Phnom Penh, Cambodia – When Prime Minister Hun Sen and the leader of the opposition sat down last week to sign a joint accord paving the way to end a yearlong political deadlock, the international and business communities let out a collective sigh of relief.
The EU and Japan released letters of support in quick succession, while the UN’s special envoy to Cambodia offered “congratulations” to both parties and encouraged the “Cambodian people to enjoy a moment of celebration”.
After a year of protracted demonstrations and political unrest (and just after a week that saw eight opposition officials thrown in prison and dozens injured at an opposition rally) the waters had calmed.
“I think this is a historical opportunity for the country to move forward on healthier ground. [We will see] a balanced system for the first time,” said Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president Sam Rainsy.
The key to the seven-point agreement issued on July 22, is a new National Election Commission (NEC). A ruling-party-aligned body, the NEC has come under fire for failing to ensure free and fair elections. After last year’s vote, the anniversary of which is today, the CNRP accused the NEC of helping rig the election in the ruling party’s favour and called for recounts and re-elections – neither of which were granted.
Cambodia’s parliament also appointed Rainsy as a lawmaker on Monday, moving another step closer to ending the political deadlock.
Long-standing political impasse
Though the opposition had won an unprecedented 44.4 percent of the popular vote (to the ruling party’s 48.5) and 55 of 123 parliamentary seats, the party stood firm on its charges and boycotted its seats, setting into motion the longest political deadlock in Cambodia’s history.
Peaceful mass demonstrations rocked the capital, causing increased uneasiness within the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. When garment strikers began holding concurrent wage protests, the government reacted with growing pressure and, after strikes turned violent, responded with blunt force in January.
The event went beyond expectations, and elements within the CPP took advantage of the violence to arrest and detain those seven MPs-elect and an activist.
At least six people were killed by armed security-forces, and dozens more injured and arrested. The incidents were followed by an authoritarian clampdown on freedom of expression, including opposition demonstrations.
Rallies held in subsequent months were often broken up violently, regardless of size, atmosphere, or potential for agitation. The situation continued unchanged for months until exactly one week before the deal was broached, when a rally ended with protesters fighting back against the guards sent to violently break them up, injuring more than 30.
Though opposition officials could be seen rescuing guards from the melee and even physically preventing them from being hit, the government seized on the opportunity – arresting seven lawmakers-elect and an activist and pinning them with insurrection and incitement charges that could bring sentences upwards of 30 years imprisonment.
It is in this context that the deal – bearing scant resemblance to the CNRP’s original litany of demands – was struck.
“The event went beyond expectations, and elements within the CPP took advantage of the violence to arrest and detain those seven MPs-elect and an activist. I think it created an opportunity for the CPP to try to destroy the CNRP if it continued that sort of organised street protests… [The opposition] reached a ceiling, it cannot go further, otherwise there would be a negative view,” said Lao Mong Hay, a Cambodian political analyst.
A new era of reform?
Despite the circumstances surrounding the deadlock agreement, Mong Hay said he was truly optimistic it would spawn a new era of reform.
“What I can see is an opportunity for the opposition party to affect change through the parliamentary arena and within the parliament,” he said. “I think this is a new, rare opportunity.”
Political scientist Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales who focuses on Southeast Asia, called the agreement “the most promising political development” since the election and questioned why it had come so late.
“Sam Rainsy should have taken his place in the National Assembly much earlier,” he wrote in an email. “If Cambodia is to transition from the present low-quality democracy under the Hun Sen regime to a more democratic system, the opposition must learn to play the parliamentary game.”
But while members of both parties, analysts, and foreign governments have commended the move, many of the party’s faithful said they were supremely disappointed by the outcome.
“The incident on July 15 was a trick by both parties because the agreement between them was unusually fast,” said Soeurn Chantha, a 52-year-old foreman who said he regularly attended the party’s rallies over the past year. “They played politics just for their interest, not for the sake of the nation and people.”
He and others interviewed termed the situation a “show”, one set up by the top leaders to put an end to the deadlock at long last with minimal fallout from supporters. The result came as a blow to supporters who had spent the better part of a year protesting (sometimes at great financial and personal cost), putting themselves in harm’s way, or simply being told over and over by opposition leaders that there would be no backing down.
It's the first time that we have a united democratic opposition - two parties of approximately equal force.
Thaong Sobin, a motorbike-taxi driver, said he was concerned the agreement would see the opposition going the way of Funcinpec – a royalist party which took seats in 2004 following a yearlong deadlock, only to see their power stripped away and the party eventually dwindle down to nothing.
“I am unhappy with [the CNRP] since they said they will join the National Assembly and it will be the government riding the horse and holding the reins.”
Both Thayer and Mong Hay said they were doubtful the party could be picked apart at this point, while the party, for its part, has called for patience, and vowed to use its position to better fight on behalf of the people.
“This is an unprecedented situation, and you cannot establish what you saw in the past with the future,” said Rainsy, brushing aside concerns that the opposition would be eventually bested by the ruling party.
“It’s the first time that we have a united democratic opposition – two parties of approximately equal force. Before, the CPP could do what they wanted in the face of a fragmented opposition. Now, we have reached a new level in which the two forces are at least equal forces.”
Work in progress
A day after meeting with the king, Rainsy said the party would not take its seats until the details of the new election commission had been hammered out. In the agreement, each party selects four members with a ninth agreed upon by all parliamentarians.
“It is a real test, a determining test before we actually take our seats,” he said. “It is a guarantee that things will work in an acceptable manner.”
On Monday, the parties reportedly agreed, naming prominent human rights advocate Pung Chhiv Kek as a possible ninth member.
Ahead of the official sign-off and swearing in, much of Cambodia waits with baited breath. In the weeks ahead of the election, pundits predicted a slight dip for the CPP, a smooth transition, and a continuation of the authoritarian stability that had marked much of the past decade. Before July 28, 2013, political protests were all but non-existent; even a public gripe against the ruling party was exceedingly rare.
Whether the ruling party is truly abashed or whether it has put into place a savvy political trap remains to be seen. But what is clear is that some type of change within the society has occurred.
“Even though we have different views, we have to work together to tackle corruption and the unproductive ways of the past,” said Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, calling the opposition “a good partner”.
Siphan said that the government had even gone so far as to put into place “a mechanism to transfer powers” should the next election veer away from the ruling party.
“We respect it. Whatever [the results] we respect it.”
Additional reporting by Mech Dara