Whither Cambodia after political deadlock is fractured?

Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) and CNRP leader Sam Rainsy perform for the cameras.  (Source: Khmer Times)

Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) and CNRP leader Sam Rainsy perform for the cameras, but their agreement is wanting. (Source: Khmer Times)

It is hard to consider as anything but a sellout the opposition party’s agreement last week to take its seats in the National Assembly after a year-long deadlock.

The Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) had boycotted the parliament following the July 2013 election, which the opposition had justifiably branded as rigged.

The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s continuing strong-arm tactics over the past year (and many years before) persuaded CNRP President Sam Rainsy to declare victory and cave in, perhaps pointlessly.

Implicitly acknowledging that he had capitulated to a far greater power than the opposition ever could muster by taking to the streets, Rainsy publicly conceded that the deal he made with the devil was his only choice for ending the impasse.  At the same time, however, the globally gallivanting Rainsy turned his back on the large minority faction in his party.

Kem Sokha (left) and Sam Rainsy at Sunday's event.

Kem Sokha (left) and Sam Rainsy at Sunday’s event in a Phnom Penh park.  (Source: Cambodge Info)

That the leader of the CNRP faction, Kem Sokha, had been long silent about the pact is proof of the party’s vulnerability and thus its weakening as a collective force against the Cambodian People’s Party of Hun Sen, who has had an iron grip on the nation for nearly three decades.

Behind the scenes, Sokha did consent to be appointed a top parliamentary official, First Vice President of the National Assembly, so there obviously has been an effort to keep the CNRP from splintering.  Whether that initiative will work in the end is an open question: The evidence is mounting that Sokha’s supporters have been quietly demanding appeasement even as attempts to do so could result in the collapse of the agreement between the CPP and CNRP.

It was, after all, Sokha’s objection to an earlier informal agreement that doomed it before it could be formalized.  That accord would have advanced the next national election, in 2018, from July only to February of the same year.

Last Tuesday’s agreement sidestepped the entire question, leaving it to negotiations that have no hope of allowing the election to happen significantly sooner than scheduled, if sooner or at all.

Rainsy met with Hun Sen the week after a bloody protest led to the imprisonment of CNRP lawmakers on charges that they were responsible for violence at Freedom Park, where a ban on free assembly has been enforced by coils of concertina wire and cordons of special police.  A confrontation between thousands of demonstrators left 37 government-paid security personnel injured, six seriously.

The CNRP’s seven lawmakers and a leading activist were charged with incitement, basically encouraging a riot, and jailed without bail in notoriously overcrowded prisons well known for their inhumane conditions.

Thus did Rainsy, who jetted back from having spent a month in rural France, clearly believe his hand had been forced.

CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua celebrates with supporters following her release from a prison hours after political deadlock ended.  (Source: Khmer Times)

CNRP’s Mu Sochua celebrates with supporters following her release from a prison after the long political deadlock ended. (Source: Khmer Times)

No one was shocked to learn that the lawmakers were released within a few hours of the agreement having been signed between Hun Sen and Rainsy, both of whom emerged from their negotiations with handshakes and smiles for photographers.

That they were released so suddenly, thanks to a compliant investigative judge, is proof positive that the notion of an independent judiciary is false. 

Among those freed was protest leader Mu Sochua, the CNRP’s head of pubic affairs, who subsequently referred to a “rotten justice system.”  A government official has said the lawmakers would be given “retroactive immunity” by whatever unexplained contortion of the law enabled that feat.

But Rainsy got virtually nothing in return for surrendering the demands that he had embraced on behalf of his supporters in the CNRP — for example, that early election date and a National Election Commission that no longer would be the ruling party’s puppet in its monitoring of vote results.

Although the CPP agreed to divide eight of the nine seats equally in a reconstituted commission between its members and the CNRP’s, both sides said the crucial independent ninth member would be chosen within a parliamentary context.  Guess which party has a majority of the National Assembly.  Guess, too, what the agreement indicates will happen should there be no consensus on an independent member.

The possibility of achieving such a consensus on a truly independent member is slim to none, so the commission will revert to its present partial, not impartial, state.

(That body, aligned with the CPP, accepted Rainsy as an elected member of parliament on Friday despite the absence of his name on the ballot and the inability of anyone to vote for him last year.)

Update Monday, 5:49 p.m.: Pung Chhiv Kek, respected president of the Licadho human rights organization, said she has agreed to fill the ninth seat on three conditions.  Given Licadho’s sharp criticism of government policies, as recently as this month, I remain generally pessimistic that she ultimately will serve and, if she does, that the NEC will function as the CNRP hopes.  End update.

To make the prospects of a functioning opposition worse, Rainsy backtracked on Friday. Probably in an attempt to satisfy the disaffected members of his party, he called for a decision on the ninth member even before the full parliament convenes with the CNRP taking its seats. Predictably, a key CPP lawmaker said it won’t happen that early.

Then, Sokha declared that the CRNP parliamentarians would not be sworn in until three working committees established under the agreement could come to terms on amending the constitution, reforming election laws and modifying the National Assembly’s internal rules.

In a show of unity on Sunday, Sokha and Rainsy shared the podium at a gathering of several thousand CNRP stalwarts in a park near the Royal Palace.  Ironically, any unity may well prove to be the source of a breakdown in the agreement’s effectiveness.

On the Friday before that entirely peaceful rally, which occurred in the absence of any uniformed police, the Cambodia Daily reported that the opposition plans to form a shadow government within the parliament.

Unsurprisingly, a CPP officially promptly retorted that its formation would not be allowed.  The shadow government, he asserted, would be illegal.  Uh oh.

What Rainsy did accomplish was CNRP representation as chairmen of five committees along with the high-level, but essentially powerless, position that Sokha is willing to occupy.  If past is precedent, and I am sure it is, then any power thus shared will prove to be illusory.  Indeed, the drumbeat of skepticism grew noticeably louder over the weekend.

Yet Rainsy has an agenda that focuses on wage increases that he aims to pursue, though with the likelihood of little success by the minority party.

At the same time, one politically attuned observer has expressed an opinion that the agreement may force the dominant party to confront long-delayed reforms at last.  Indeed, it is being said that China’s and Vietnam’s support for the 61-year-old prime minister is eroding, slightly increasing the potential for him to relax his grip on the country.

You might think the nation’s future is in doubt.  But nothing has changed: The more things change. . .

Still, investors have been quoted in the local English-language press (and for all I know, Cambodian press as well) as saying they are reassured that the deadlock now has been broken.  In a sense, it is hard to argue with that view.

The year of marches, intimidating arrests, protestors being bludgeoned by thugs or even shot dead and the resulting instability has ended for now, so that’s a good thing.

However, the possibility of ferment bubbling up from under the surface of calm is a threat that cannot be ignored.  Human rights continue to be abridged, corruption rages and poverty remains endemic.  Only a fool would contend that democracy here is on solid ground.

To think that the ground has shifted dramatically with last week’s news would be to think, as well, that it’s the tooth fairy who tucks money under the pillows of innocent children.

E-mail: malcolmncarter@gmail.com

 

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