Under Western pressure, Hun Sen hints at a lighter touch
Leader's government now promises judicial reform, freer media and even the rehabilitation of certain banned opposition politicians in a last ditch bid to avoid US and EU sanctions
When Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen spoke at the United Nations General Assembly in September, just months after his ruling party won an election deemed by the international community as illegitimate, his message to the gathered dignitaries was one of fire and fury.
In the speech, the tough-talking leader warned against any outside “interference” in Cambodia’s politics while saying any criticism of the poll result, in which his ruling party won all 125 of the National Assembly’s seats, was a “serious assault on the will of the Cambodian people.”
Now, as the European Union and United States weigh sanctions in response to the move away from multi-party democracy that threaten to torpedo the Cambodian economy, such choler is turning into appeasement.
In recent weeks, Hun Sen’s government has promised judicial reform, to allow civil-society to function independently and ease restrictions on media outlets, all viewed by analysts as sops to Western demands.
More significantly, his government has signaled a possible compromise with some members of the banned opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, a move no doubt calibrated to avoid sanctions while maintaining his CPP’s ironclad grip on power.
The CNRP was barred from taking part in the July election after being forcibly dissolved by court-order in late 2017 on still unproven charges it was plotting a “color revolution” aimed at overthrowing the CPP-led government.
The CPP-dominated National Assembly revealed this week it will review a ban on 118 CNRP politicians that was enforced in November 2017. Dozens of senior CNRP members who were banned from engaging in politics for five years fled Cambodia last year to escape possible arrest and now live in exile.
Leng Peng Long, general secretary of the National Assembly, was quoted by local media as saying the move “aims to strengthen democracy, the rule of law and enhance the spirit of national unity.”
The ministry of foreign affairs, meanwhile, released on Monday a statement titled “Future Steps to Strengthen Democracy and the Political Space”, the clearest sign yet the government is on a campaign to assuage its foreign critics.
The statement also promised that the government will promote “genuine partnership” with nongovernmental organizations and trade unions, both of which have faced repression in the past year. The CPP government “always cherishes promotion of freedom of press and freedom of expression,” it states.
On Tuesday, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng provided more details on the possible truce with the CNRP’s banned politicians. According to him, the “majority” of these 118 CNRP politicians have respected the court decision. It would seem, then, that the lifting of the ban would only apply to the CNRP politicians that the government thinks have remained quiet and bowed to its authority.
Since most of the CNRP’s senior leadership, including figures like party vice president Mu Sochua, have spent the last year touring the globe to denounce the government’s actions, it is likely that they won’t be among the majority identified by Sar Kheng.
Sar Kheng also said on Tuesday that the independent English-language Cambodia Daily newspaper, which was closed last year after being handed a US$6.3 million tax bill, can reopen if it pays its debt. He also claimed that Radio Free Asia (RFA), which closed its local office in September 2017 citing official intimidation, wasn’t forced to shutter its activities and could restart them.
Two RFA journalists, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, were arrested in November 2017 on espionage-related charges of “illegally collecting information for a foreign source,” and were released on bail in September with the charges still pending.
“It’s no surprise at all for the ruling party has taken this stance with the current situation,” says Noan Sereiboth, a political blogger and frequent contributor to the youth-centered group Politikoffee. “It has become a habit of the ruling party to play with the West to improve the situation, due to [the] consequences of its activities.”
The US has already imposed visa bans and cut aid to Cambodia, while two bills currently being debated by the US Senate could impose significant financial sanctions on CPP officials, military leaders and Hun Sen’s family.
These would include asset freezes and restrictions on US companies from doing business with targeted individuals, a potential problem for Hun Sen’s family, members of which are known to have exclusive partnerships with US firms.
Meanwhile, the EU began the process to remove Cambodia from its preferential trade deal, the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, in November. Because the vast majority of Cambodian exports are sold in European markets, additional tariffs could ruin many export-driven sectors, including the garment sector, the largest contributor to Cambodia’s gross domestic product
Analysts say its removal from the EBA scheme could cripple Cambodia’s wider economy, affecting the livelihoods of as many as two million people. Although fully removing Cambodia from the EBA scheme could take years, the first steps are likely to take effect within the next six months unless Phnom Penh changes it ways.
