As Opposition to the Regime Mounts, Cambodia’s Capital Braces for Bloodshed

Sensing change in the air, an emboldened opposition takes on strong-arm ruler Hun Sen

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TANG CHHIN SOTHY / AFP / Getty Images

Cambodian police officials stand guard as Buddhist monks and supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party chant near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh on Sept. 21, 2013

Cambodia is gearing up for more mass rallies, with up to 50,000 people slated to attend a three-day opposition demonstration beginning Wednesday.

MPs-elect for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) are boycotting the National Assembly in protest at alleged irregularities they claim cost them victory in recent general elections. CNRP leader Sam Rainsy has demanded international intervention and also threatened a general strike. The turmoil has already claimed one life, and fears are growing of further bloodshed.

The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of strongman Prime Minster Hun Sen, who has held power for 33 years, won 68 out of 123 legislative seats at the ballot box on July 28. However, the opposition claims they were defrauded out of eight seats that would have swung the balance of power. “It is frustrating [not being in parliament], but we are all united behind the boycott,” says Keo Phirum, a CNRP MP-elect for Kratie province.

Not everyone agrees that the CNRP won the most votes. Ou Virak, president of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights, says that opposition politicians “should just admit that they didn’t get enough votes” and instead “emphasize there were significant irregularities.” Allegations of vote buying, intimidation and “ghost voters” swooping in to sway borderline constituencies have also not stopped international governments from tentatively recognizing Hun Sen’s victory.

(MORE: Back From Exile, Cambodia’s Opposition Leader Brings Thousands Onto the Streets)

Nonetheless, discontent over land rights, deforestation, extractive industries and rampant corruption is running high, and a groundswell of opposition is developing as people sense that change may finally be possible. “It is remarkable, the absence of CPP supporters in public, on TV or radio,” says prominent political analyst Lao Mong Hay.

Even when CPP supporters are encountered, they may not be what they appear to be. TIME spoke to a group of Phnom Penh residents who said they festooned their homes with progovernment banners purely for the benefit for visiting officials, and that they really supported the opposition.

Buoyed by this unprecedented public movement, Sam Rainsy has entered negotiations with Hun Sen and reportedly demanded that his party receive the key post of National Assembly president plus six of the 12 committee-chairmen positions in exchange for taking their seats. Hun Sen has laughed off the demands (“Have you ever seen, anywhere in the world, a minority party holding the position of the president of parliament?” he asked reporters) but is clearly perturbed and has erected barricades around his official residence.

In the meantime, a game of brinkmanship continues. “There could be trouble during this week’s protests as our feedback from supporters is that we have been too soft so far,” one CNRP insider tells TIME. “If we compromise now, [our supporters] are never going to vote for us again.”

Some say that the CNRP is being pushed to take on Hun Sen by hard-line members of the Cambodian diaspora, who are among the party’s chief financial backers. The fear is that Hun Sen will respond by ordering a bloody crackdown, exacerbating the crisis further. “The government is so prone to making [those kind of] mistakes,” says Ou Virak, who calls the CNRP position “irresponsible” and urges compromise.

(PHOTOS: Displaced: The Cambodian Diaspora)

In this climate, many see the need for a broker to engineer a settlement acceptable to both sides. However, the most obvious candidate, King Norodom Sihamoni, has distanced himself from the crisis and also refused a CNRP request to delay the National Assembly opening while electoral irregularities were investigated. “Compared with his father, [King Sihamoni] is so weak in so many ways,” said Lao Mong Hay. (Cambodia’s revered King Norodom Sihanouk postponed parliament in 2003 amid a comparable deadlock.)

The CNRP plans to march Wednesday with a petition to the U.N. and at least seven foreign embassies calling for international intervention. However, the city authorities have only granted permission to hold a stationary demonstration of no more than 10,000 people at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, citing traffic concerns and the inability to guarantee the safety of a larger crowd.

Judging by the 20,000 people who turned up to similar protests last month, there is little chance of these conditions being followed. Troops remain a fixture on the streets of the capital, and with two bitter adversaries unwilling to compromise, a country holds its breath.

MORE: Cambodia Election Campaign Promises Little Change

11 comments
SophoanSeng
SophoanSeng

The spirit of 23 October day of Paris Peace Agreement and the people power of nonviolence are the indispensable and unstoppable force in this world.

BobH.
BobH.

Cambodian is suffering enough for many decades; they deserve better. now under the puppet government in Cambodia, Cambodian has to deal with the illegal drug trafficking; human trafficking; rampant gambling; and execution openly or discretly.  THe starvation and the desperation are so grave; the parents even selling their children off for just $25. per child.  Why the world does not see that? Hun Sen does not care about all of these.  So the Cambodian should fight and keep fighting until this one party system is out of Cambodia; Cambodian are still living under the communist regime because the Cambodian government still killing and oppressing exactly like the Pol Pot regime. No one care about Cambodian like Cambodian; so keep fighting. You will be surprise how strong you are.   

BobH.
BobH.

