As the highly visible detente between Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen grows warmer, is the opposition leader being lured into a trap?
When opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his deputies made the precarious decision to get cosy with an opponent notorious for co-opting foes, they didn’t go in blind.
The swift demise of Funcinpec and its leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh after their Faustian pacts with the ruling party have become something like old wives’ tales in the opposition, forebodingly recounted whenever the temptation of political compromise rears its head.
In spite of the cautionary tales, staunch opposition from Cambodia National Rescue Party vice president Kem Sokha’s hardline faction, and more than two decades of bitter experiences fighting the regime, the president of the party Rainsy decided to gamble on compromises with his greatest nemesis.
Throughout his 30 years leading Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen has often before employed a tactic of alternatively embracing and crucifying foes, as expedience requires.
Dramatic but fleeting displays of unity, with commentators speaking of “new chapters” and “evolutions” of Cambodian politics, have ended with opponents neutered.
And the current symbolic reconciliatory overtures under the new “culture of dialogue” have only added fuel to the CNRP’s internal fire, which is already split over Rainsy’s approval of controversial election laws which critics accuse of weakening democracy.
“It’s not a new culture of dialogue, but they use different words,” said Kem Ley, analyst and grassroots political aspirant, adding that the term, which was also used during a previous detente with Rainsy, was reminiscent of old pleas for “national unity” in the earlier days of Hun Sen’s reign.
Ranariddh’s final detente with the ruling party came in 2004 after 11 months of deadlock following the 2003 elections. Although Funcinpec had formed an “Alliance of Democrats” with the Sam Rainsy Party to challenge the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, Ranariddh eventually joined a coalition government that left Rainsy jilted.
In June 2004, with hatchets evidently buried, the prince toasted glasses of champagne with Hun Sen and Senate President Chea Sim at the CPP’s 53rd anniversary celebrations as the Funcinpec leader was welcomed into the government camp by his new unlikely bedfellows.
The coalition fell apart after a 2006 constitutional amendment reduced the two-thirds majority required to form a government to only 50 per cent. Subsequently, Funcinpec’s influence diminished to the point where it was forced out of parliament entirely in 2013.
The premier’s most recent thaw with an opponent occurred in 2006 when Rainsy returned in February from a year of self-imposed exile in France. Prior to his homecoming, Rainsy wrote letters apologising to Hun Sen and Ranariddh for the “defamatory” comments over which he had been sentenced to an 18-month prison term in absentia.
The government responded by pardoning Rainsy and freeing several imprisoned opposition and civil society leaders. Promises were also made to review the defamation laws that had convicted them.
A new “culture of dialogue” was heralded by government and opposition personalities alike, including Rainsy, while observers celebrated what they thought was genuine change.
But despite the bold proclamations, the detente of early 2006 became an obscure footnote in Cambodia’s recent political history.
“It wasn’t long before the fight resumed, and four years later Rainsy was back in Paris, with a couple of new jail sentences to his name,” Sebastian Strangio, author of the political history book Hun Sen’s Cambodia and a former Post editor, said in an email.
Rainsy this week dismissed comparisons between 2006 and the present, arguing that changing political winds had created more fertile grounds for reconciliation.
“For the first time ever, there is a united (and strong) democratic opposition in Parliament where only two parties are represented. The new balance of power is more conducive to a real dialogue,” Rainsy said in an email, adding that he believes Hun Sen is acting sincerely.
Any lingering divisions within the opposition party, he added, would be mended by the 2017 commune elections.
Ley described the premier’s posturing as a “trap” that gives Rainsy a complacent sense that he is making progress as a statesman.
“When [Hun Sen] is finished and he wins with this approach, he will kick him out,” he said.
CPP lawmaker and spokesman Suos Yara said the future of the “culture of dialogue” was largely dependent on the CNRP’s internal politics and, in a thinly veiled reference to Sokha, whether Rainsy can “control his own men”.
“The Cambodian political atmosphere is generally based on individual people who decide only with their own mouths, it’s not decided with the principles of the party,” Yara said.
While Strangio said history suggested the detente was perhaps a “tactical truce”, he added that last week’s meeting in Kuala Lumpur, where Hun Sen acknowledged to Rainsy that the opposition may one day prevail, was unprecedented.
“In a country where changes of government have generally been accompanied by a violent purge of the old regime, it’s tempting to see Hun Sen’s comments as an indication he is contemplating his own transience and open to the idea of a peaceful negotiated transition should he lose the election,” Strangio said.
“Equally, all this could be yet another layer of the subtle public theatre of Cambodian political life.”
Additional reporting by David Boyle