“Both the EU and the US are keen on trying to tilt Cambodia back from its current close ties with China, but at the same time human rights groups in the EU and the US have successfully lobbied local politicians to distance themselves from Hun Sen,” says Paul Chambers, a political analyst at the College of Asean Community Studies at Naresuan University in Thailand.
The question, then, is whether the US and EU believe the Cambodian government’s recent promises to lift political restrictions and allow civil society to operate more freely will be enough to forestall the threatened sanctions.
One clear red-line the US and EU have drawn is the release of Kem Sokha, the CNRP’s president who was arrested in September 2017 on treason charges and remains in pre-trial detention at his Phnom Penh home.
Many analysts reckon that the government wants to end the situation by holding a show trial, convicting him of the charges, and then swiftly giving him a royal pardon.
The CPP government has repeatedly said that it doesn’t control the courts so it cannot influence the process, though analysts are skeptical in light of the fact that the Supreme Court’s president sits on the CPP’s elite permanent committee.
“Talk is cheap. Hun Sen said he abolished fake democracy, so why the change in direction? It’s window-dressing at this point. It’s always been. Even allowing the 118 [CNRP politicians] to engage in politics is [a] half-measure, what about allowing the CNRP to exist?” says Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.
“Allowing people to engage in the body politic is very different from actually enabling democracy,” he added.
Indeed, the one issue the government has repeatedly said it won’t entertain is the full reinstatement of the CNRP as a political entity. It remains unclear if the US or EU think the party’s reinstatement is a red-line in negotiations.
The CNRP almost won the 2013 general election, taking 44% of the popular vote. Moreover, it appears that most Cambodians still want the CNRP to be the main oppositional force. After July’s one-sided elections, Cambodia is for all sakes and purposes a one-party state.
Although the government has boasted of high voter-turnout, as many as two million Cambodians either didn’t vote or spoilt their ballots, representing roughly a quarter of all registered voters. The second- and third-placed parties received fewer votes than the number of spoilt ballots.
By allowing some of the 118 CNRP politicians banned last year to return to politics while refusing to reinstate the CNRP as a political entity, there would be pressure on them to create a new party, which would almost certainly fracture the opposition movement even more than it already is.
There are also rumors that the CNRP’s 3000-plus commune officials elected at last year’s local election could be allowed to take back their posts. But because candidates and politicians cannot legally be independents, they would also need to form a new party.
As this new pressure mounts, the CNRP risks destroying itself from within. The party was formed in 2012 after a merger of Sam Rainsy’s eponymous party and Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party, but has always been divided between the two groups.
In recent weeks, these tensions have exploded into the open as Kem Sokha’s supporters say Sam Rainsy, the CNRP’s former president, is trying to take control over the party once again. At a recent CNRP conference held in America, Sam Rainsy was named acting president, despite the lawyers and family of Kem Sokha stating he opposed the conference.
“We would consider any opinion supposedly issued by president Kem Sokha – who is being held hostage by Hun Sen – as reflecting his true will only when he recovers full freedom and when he can publicly speak for himself,” Sam Rainsy said in response to Asia Times’ questions on the intra-party controversy.
“The CNRP is already a ticking time bomb,” says Sophal Ear. “It has always been the dream of the ruling party to split the CNRP and it looks like just as the international pressure is working, the CNRP is drifting into two lanes officially.”
Some now suggest that if the CNRP’s cause looks hopeless, then the US and EU may focus their attention on the government easing restrictions over civil-society and the media, which are far easier and less risky for the CPP than political reform.
But it is still far from certain that the CNRP will implode. Indeed, now as apparent acting president of the party, Sam Rainsy might be able to fuel even more Western hostility towards the CPP government through overseas lobbying.
Hun Sen is now bidding to counter that campaign through conciliatory measures, but he will need to deliver to be taken seriously. Many observers recognize that contradictions come easily to a protean party formed and still controlled by Khmer Rouge defectors.
The government said July’s general election was one of the most democratic in Cambodia’s history, a “victory for the democratic process,” according to Hun Sen. Yet just months later his foreign ministry has officially recognized that Cambodian democracy needs to be strengthened.
It’s not clear yet that Hun Sen’s heart is into reconciliation. Indeed, just last week he said his government “is not afraid to kill people” and that if many CNRP officials hadn’t fled Cambodia last year, “you would already have had your funeral.” Now, it appears, his government welcomes many of their returns.