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Cambodian Opposition Growing Into Powerful Force

by Joshua Kurlantzick
September 9, 2013

A Buddhist monk records the speech of one of the leaders of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) during a rally in Phnom Penh on September 7, 2013. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters) A Buddhist monk records the speech of one of the leaders of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) during a rally in Phnom Penh on September 7, 2013. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters)

Over the weekend, Cambodia’s opposition coalition, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), held a large rally in Phnom Penh to protest the national election commission’s ratifying of the results of this summer’s election. The national election commission—which is controlled by the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)—essentially said that all the results of the summer national election were valid, that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP had won 68 seats in Parliament, enough to form a government, as compared to 55 for the CNRP. Of course, 55 seats was an enormous gain for the opposition compared to previous parliaments, but opposition leaders Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha, and others claim that the CNRP really won a majority of the seats, and only has been allotted 55 due to massive irregularities, fraud, and the toothlessness of the national election commission. The opposition brought over 20,000 people to Phnom Penh this weekend to protest the election commission’s ratification of results and to call, once again, for an international inquiry into the election results.

The turnout was extremely impressive for Cambodia, but more importantly the CNRP showed that, unlike in the past, it would not play into Hun Sen’s hands, giving the prime minister the opening he needed to crush or co-opt the opposition. Hun Sen’s party clearly was preparing for some acts of violence during the rally, which they could use as a justification to crack down. According to the Wall Street Journal, “CPP officials have repeatedly discouraged Saturday’s protest, warning of potential civil unrest and pressing the CNRP to pursue its claims through bilateral talks … Police officials said tens of thousands of security personnel were deployed across Phnom Penh to maintain order.” At various points in the past, Cambodian opposition leaders have given Hun Sen this pretext, by overseeing violence, most notably when former Hun Sen adversary Prince Norodom Ranariddh in 1997, anticipating a Hun Sen attack, tried to launch his own attack on Hun Sen’s forces; Hun Sen responded by crushing Ranariddh’s forces and, eventually, destroying his party. At other times over the past two decades, Hun Sen has emasculated the opposition by co-opting its main leaders, a strategy he used with Ranariddh and, for a time, Sam Rainsy.

But the opposition no longer seems so easy to handle. Unlike in the past, when opposition leaders fought openly among themselves and frequently turned to Hun Sen’s side after receiving rewards of patronage and appointments, now the opposition is more unified- Hun Sen, a wily survivor, surely has already tried to co-opt Rainsy or other leaders this time around, but they have not given in. In part, the opposition has not given in because it knows it has Cambodia’s young, urban population on its side, giving the CNRP—or whatever comes out of it—great hope for the future, even if CPP remains in power for now; Rainsy and especially Kem Sokha also seem to have matured as leaders, understanding that they have to keep their coalition together if they are to sustain a challenge to Hun Sen.  In addition, as in the rally this weekend, the opposition has vocally called for nonviolent tactics, and taken every effort to stop CNRP supporters from even scuffling with police – when police stepped up to protesters this weekend, demonstrators gave policemen food and other gifts, and the opposition also enlisted many monks to participate in the demonstrations to keep order.

Next move, Hun Sen.

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