure issues in Cambodia
- including poverty reduction, rampant land grabbing, and endemic corruption - which
the government has consistently failed to meaningfully address," reads an open
letter issued by a group of human rights NGOs prior to the CG meeting. (The letter
appears on page 13 of the Post.)
Ou Virak, general-secretary of the Alliance for the Freedom of Expression, explained
that the momentum created by civil society while the activists were detained needs
to be re-channeled back to the Cambodian people.
"Sometimes the war is easier than after the victory," Virak said. "The
problem is we demanded the release, the dropping of charges, a review of the defamation
law, and to make sure we had an opposition - and we got all of that. Some people
have accused the activists of selling out to the government, but those accusations
are not appropriate. We are back to square one - where we were when all this started.
We can once again focus on the people instead of the activists."
But with increasingly cozy relations between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy, roles in the
coalition government are still being sorted out. Most in flux is the role of the
royalist party Funcinpec.
With Rainsy back in the political saddle, his party can now seriously plan for the
commune elections in 2007 and national polls in 2008. Analysts say that any gains
the SRP makes at the polls are likely to come at the expense of a floundering Funcinpec,
which just two weeks ago was castigated by Hun Sen for efforts by Ranariddh to appoint
unqualified party members to senior government positions.
"Funcinpec might be lucky to get 10 seats in Parliament in the 2008 elections,"
lamented one senior party official. "Our future is grim."
Rainsy, for his part, is optimistic about his party's future.
"I am sure people will ask if the SRP will become another Funcinpec," Rainsy
said. "The answer is a definite 'no.'
"The SRP has a different ambition from Funcinpec. We're moving upward - so we
have a different approach from a party going downward. Whereas Funcinpec's ambition
is only to become a junior partner, subservient in a major coalition partnership,
we have the political objective to be number one."
Rainsy believes that the rift between SRP and Funcinpec may be widened by shifting
"Half the population is under 18, and 70 percent is under 30. Old people tend
to vote for Funcinpec for cultural reasons but young people think differently from
their parents," he said. "The mentality is changing. Funcinpec will no
longer be able to abuse the name of the King or monarchy with their feudalistic philosophy.
It's going out of style."
Ok Serei Sopheak, a veteran political analyst and former adviser to CPP Deputy Prime
Minister Sar Kheng, says it is still too early to assess the strength of the existing
alliance between the CPP and Funcinpec.
"Not enough has happened to see who will benefit the most," he said. "Now
the issue is the balance between the three parties. Before there used to be two parties
in cooperation, now there is triangular talk. In the future it will be very important
for one party to consider the other two."
But for observers familiar with the longstanding feud that existed between Rainsy
and Hun Sen, the new, cordial atmosphere is something of a shock.
"In my last meeting with Hun Sen yesterday he asked me 'How old are you?',"
Rainsy said on February 22. "I replied 'I will be 57 soon.'
"He said, 'I am three years younger than you but we are both more than half
a century old. I have been prime minister for so long I have everything a man can
want. Now I want to ensure that our children get a proper legacy from us.' I said,
'I share your objective'."