Two decades watching Prime Minister Hun Sen run circles around clueless rivals left many observers predicting the worst when opposition leader Sam Rainsy finally accepted election defeat in exchange for reform pledges two years ago today.
Ending a year of protests against alleged vote fraud in the July 2013 election, Mr. Rainsy accepted his party’s 55 parliamentary seats for promises of a new bipartisan National Election Committee (NEC) and a legislature with greater powers of oversight.
The agreement ushered in a calm after a hectic year of protests, strikes and fatal police shootings, but for many it was a deal that would always be at the mercy of Mr. Hun Sen’s proven willingness to turn on his promises and pressure his opponents to consent to the change.
“Hun Sen the chess player does nothing that might remotely lessen or threaten his control of the game,” said prominent Cambodia historian David Chandler, predicting that the truce would not hold.
“It’s just politics. Tomorrow things will be different,” Sophal Ear, an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said at the time.
“People will be arrested, sooner or later. Some people will be released. It’s a game of cat and mouse. But it’s only the mouse that changes,” he said.
Even CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha admitted he had to “swallow gravel” to accept the deal. Only Mr. Rainsy and the CPP seemed willing to proselytize for its long-term viability, with a ruling party spokesman describing Mr. Hun Sen as a man who does “not betray his promises” and Mr. Rainsy appearing to believe that he himself could change Mr. Hun Sen.
“Sometimes history can be changed through a personal touch,” Mr. Rainsy said in April 2015. “When you start to build confidence, that is the human touch. A deep political analysis understands this. It’s a personal, or I would say, spiritual conciliation.”
Two years on, Mr. Rainsy has now been living—once again—in self-imposed exile in Paris for nine months to avoid a criminal conviction, which the government revealed out of the blue late last year, for defaming the former foreign minister.
Mr. Ear said in an email on Thursday that he took no satisfaction in being right about the collapse of the detente.
“I see such predictions not as ‘I told you so’ but as Cambodia’s unfortunate reality. If you keep doing the same thing and expect different results, Einstein said, that’s the definition of insanity,” he said. “[Mr. Rainsy] jumped into this deal because he got greedy; he thought this time would be different. He was wrong. When he’s wrong, he leaves the country in self-imposed exile. There’s moral hazard in his actions.”
It has indeed largely been others who have borne the brunt of Mr. Hun Sen’s sudden turn on the “culture of dialogue” that Mr. Rainsy and the prime minister had sold to the public as the new normal for Cambodia’s political scene.
Mr. Sokha, the deputy, has been hiding in the CNRP’s headquarters in Phnom Penh for almost two months now—ever since armed police attempted to arrest him on May 26 for failing to appear for questioning over a mistress the government says he took.
CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An and opposition senator Hong Sok Hour are in prison for Facebook posts about the demarcation of the Vietnamese border that Mr. Hun Sen deemed incendiary.
Ou Virak, a political analyst who runs the Future Forum think tank, is also being sued by the CPP for comments he made on the radio, while Kem Ley, another popular and critical commentator, was shot dead earlier this month.
Another 20 opposition figures and government critics have also been imprisoned over the past year, including one of the CNRP’s picks for a senior administrative role on the new NEC. Another CNRP ally, Rong Chhun, whom the party appointed to the NEC’s nine-member board, is now facing a criminal trial.
If he is convicted, the CNRP will have to replace him, but the CPP could veto any choice it makes and throw off the balance of the nine-member board of the NEC—which is supposed to have four appointees from each party and one consensus member.
The CPP also pushed the CNRP into accepting a former CPP lawmaker as president of the new NEC, as well as retaining the old secretary-general, Tep Nytha, whom the CNRP had accused of overseeing the rigging of the 2013 election and wanted replaced.
A complete re-registration of the national voter list—now scheduled to begin in September—has also been postponed four times this year, to the chagrin of both the opposition CNRP and election observers, since commune council elections are scheduled for June.
A television license also promised to the CNRP, which would allow it to run the first non-CPP-aligned station in the country, has also meant little, with authorities banning the erection of a broadcasting tower on a plot of land it had bought for a studio.
By telephone from France, Mr. Rainsy said he did not feel bad for ignoring the warnings about the political deal.
“I don’t regret signing the deal, because I wanted to give peace a chance. Against all the odds, we must always give peace a chance, and I continue to believe in a culture of dialogue because only it can bring an end to the prevailing culture of violence,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“At least Hun Sen and I have started to do something; at least we have sowed the seed for it to develop it one day,” the opposition leader said.
He rejected the criticism that he had fled to the safety of Paris to let others deal with the consequences of the government’s outbreak of repression.
“You do not need to fight in the battlefield that your adversary wants to drive you into. The battlefield that Hun Sen wants to drive his opponents into is a violent one of killing people and putting them in jail,” he said.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the CPP had not played any role in the many legal issues now facing the CNRP, and that the government wished to re-engage the opposition once the courts had processed the cases in order to solve some political issues.
“We didn’t close the door on the culture of dialogue, but we want the courts to take action on the three or four people who violated the law, and then we can pick up the culture of dialogue,” Mr. Eysan said.
Talking with the CNRP when it wants the government to illegally intervene and release people from prison would be a bad look, he said, “because if we talk to them at this time, the public would criticize us and have no trust in the independence of our courts.”
Mr. Eysan denied that the July 2014 deal that convinced the CNRP to end its protests had been steamrolled. Yet for others, a deal that was suddenly and conspicuously struck exactly a week after seven CNRP lawmakers were imprisoned for that month’s Freedom Park protest was always headed in one direction.
“It was made in a rush without any thinking behind it. They had the time to draft a deal with the details in writing, and that was a huge missed opportunity,” said Mr. Virak of the Future Forum.
“There seemed to be an urgency to get the lawmakers released,” he said. “The lesson is that getting into deals without any concrete details is asking for it to be broken. If there’s deals, they need to be specific and detailed with the whole meaning.”
(Additional reporting by Sek Odom)