Newspaper article International New York Times

Cambodia's Political Crisis

Newspaper article International New York Times

Cambodia's Political Crisis

Article excerpt

The Hun Sen government cracks down, but the opposition won't rise to the occasion.

Cambodian politics is in the midst of an ugly crisis. Prime Minister Hun Sen, after officially winning the 2013 election by just a narrow margin and facing months of massive anti-government protests, seemed to have regained control. Yet in recent weeks the authorities have cracked down on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, C.N.R.P.

For a prime minister who has mastered a form of kleptocratic electoral authoritarianism during three decades in power, the resort to violence, intimidation and judicial harassment betrays Hun Sen's great anxiety about the prospects of his party in the next general election in 2018.

On Oct. 26, two C.N.R.P. parliamentarians were pulled out of their cars outside the National Assembly and badly beaten by thugs while the police looked on. The same day a mob descended on the house of the C.N.R.P.'s deputy leader, Kem Sokha, pelting it with rocks while his wife cowered indoors. A few days later, Kem Sokha was unseated as first vice-president of the National Assembly.

On Nov. 13, an arrest warrant was issued against the C.N.R.P.'s leader, Sam Rainsy, who was traveling out of the country, in connection with a 2008 defamation case brought by the foreign minister. Sam Rainsy was soon stripped of his position as National Assembly representative, and of parliamentary immunity. Several more dubious charges have been brought against him since then; he now faces at least 17 years in prison. He has not returned to Cambodia.

A former royalist born into a once-privileged political family who likes to call attention to Hun Sen's Khmer Rouge past, Sam Rainsy has been a mainstay of Cambodia's democratic opposition since the mid-1990s. He has spent years in self-imposed exile to avoid politically motivated charges, returning shortly before the 2013 election only after receiving a royal pardon.

Hun Sen's strategy seems to be to keep Sam Rainsy away rather than imprison him and risk turning him into a democracy icon like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But Sam Rainsy has yet to call the bluff. On Nov. 14, just after the first arrest warrant, he told hundreds of Cambodians gathered in South Korea, "Cambodia is my homeland -- I absolutely must go back and rescue our nation," adding, "If I must die, let it be." Two days later, he postponed his return indefinitely.

Having failed again to rise to the occasion, he now tours foreign capitals complaining about Hun Sen's abuses of power. Meanwhile back home the C.N.R.P. has yet to establish a viable, comprehensive policy platform. Worse, at times the party unabashedly stirs up Cambodians' historical animosity toward Vietnam and the ethnic Vietnamese population of Cambodia.

Cambodians deserve better. They made clear in 2013 that they wanted change, and some took great risks to say so. Armed with smartphones and a new political fervor, they poured into the streets during the campaign. Then, after credible allegations of election fraud, they challenged the narrow victory of the ruling Cambodian People's Party by rallying unprecedented demonstrations organized by the C. …

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