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As PM recycles policy, who wins?

Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) shakes hands with Ieng Sary, the leader of a renegade Khmer Rouge faction based in Pailin, in 1996.
Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) shakes hands with Ieng Sary, the leader of a renegade Khmer Rouge faction based in Pailin, in 1996. David Van Der Veen/AFP

As PM recycles policy, who wins?

With the government wielding the threat of dissolution over the Cambodia National Rescue Party, Prime Minister Hun Sen has returned to a familiar trope rooted in the early years of his rule – that in consolidating power he is also offering up a “win-win policy” for his opponents.

The strategy harkens back to the premier’s famous 1990s policy, in which he welcomed stubborn Khmer Rouge holdouts back into Cambodian society, ending decades of civil war.

On October 22, the premier told opposition commune councillors that they could keep their seats if they defected to the CPP before the Supreme Court’s decision to dissolve the party, which is expected this month.

“This is a win-win policy,” he said.

“I wish to inform all the CNRP’s commune chiefs, deputy commune chiefs or any CNRP members: if you want to save your jobs . . . change your allegiance to the CPP.”

However, historians and analysts alike said this week that the premier’s current proposal bears little resemblance to the 1990s offer of clemency – mostly because Hun Sen himself has manufactured the current conflict with the CNRP.

In his recently published book Reconciliation Process in Cambodia: 1979-2007, Dr Ly Sok-Kheang explained that Hun Sen’s original win-win policy was a crucial factor in finally ending decades of civil war.

“In return for their [Khmer Rouge] defection, this policy gave three main concessions: The KR soldiers were allowed to maintain their military ranks in the Cambodian Royal Armed Forces, their property would not be confiscated, and their personal safety would be protected,” he wrote.

Opposition leader Kem Sokha is escorted by police following his midnight arrest in September.
Opposition leader Kem Sokha is escorted by police following his midnight arrest in September. AFP

According to Ly, the civil war-era win-win policy is widely viewed as a success by both historians and everyday citizens.

“Cambodians viewed the policy as having an important role in ending the war,” he wrote, later adding “it is generally accepted that the win-win principle was the ultimate lever to peace”.

Ly said yesterday that while some Cambodians felt resentful that Khmer Rouge cadres were not punished – a position he said was “understandable” – it was nonetheless “a good approach” to resolving a conflict that would have otherwise taken much longer, and may have required “open warfare”.

Hun Sen has not been shy about bringing up the achievement. In a speech in 2016, for instance, he boasted that the policy had done more than the 1991 Paris Peace Accords to bring about stability to the country.

“We do not forget the Paris Peace Accords,” the premier was quoted by the Cambodia Daily as saying. “But please remember that without the Sihanouk-Hun Sen negotiations that started before, there would be no Paris Agreement. Second, without the win-win policy I initiated . . . there would be no peace today.”

While the premier’s original policy may be one of his crowning diplomatic achievements, analysts and political rivals questioned the similarities between the win-win strategy of old and today’s effort to encourage CNRP defections.

The pledges of clemency for CNRP defectors follow a Ministry of Interior complaint filed to the Supreme Court to dissolve the party because of alleged treasonous activity. While the court mulls over the complaint, the government has amended several electoral laws to allow for the divvying up of the CNRP’s National Assembly seats, as well as its commune- and district-level positions.

The premier’s long-time political adversary, Sam Rainsy, said the situation today differed from the past in one key respect: while the win-win policy of the ’90s was created to forge national unity, the current one was engineered to disrupt it.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Prime Minister Hun Sen seen speaking to members of the garment industry in a speech where he promised that opposition party defectors would be welcomed with open arms in spite of their leader Kem Sokha being branded a “traitor”. Photo supplied

“Hun Sen’s dealing with remnants of the Khmer Rouge after the end of the Cold War has nothing to do with his ongoing world-decried attempt to eliminate the CNRP,” he said via email on Tuesday. Government spokesman Phay Siphan, however, called the two policies “very similar”.

“Hun Sen offers to everybody the opportunity to maintain peace, security and development,” he said. Siphan said the offer to defectors was necessary after it became clear that the CNRP will “present no argument in the court”.

“That’s why we see the CNRP will be dissolved,” he said, adding the party wants to give former CNRP officials the “choice to help build the country”.

When asked if Hun Sen had instigated the conflict with the CNRP, Siphan accused the CNRP of “rebellion”.

“They discredit the national establishments . . . They call for the elected prime minister to step down . . . They don’t respect the King, don’t respect the people and don’t respect Cambodian law,” he said.

But according to renowned Cambodian historian David Chandler, at the root of the issue surrounding a so-called win-win policy is the fact that Hun Sen doesn’t distinguish between a threat to his personal power and a threat to Cambodia.

“Hun Sen cannot compute the idea of loyal opposition,” Chandler said, referring to the concept of an opposition party that opposes the sitting government, but not the nation itself.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and Khmer Rouge soldiers celebrate after Ieng Sary agrees to defect along with his troops to government in Pailin in 1996. Michael Hayes

“Comparing the CNRP to the Khmer Rouge is of course obscene,” he added, while noting that it was nonetheless expected as Hun Sen sees “all opponents as posing similar threats”.

Ear Sophal, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, said the only similarity between the plans is that “both are solutions to an existential crisis for the ruling party”.

“This defection business . . . doesn’t improve national unity. That’s like saying ethnic cleansing improves national unity,” said Sophal, who was himself a Khmer Rouge-era refugee.

Sophal went on to say that CNRP’s resilience in the face of a near-constant onslaught of extralegal assaults by the ruling party has only shown how powerful the opposition really is.

“If anything, the fact that the CNRP has lasted this long is a testament to its staying power. But of course, dissolution is the solution when fragmentation doesn’t happen fast enough,” he said.

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