Showdown in Cambodia: Opposition Intensify Protests After Disputed Election

Prime Minster Hun Sen may face constitutional hurdles as opposition intensifies and negotiations prove fruitless

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Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters

Buddhist monks, who are supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, during a protest in Phnom Penh, Sept. 16, 2013.

Cambodian strongman Hun Sen extended his 28-year tenure as prime minister by a further five years on Tuesday, unanimously elected by his fellow Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lawmakers. However, he took the helm amid a boycott of the legislature by the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), which is protesting electoral irregularities. As analysts debate whether the 61-year-old former Khmer Rouge battalion commander can constitutionally form an administration in the face of the boycott, another crackdown on peaceful protesters is stoking fears of further bloodshed.

King Norodom Sihamoni swore in 68 CPP legislators at the Royal Palace on Monday, while 63 CNRP party members — comprising 55 elected lawmakers and eight candidates who claim they were defrauded of their rightful seats — protested by holding an alternative ceremony at the historic Angkor temple complex in the country’s north.

“We denounce [this] constitutional coup, because the CPP are clinging onto power by resorting to blatantly violating the constitution after manipulating the election,” CNRP leader Sam Rainy told TIME. “This is a return to the one-party communist system prior to the 1991 Peace Paris Accord on Cambodia.”

Hun Sen, however, accused the opposition leader of demanding leading positions — including National Assembly president plus chairmen of six of 12 committees — in order for the CNRP to take their seats. “Have you ever seen, anywhere in the world, a minority party holding the position of the president of parliament?” asked the prime minister.

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Hun Sen’s party has held power since the start of Vietnamese occupation in 1979, and closely controls every aspect of political, judicial and social life. The CNRP claims that widespread irregularities — including “ghost” (or absentee) voters, incomplete electoral lists and media manipulation — have invalidated the CPP’s latest victory.

Others say that the opposition boycott of the National Assembly poses a credibility crisis for the government, whether it won the election fairly or not. Ou Virak, president of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights, believes that Hun Sen’s new government “can legally more forward but, regarding legitimacy, he is taking on a greater risk.” He adds that the longer the current impasse continues the more danger there is of unrest.

Phnom Penh has witnessed sporadic violence, including the death of one protester, since the controversial July 28 ballot result was upheld by the Constitutional Court earlier this month. Protestors and opposition supporters are spurred by a litany of social ills — including rampant corruption, land grabs and human rights violations — as well as the desire for more equal society and a functioning justice system.

Sam Rainsy, who only returned to the country from exile ten days before the polls, says he expects “tensions to rise over the next few days and weeks.”

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According to Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International researcher for Cambodia, a peaceful vigil at Wat Phnom on Sunday was subject to a “really brutal, vicious attack by civilians working in coordination with the security forces” that resulted in four people hospitalized, among them a woman in her 70s. Military personnel currently block main roads into the capital, supposedly to head off an influx of opposition supporters.

Negotiations between both sides took place last week — including a five-hour session on Monday — but no progress has been made other than a pledge to help rein in the worst excesses of violence.

“I hope that both sides can come together again around the table and strike a deal — that would be the best scenario we can hope for,” says Ou Virak, adding that Hun Sen has shown he is susceptible to international pressure in the past. Similarly, Abbott hopes “foreign governments can really be firm and put some pressure on the [Cambodian] government to not let this escalate.”

The alternative, Abbott says, is a situation in which “more public pressure for change” leads to a worsening crackdown. “The status quo just won’t do any more,” he says.

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