More than five years ago, opposition leader Sam Rainsy stood on disputed land near the Vietnamese border and ripped a demarcation post from the ground in an act of defiance.
The government’s response to this bit of highly charged political theatre was swift and unsurprising. Convicted of charges including racial incitement and destruction of property, Rainsy was sentenced to two years in prison and fled into nearly four years of self-imposed exile.
“Now who are the foreigners and international organisations that support such an action?” Hun Sen mockingly said of Rainsy’s stunt at the time, seemingly dismissing out of hand any talk of encroachment.
Half a decade later, Rainsy’s nascent Cambodia National Rescue Party is still protesting alleged encroachment at the border, but amid shifting political winds, the government’s response has been markedly different.
In past weeks, its public rhetoric on the issue has increasingly put it in line with the opposition, something observers attribute to both domestic politics and China’s rising influence.
Yesterday, following an opposition-led delegation that on Sunday brawled with Vietnamese authorities and villagers after “inspecting” a Vietnamese-built road in disputed territory in Svay Rieng, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak backed the group and condemned Vietnam’s use of force.
“It is the will of the people who love the nation,” Sopheak, quoted by local media, said of the group. “[I] oppose all uses of violence, because this violence is not an action that resolves problems, it makes problems more complicated.”
The comments represented just the latest in a visible shift in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s policy on the border issue, fanned recently by tales of alleged Vietnamese encroachment publicised by the CNRP.
In the past month, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued terse diplomatic protests to their counterparts over a military post and irrigation ponds, in Kandal and Ratanakkiri provinces, respectively, which they say are behind the yet-to-be demarcated “white line”.
Now, rather than drawing scorn, and after obtaining a copy of the constitutionally mandated map from France, Rainsy is preparing to discuss the issue with the prime minister, who “welcomes” the opportunity, according to government spokesman Phay Siphan.
Political analyst Ou Virak yesterday said the ruling party’s seeming 180 represented a “major shift of the CPP”.
“I think the shift came after the 2013 elections, after the CPP started to understand that they have to sound a bit more reasonable, particularly when it comes to nationalist politics . . . They understand it’s one of the main ingredients of the CNRP movement. If they can tackle that, they [will] probably blunt the opposition’s popularity,” Virak said.
The recent push to expel illegal Vietnamese immigrants, with more than 1,100 deported this year, should be seen in the same vein, Virak added.
Also a factor, said Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, is the rise of China, which “has reconfigured the regional balance of power and given Cambodia the backing it needs to escape the smothering embrace of its old patron" Vietnam.
Although the CNRP has long evoked historical fears of a Vietnamese takeover, Southeast Asia defence expert Carl Thayer, a professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales in Australia, dismissed the idea of central orchestration by Hanoi, seeing instead local factors behind the alleged violations.
However, far from a knee-jerk response, Hun Sen’s current tack is a strategic one, he said. “Hun Sen appears to be playing along with the opposition to see how much traction they can obtain from the general population.”
At a press conference yesterday, CNRP lawmakers called on the government to file a complaint to the International Court of Justice over the border issue.
Political commentator Ouk Serei Sopheak predicted the CPP would use the opposition to be indirectly assertive against Vietnamese encroachment.
“Allowing the CNRP to use those maps is, I think, a very clever move. At the same time you preserve the relationship [between the CPP and Vietnam] … and in time you make the CNRP and the people happy with that,” he said.
However, CPP spokesman Suos Yara yesterday denied the government’s response was politically motivated, saying “sovereignty is beyond political parties”.