The round-up and detention of seven opposition lawmakers-elect on insurrection charges in the past three days bears the stamp of longstanding ruling party tactics used to silence dissent. But political observers say this week’s clampdown is so wide in scale that it can only be compared to a similar blitz almost a decade ago.
“The arrests of the past few days are unprecedented. The last time something close to this happened was in early 2005, when Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Cheam Channy was arrested on charges of trying to form a ‘secret army’ to overthrow the government,” Sebastian Strangio, author of the forthcoming book Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said yesterday.
Sam Rainsy and Chea Poch, another SRP lawmaker, were hit with defamation charges at around the same time but managed to escape the country after their parliamentary immunity was stripped.
Later in the year, five civil society activists, including CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha, then head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, were arrested for allegedly criticising a controversial border agreement with Vietnam.
In early 2006, the activists were released, Channy was granted a royal pardon after being sentenced to seven years, and Rainsy was allowed to return in moves that Strangio attributes to foreign pressure, which “has always imposed limits on how far the government can go in marginalising its opponents”.
“However, the stakes are now much higher. The government faces a more unified opposition, with greater popular support. This new outbreak of confrontation will sooner or later cycle back to some sort of negotiated settlement, but at the moment it’s impossible to say when that might happen – or how many people will be hurt in the meantime.”
Cambodian Center for Human Rights Chairman Ou Virak also cited the same incident nearly a decade ago, and said that government tactics were “like a broken record”.
“The way they are going about doing these things [is] not new. It’s exactly like in 2005 . . . Another possibility is with Sam Rainsy out of the country they could bring a charge now to try and prevent him coming back.”
The outcome of all this, Virak says, will also likely reflect past political crackdowns.
“Sam Rainsy will go to the international community and get condemnation, the international press will report the comments, eventually there might be some ‘breakthrough’ and then they will return to what was before the crackdown, which is not pretty anyway.”