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How to overcome political deadlock

Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy
Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy exit a meeting at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh in September. Sreng Meng Srun

How to overcome political deadlock

Dear Editor,

I must admit that the current political deadlock is disappointing. And trust me, I don’t set the bar very high when it comes to Cambodian politics.

One hundred years of turmoil has let me down, time and time again.

While a tiny window of opportunity presented itself, just weeks following the July elections, the ship has sailed. That window closed when the CPP held its first National Assembly meeting in September, and everyone – including Japan, the US, Australia, France, Germany, South Korea, among other major donor countries – kowtowed right after.

In fact, US principal deputy assistant secretary Scot Marciel’s recent visit sent a clear message to Cambodia: It’s going to be more of the same.

Whether or not elections were tainted is for the people to decide. But the reality is that the CPP will get its way, and the CNRP has to move on.

So, in the interest of progress, allow me to offer a few recommendations to move leaders beyond the current deadlock.

A message to the CNRP
No more ultimatums: Contrary to what the CNRP may think, protests and ultimatums – though credible – aren’t the party’s biggest political weapon. It’s negotiating terms and leading reforms through the National Assembly.

Have faith in the process. A major consequence of political fit-throwing is that major government posts were filled with CPP officials, and the CNRP had no say in the matter. A well-organised, tightly run, extremely savvy CPP has much more up its sleeves, and they’re waiting for the right moment to unleash.

The CNRP can’t seriously expect the ruling party to acquiesce to their three conditions. Investigating the electoral frauds, though important, is old news, and demanding it is a waste of time. The CPP has already said it won’t.

Also unrealistic is the demand for the nine NEC officials to step down, as the CPP believes that the NEC is independent. So be it.

However, the third condition presents the most promise. Push to reform institutions from the ground up. That’s where the opposition party has the most impact, but over time, not overnight and certainly within five years.

The CPP is likely to ignore the recommendations proposed by the UN and civil society organisations, as they develop reform measures of their own. But those measures, I believe, may be taken and resubmitted wholesale with the CPP’s seal of approval.

Reform is where the CNRP has the greatest impact for change, but don’t set arbitrary deadlines.

And remember: Each time the CNRP puffs its chest, making ridiculous demands and then pulls back in a desperate attempt to negotiate, they lose credibility. Take that into consideration as they move forward. No more ultimatums.

Stop relying on the international community: The CNRP shouldn’t rely so much on the international community. It’s just setting up for disappointment.

They have their own agendas, and it’s to maintain a diplomatic presence in countries and reap benefits where they can – not to rock the diplomatic boat. So, no matter how excited certain members of the international community may get about change, pay no attention to it.

The party, and the people, have the capacity to push real change forward and must look internally for answers. That’s the essence of development, which Cambodia must achieve in the next two decades.
A message to the CPP

Focus on authentic reform: The riskiest thing the CPP can do is to conduct business as usual. Promises of reform must be met with real change, not small doses or empty promises.

Don’t be so arrogant or blind to the demographic shifts. Stop being the spin doctor of small facts into half truths. The people, especially the youths, have sent the country a clear message.

Things must change, not or else, but because the situation just sucks for the majority of the people. And they deserve better.

Create an education-workforce link: Despite a phalanx of dubious, under-qualified universities in Cambodia, there’s a growing number of very talented college-educated students who remain unemployed or under-paid.

I know because I’ve taught and worked with many of them. These youths are bright and talented and can compete with the best. But opportunities for them are rare and the process typically isn’t fair or competitive.

Focus on the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Those are the backbone of any developed society.

The new education minister seems competent. I hope he pushes reform that creates real opportunities for young people, college educated or not.

The next five years will be very interesting. Most people won’t have the tolerance or patience of years past. They will demand change, and it’s in the country’s best interest to resolve the stalemate sooner than later.

Peter Tan Keo is an independent analyst and founder of think tank Global Strategy Asia. He was educated at Harvard University, The University of Chicago and is completing a doctorate from Columbia University. His research examines post-conflict reconstruction, education and youth empowerment in fledgling democracies.

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