In the lead up to the 2018 Cambodian federal election, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is distancing itself from the short-lived ‘culture of dialogue’ to return to their traditional system of ‘lawfare’. Fearing that the landslide opposition victory in Myanmar last month could inspire Cambodians to demand change in their own country, dissenting political voices are being silenced with increasing frequency and on highly questionable legal grounds.
The first to be targeted have been members of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). On 13 November, opposition leader Sam Rainsy was informed that the Phnom Penh Municipal Court had issued a warrant for his arrest over a 2011 defamation conviction that had previously been pardoned by the King.
The conviction was the result of comments Rainsy made accusing Foreign Minister Hor Namhong of collaborating with the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, an accusation he has since publicly repeated. On 16 November Sam Rainsy had his status as a lawmaker, and thus his parliamentary immunity, revoked by the National Assembly, ahead of his potential arrest.
At the time of the Municipal Court decision, however, the opposition leader was on a tour of Asia and subsequently announced that he was delaying his return to Cambodia indefinitely. Speaking from South Korea, Rainsy described the situation as a ‘constitutional coup’ on the part of the CPP and part of a broader system of rule by ‘lawfare’ that has long characterised Cambodian politics.
The situation then escalated when the Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued a summons relating to a separate case involving an allegedly doctored document about a contentious section of the Cambodian-Vietnamese border shown on the CNRP leader’s popular Facebook page. Sam Rainsy is accused of being “an accomplice in the act of faking public documents” and two other CNRP members have so far been arrested over the incident.
On 22 November, Rainsy flew to France where he has since been successful in lobbying the European Parliament to pass a resolution condemning the government’s treatment of the opposition, with some calling for a suspension of European aid to Cambodia.
The opposition leader has a house in France and has previously spent several years in self-imposed exile there. It seems likely that the current situation could devolve into another protracted period of absence for Rainsy, who only returned to Cambodia in 2012 after almost four years of exile.
Recently the opposition leader has made a number of public comparisons between himself and Aung San Suu Kyi, whose dramatic win in the historic Myanmar polls this month has been seen by some as a sign of a desire for broader change in the Indo-Chinese region. Following the National League for Democracy's (NLD) landslide victory, Rainsy declared that the “wind of freedom that is blowing throughout the world will also reach Cambodia in the very near future”, and a photo of a CNRP rally juxtaposed with a NLD rally was widely circulated on social media.
However if Rainsy wishes to resemble the iconic Suu Kyi, he will find that his periods of self-imposed exile in his house in France yield significantly less sympathy than her 15 years of house arrest. Rainsy’s history of fleeing the country when targeted by the government undermines his ability to present himself as a viable alternative to ‘strongman’ Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The leader of the opposition is not the only prominent voice to be targeted lately. On 26 October, after attending a session at the National Assembly, two CNRP members were dragged from their cars and brutally beaten, seemingly at random. The beatings took place following a CPP protest demanding the removal of Kem Sokha, Vice President of the National Assembly and Deputy Leader of the CNRP, who has since been removed from his position in a manner legal scholars have described as unconstitutional.
While in fact we are closer to the previous election than the next, the Prime Minister is taking no chances. The 2013 elections were heavily criticised, particularly by the CNRP who claim that CPP-appointed National Election Committee rigged the outcome and boycotted Parliament for almost one year in protest.
Two thirds of Cambodians are under the age of 30, and have never known any Prime Minister other than Hun Sen. The PM capitalises on this by repeatedly claiming that he is the only person standing between Cambodia and another brutal civil war. However, young Cambodians are increasingly well educated and politically active, and this narrative does not hold much weight with them.
Whether or not Sam Rainsy returns to Cambodia will play a big part in how the public view the CNRP ahead of the 2017 communal and 2018 federal elections. It is clear that the 2018 could be a historic moment for Cambodia, but so much hangs on how willing Sam Rainsy is to take after his professed Burmese counterpart.
Caitlin McCaffrie has an interest in South East Asian regional politics and human rights. She is currently based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
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Image credit: Luck Forsyth (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)