The war is over, but in the political battle that remains, laws are an effective weapon

Prime Minister Hun Sen leads a CPP campaign rally in Phnom Penh in 2017.
Prime Minister Hun Sen leads a CPP campaign rally in Phnom Penh in 2017. Heng Chivoan

The war is over, but in the political battle that remains, laws are an effective weapon

Twenty-five years ago today, when reporter Sara Colm wrote the lead story of The Phnom Penh Post’s first edition, violence reigned supreme. Cambodians campaigning ahead of the 1993 elections, and those preparing to vote, were met with threats, intimidation or death. 

The Khmer Rouge remained armed and entrenched in their border strongholds. Factions opposing Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) held their territories on the border. The CPP-controlled state security apparatus was regularly accused of abuses against opponents. 

The United Nations peacekeeping force, a year into its ambitious project to restore Cambodia to a multiparty democracy, was called upon to expedite an election law. The parties, Colm reported, desperately wanted some certainty amid this turbulence, risk and conflict. 

Flash forward to today. 

Record numbers of Cambodians voted last month in an election organised by a bipartisan National Election Committee (NEC), reformed in 2015 as part of a deal between the CPP and the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), to rewrite the country’s election laws. 

It was law, and not guns, that underpinned the 2017 commune election, which was roundly hailed as one of the smoothest and best-run ballots in the country’s history. But it was also laws – and more specifically the enforcement of laws – that meant for the CPP, guns were not as necessary as they once were to coerce, threaten and attack challenges to their power. 

An election cannot be judged on polling day alone, and in the four years that have passed since the 2013 national election, a certain pattern has emerged.

More than 20 opposition members and critics have been locked up on charges widely considered trumped-up, including a member of the NEC with a track record of credibility and criticism. The CNRP’s president, Sam Rainsy, was forced into self-imposed exile and had to step down to avoid his many convictions being used to disband his party under hastily-approved legal amendments by the CPP.

Would-be opposition protesters have been threatened by the military, ostensibly neutral under the laws which govern it, while outspoken political commentator and frequent government critic Kem Ley was shot dead in broad daylight by an ex-soldier as he drank his morning coffee at a Phnom Penh gas station. Many immediately labelled the killing a political assassination.

Even the killer’s mother suggested her son was a hired gun, and the killer’s purported motive of anger over an unpaid debt drew swift and immediate scepticism from most quarters.

An opaque investigation led to a swift trial. Prosecutors in the case ignored glaring inconsistencies in the killer’s story, which was accepted unchallenged by judges.

Discussing a deal done by the CPP and CNRP to get opposition members released from prison last year, one lawyer privately commented that the use of the law rather than violence to attack the opposition was itself a sign of progress – albeit one in which morals must be swallowed, and faith placed in the later generations to enforce the legal code impartially. 

Yet many young Cambodians, who did not experience violence and war like their parents, are unlikely to be as satisfied in the short term by the promise that their children may see less of the double standards and legal manipulation that characterises the judiciary under the CPP.

So next year, when the millions of young voters cast their ballots for the party and people they want to lead Cambodia into its future, how will the ruling party react? History shows that the country’s laws are flexible and that violence is always lurking around the corner.

Several months after Colm’s story in 1992, Cambodians, despite the risk to life and limb, also turned out to vote in huge numbers. Although the majority chose the royalist Funcinpec party, the CPP threatened secession and still wrangled their way into power.

Whatever the result of next year’s ballot, the NEC and the new election laws will face their biggest test yet and the signs so far have not been great. Campaigning before June’s commune vote, Prime Minister Hun Sen said he would relinquish power one day – to another CPP leader.

Today many of the laws as they appear on the books may be better, but the institutions that enforce and implement them remain firmly in the grip of the CPP. So while the violence of the past may have receded, the uncertainty the parties complained of in 1992 remains.

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