Ten Years on, Things a Lot Like 10 Years Ago

A crisis strikes after a national election. Two longtime rivals of Prime Minister Hun Sen stand together to demand he resign and refuse to work in parliament. It lasts a year, until a deal is struck keeping Mr. Hun Sen in power for four more years.

—News Analysis

One of the rivals is not as happy with the deal as the other but—through gritted teeth—agrees to it, allowing the political arena to enter a brief lull before Mr. Hun Sen starts playing one rival against the other.

Sam Rainsy and Prince Norodom Ranariddh greet each other at the National Assembly in February 2006, a month before the prince resigned amid a sex scandal. (Reuters)
Sam Rainsy and Prince Norodom Ranariddh greet each other at the National Assembly in February 2006, a month before the prince resigned amid a sex scandal. (Reuters)

Then tensions over the Vietnamese border flare up, hurting Mr. Hun Sen. Yet just as quickly, they are overshadowed the next year by a sex scandal. For months, one of Mr. Hun Sen’s two opponents is relentlessly attacked by the CPP for taking a mistress.

This could all serve as a summary of political events in Cambodia since the July 2013 national election. But it also describes with startling accuracy the events from the July 2003 election to the middle of 2006.

Many of the events match up to the month, almost as if today’s players—many of the same faces involved the last time—are completing the evening performance with the confidence of a successful matinee 10 years ago.

This time around, the show started after the July 2013 election, with CNRP leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha demanding Mr. Hun Sen’s resignation until—on July 22, 2014—they agreed to join the National Assembly for electoral reforms.

At the matinee, it was Mr. Rainsy and Prince Norodom Ranariddh—the “Alliance of Democrats”—holding out from the July 2003 election until June 30, 2004, when they joined the Assembly for ministerial positions and electoral reforms.

Where Mr. Rainsy was the reluctant rival in 2004—it took him only two weeks to turn on the deal and accuse the prince of taking a bribe from Mr. Hun Sen—Mr. Sokha was in 2014 the unhappy partner, but nevertheless stuck with Mr. Rainsy.

“I was not happy with the result of the negotiations, but I respected the CNRP’s policy and stance that it had to accept it in order to resolve the issues,” Mr. Sokha said. “We are patient, and we swallow gravel and rocks in order to continue to make our unity stronger.”

Shifting gears, Mr. Hun Sen—the last time around, as with this time around—moved to get close to his more senior rival, while his government castigated the other as an extremist bent on revolution.

“The violent demonstrations led by His Exellency Kem Sokha …are equivalent to an attempt to topple the government led by Hun Sen,” says a government-produced documentary aired on prime-time television in early April 2015—two days before Mr. Sokha faced court over his apparent plans for a coup.

The documentary was also televised exactly a week before Mr. Hun Sen invited Mr. Rainsy to join him at a Khmer New Year festival in Siem Reap City, where he praised him profusely—and in contrast to Mr. Sokha—as a moderate and open-minded partner.

“Half my life, I have worked on peace negotiations more than war,” Mr. Hun Sen told his audience, peering back at Mr. Rainsy. “Recently, I met a good partner: His Excellency Sam Rainsy.”

About 10 years before, in February 2005, Mr. Rainsy was the villain—plotting his own revolts as Prince Ranarridh served amicably as the CPP’s “very faithful partner,” in Mr. Hun Sen’s words.

Mr. Rainsy, along with lawmakers Cheam Channy and Chea Poch, were stripped of their immunity from prosecution that February, with Mr. Channy accused of assembling an army for a revolt after he was named shadow defense minister by Mr. Rainsy.

As these disputes lingered, the remainder of 2005—like the second half of 2015—was dominated by old issues of the Vietnamese border, with Mr. Hun Sen in 2005 pushing through a controversial border treaty with Vietnam.

Mr. Rainsy’s CNRP was the aggressor on the issue in 2015, with the opposition leading a number of trips to the border and forcing the Foreign Affairs Ministry to issue letters to Vietnam asking it to cease encroaching on Cambodian land.

In 2005, a handful of civil society members were arrested for opposing the border treaty as Mr. Hun Sen made it clear that he would not tolerate further dissent.

“Accusing Hun Sen of selling territory is not funny,” Mr. Hun Sen said of critics of the treaty in October 2005. “From now on, I will sue whomever, no matter what position he holds. I must sue him.”

In September 2015, Mr. Hun Sen was making the same threats—this time against those who dared to claim that the maps his government used to demarcate the border with Vietnam were the wrong ones.

“Arrest anybody who dares to say that the government has used fake maps,” Mr. Hun Sen said in a speech. “If opposition politicians continue using the sensitive border issue for their political gain, the new thing for the resolution will be to take legal action.”

Amid a torrent of public anger over centuries-old agonies about land losses to Vietnam, it was time for a new twist, and for the prime minister to reassert his supremacy and leave his opponents looking feckless.

In December 2005, Mr. Rainsy was hit with an 18-month prison sentence for defamation, having fled to France after pledging that he was not afraid of any legal action. In November 2015, Mr. Rainsy again fled to France, this time after being hit with a two-year sentence for defamation, after having made the same pledge.

“The United States remains concerned about the continuing deterioration of democratic principles such as free speech and expression in Cambodia,” then-U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in December 2005.

“The United States is deeply concerned about the deteriorating political climate in Cambodia in recent weeks,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in November 2015.

As the calendar turned, and with Mr. Rainsy out of the country, the time was ripe for a sex scandal against the other opponent. In the current showing, it has been Mr. Sokha who has borne the brunt of the CPP’s campaign.

In 2006, Prince Ranariddh was slammed by the CPP for taking Ouk Phalla, now his wife, as a mistress while still married to Princess Norodom Marie—claims that led the CPP that September to create the Adultery Law.

The claims, like those against Mr. Sokha, had emerged in March, with Prince Ranariddh resigning as Assembly president days after Mr. Hun Sen promised to crack down on mistresses. In October 2006, Prince Ranariddh would be ousted as Funcinpec’s leader and flee to France as the Adultery Law came into force.

Mr. Sokha has proven less willing to play the same part, refusing to back down as the CPP threatens him with arrest for the alleged affair.

So what might be expected for the rest of 2016?

The pressing issue for the remainder of this year is the National Election Committee’s (NEC’s) rebuilding of the voter list—touted as the first step in ensuring a fair vote in the 2017 commune elections and 2018 national election.

It was, of course, the same in late 2006. The NEC’s stuttering efforts to register some 1.2 million voters in October 2006 dominated the news cycle, with the NEC slammed by monitors for technical errors, bureaucratic hurdles and delays that disenfranchised voters.

The secretary-general of the NEC—then, as now, the loyal CPP apparatchik Tep Nytha—denied there were problems and refused to extend the registration period to give those who missed out another chance to register before the 2007 commune elections.

In 2016, as in 2006, voter lists remain the main concern as elections approach. Four months out from registration, Mr. Hun Sen noted last month that many Cambodians still did not have the identification cards required to register to vote.

“It’s not a small issue,” Mr. Hun Sen said on May 26. “Who will be responsible for accusations that 1.5 or 1.2 million people had their names missing?”

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