On Tuesday, 11 opposition activists, including senior CNRP officials, were sentenced to up to 20 years in jail over a brawl last July at Freedom Park in which dozens were injured, mostly government security forces.
But only hours after the sentencing, CNRP president Sam Rainsy left for France with hardly a murmur and has since continued to praise his detente with Prime Minister Hun Sen, the so-called ‘culture of dialogue’.
Bennett Murray spoke with journalist Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia and a former Phnom Penh Post editor, to get some answers
Why has the government labelled the July 15 violence, which was initiated by security forces and over within minutes, an “insurrection”?
I think that by labelling the events of July 15 an insurrection, it reflects the government’s paranoid perception that anyone opposing them, whether it’s the political opposition, with its deep roots in Cambodian communities overseas, or civil society groups with a similar lineage, are fifth columnists and agents of a hostile West.
And it’s not entirely untrue, as the opposition parties originated during the civil war, were backed by foreign governments, and have been fighting the [Cambodian People’s Party] and its predecessors since 1979.
That old style of thinking persists quite strongly within the CPP, and I think within the opposition as well, as evidenced by their focus on Vietnam.
All of these people are still fighting the civil war of the 1980s.
What do you think will happen to the Freedom Park 11?
Hun Sen, if he sees that these people can be used to advance his political interests, will certainly [use them].
I can’t speculate as to what those circumstances might be, but what I will say is that it’s unlikely that these people will serve their full sentences.
It’s likely that they will be released at some point on some pretense that will benefit the CPP.
These sorts of chance outbreaks of violence are a gift for him.
They open up all sorts of political avenues, as having people in court and in prison increases his room for political manoeuvring.
Why has Rainsy been keeping quiet?
I think he’s remaining silent to maintain this “culture of dialogue”.
I can’t understand any other reason why he would remain silent publicly as a politician, when members of his party are jailed on dubious, politically tinted charges.
But I think his silence on the issue calls into question whether this culture of dialogue has substance.
What impact will the convictions have on the “culture of dialogue”?
It’s hard to say what the long-term impact will be.
As far as Rainsy is concerned, the culture of dialogue is unaffected by this, which raises the question of what would derail the culture of dialogue if the jailing of key members of the CNRP for long periods on baseless charges doesn’t.
I think he’s putting all his eggs into the basket that 2018 will see a huge shift against the CPP, and that it makes more sense to bide his time until then than to waste his energy fighting Hun Sen.
What else do the convictions suggest about the culture of dialogue?
The recent convictions raise further questions in my mind about whether the culture of dialogue reflects a meaningful shift in the culture of Cambodian politics.
For Rainsy and Hun Sen to leave behind the poisonous, paralysed politics of the past would require nothing short of a revolutionary change in the mindsets not only among those two individuals, but within the Cambodian political establishment more generally.
Rainsy is right in that Cambodia needs to move past this “live or die” politics, but I’m sceptical as to the extent in which Hun Sen has habituated to this way of thinking.
Hun Sen is a born fighter, and I think the 2018 election for him will be absolutely crucial.
When the time comes for the gloves to come off, I think Hun Sen will fight like the old tiger he is.