Born and live in Cambodia. I am desperate for basic human right and basic food.

Mr. Sam Rainsy is not racist he is just protecting and serving his people.  And he wants Hanoi, the one party communist and undemocratic Vietnam, to get out of Cambodia. Vietnam even oppressing their own people and it is worst for Cambodia who is under them. So Vietnam is the root of the problem; they even took control 100% of Lao; not different from French colony; Hanoi put their consulates in every provinces in Cambodia; when Vietnamese who lives and has illegal citizenship in Cambodia, has any problems, they go to their consulate not the Cambodian police.  the world including China should pressure Vietnam to get out of Cambodia; it can be solved and it is reachable; the United Nations should finish their job. But China is not mature enough to be a world leader; so Cambodian has to fight for themself; do not afraid because even your enemy is afraid too; keep fighting and the whole world is behind you because everyone wants peace and freedom.

BobH.
BobH.

Cambodia is not independent yet; it is still under Vietnam occupation because the current ruling party, the Hun Sen party, is installed by the Vietnamese since the early day of 1979, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.  It is still an illegimate government because Hun Sen used force to kick out the first democratic elected prime minister Ranarith; that was spnsored by the United Nations body.  the clue; Vietnamese can enter Cambodia freely without any papers, and they can stay in Cambodia as long as they like; they can even become a Cambodian citizen in one month process.  Another clue Cambodian people asking the government to create an immigration department, and the government refuse to set up one.  Cambodian, they have to have passport to enter Vietnam and have only limited time to saty in Vietnam.  The Vietnam government is an oppressive communist, one party; even their own people escape Vietnam everyday.  Sam Rainsy has the right to defend and serve his people like other leaders in the world. Vietnam is so afraid of China domination and it is a curse to them.  If China can get Cambodia get out of occupation and oppression of Vietnamese, the world would look at China differently. 

jamesfll
jamesfll

Living in Cambodia, you get quite a different perspective of the situation. 

First, one thing you'll never see mentioned in the news is that Sam Rainsy's almost entire Facebook campaign revolved around the need to eradicate Vietnamese from the country(I am told this from many of my Khmer friends and acquaintances who are supporters of Rainsy) . Sounds just like Polpot. Anyone who taps into racist sentiment certainly should not be supported by the international community. Oh, but he has ties to the Western banking cartels so surely he must be a saint. ;) ;)

Not to say Hun Sen is any better. However, the true clash you're seeing here is China vs. the West being played out in this country. Hun Sen has closer ties to the banks and government in China and Sam Rainsy likewise to those in the west(US and Europe). So who gets to fund Cambodia's development? That's the real outcome of this election. Truth is, the US and Europe is severely bankrupt. 

Anyway, stories like this portray Cambodia as a very unsafe and unruly place to live. Hardly the truth. Seems the western media is concerted in it's effort to choke the archaeological tourism industry in Cambodia by running stories like this. Not a very ethical approach considering how many world heritage sites are found here. 

suissego
suissego

The article gives a very good overview of the political situation in Cambodia after the general election last July and has raised many valuable issues regarding to the next steps taken by the parties involved. However the appeal of asking the CNRP’s party to essentially accept the outcome of the election and to work with the ruling party is not a step in the right direction for Cambodia in my opinion.

Several articles have raised the legitimacy of the results of the general election held last July in Cambodia. In spite of the effort of the CPP’s party to clam down the opposition at every level, the official results as reported by the government in place were a shock to the CPP’s party itself. Moreover, one can question the fairness of the election with the repeated refusal of the request by the CNRP’s party to form an independent committee to go over the results of the election.

The clam down of the opposition by the CPP’s party is obvious on several fronts. Repeated physical and mental threats to supporters of the opposition have been reported. No electoral campaigns by the opposition were allowed on radio and television which are owned by the families of the CPP’s party. The restrictions set by the government in place on collection of thumbprints by the CNRP’s party are another example of undemocratic way of ruling nation. If the government in place has truly the support of the Cambodian people would those restrictions be necessary? The families of the CPP’s party also hold key positions in the Cambodian government. Eighteen members of the newly elected assemblymen are “SONS” of the high level officials.

I am somewhat shocked by the repeated calls by the government in place to the Cambodian people to stay within the law while the same rules do not apply to the ruling party. In my opinion without a balance in power to keep the government in check by the opposition, the joining of the assembly by the CNRP’s party is a futile exercise and does not put Cambodia on the path to democracy. With the majority of the seats in the assembly as claimed by the CPP’s party the same ruling would continue and would lead to further deterioration of the social, political and economic situations in Cambodia.

I support an appeal to all organizations and countries dealing with Cambodian to put pressure on the government in place to respect the will and voice of the Cambodian people.

Jimmy Gau

SophoanSeng
SophoanSeng

@BobH. your observation is reflective, pragmatic and bearing reality...Peace,

lrn2wardjustice
lrn2wardjustice

@jamesfll thank you for that truth! Framing the protests with fear-inducing titles like this only perpetuate a distant, misleading assessment of the situation! May peace continue.