Monday, October 26 marked a new low in Cambodian politics, as two opposition lawmakers, Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Saphea, were hauled from their cars and savagely beaten by thugs.
This shocking and deplorable act of violence occurred directly after mass protests outside the National Assembly building, as over a thousand people called for the ousting of Kem Sokha – vice president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) – as vice president of the National Assembly.
Just one day previously, Prime Minister Hun Sen, stung by opposition protests greeting him on an official visit to Paris and evidently still smarting, made the timely and disingenuous suggestion that a similar but bigger protest could take place in Phnom Penh.
Sokha had accepted the role in good faith as part of the post-election political settlement. After a short and sweet “Culture of Dialogue”, the culture of violence has returned with a vengeance.
The military then entered the fray, as deputy commander Kun Kim declared that Kem Sokha must be ousted “for the sake of national security and prosperity”.
These words confirm what everyone already knows – that rather than being independent, impartial and under civilian control, as it should be, the military is partisan and does the bidding of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Only last month, a four-star general brazenly announced to the media that the military belongs to the CPP and is only loyal to them, while Hun Sen himself recently claimed that Military Commander Pol Saroeun and National Police Chief Neth Savoeun would not accept being replaced after a CNRP victory.
These words are also part of an escalating and dangerous rhetoric that threatens war at the slightest hint of any political threat. Indeed, Hun Sen has often claimed that a CNRP victory in the 2018 elections will lead to war and a repeat of the atrocities and depravities of the Khmer Rouge era.
Should the CNRP win in 2018, a peaceful transition is looking more and more far-fetched – precisely the impression Hun Sen is trying to create. In light of Cambodia’s bloody and traumatic past, he knows that, given a choice between peace and democracy, Cambodians will bite their tongues and opt for peace.
He will not be as blase as he was in 2013. Despite eye-watering election irregularities and an uneven campaign playing field, the CNRP pushed the CPP right to the edge – first at the polling stations and then on the streets of Phnom Penh – as they surfed a tide of growing inequality, gross human rights violations, and a mobilised youth population armed with smart phones and innovative social media apps.
Although the next elections are almost three years away, the CPP live in fear of losing their support, their wealth and their way of life.
This week’s rising tensions are part of that narrative, and represent an opening gambit in Hun Sen’s high-stakes election strategy. In Cambodia’s zero-sum, winner-takes-all politics, the fear is that they are only the tip of the iceberg.
Ou Virak is president of the Future Forum policy research consultancy, while Robert Finch is the forum’s policy director.