Extinguishing a burgeoning protest movement and again neutering Cambodia’s risk-averse opposition, military police armed with AK-47 assault rifles ushered in 2014 with a savage reminder of the amorality of politics.
Witnesses to the January 3 military police shootings, which ended two weeks of strikes led by unions and free-wheeling street marches led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy, described the black-clad armed forces arriving on Phnom Penh’s derelict outskirts with an intent to kill.
As striking garment workers burned tires and threw makeshift Molotov cocktails in a futile effort to repel the militarized forces, five workers were shot dead and more than 40 others injured. Unions soon called off the strikes.
“I saw them shooting only to kill,” recounted 17-year-old high-school student Ouk Mara from a hospital bed days after the incident, in which she was shot in the head. “It was like watching children play with fireworks.”
For Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, the immediate target of the crackdown was the impoverished workers taking part in the strike that briefly shut down Cambodia’s biggest export industry, but the message was not lost on the CNRP.
With the opposition party’s protest infrastructure in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park violently dismantled the next day by plain-clothed thugs as military police patrolled the square’s perimeter, Mr. Rainsy called off protests demanding that Mr. Hun Sen resign or call a fresh election.
“As long as popular support is growing—and it is growing—it doesn’t need to express itself every day or even every week in the form of massive demonstrations,” Mr. Rainsy said January 5, one week after leading 50,000 supporters and workers for a 15th straight day of protests.
The vibrant but peaceful CNRP marches, which defined the second half of 2013 after that year’s disputed national election, had been smothered within the first five days of the year.
A few hundred opposition supporters would occasionally take to the streets behind Mr. Rainsy over the remainder of 2014, but the protests never resumed in earnest.
Seven Months of Cold War
With Mr. Rainsy’s opposition temporarily neutered and left bereft of the enormous political leverage it had found on Phnom Penh’s streets, Mr. Hun Sen’s administration turned its focus to governing a divided country.
As garment workers began returning to their factories, and tension still rife, Mr. Rainsy and his deputy, Kem Sokha, adopted a radio silence as other activists began testing a new government ban on public gatherings.
Mr. Hun Sen, entering his 30th year as Cambodia’s head of government but apparently still unnerved by the latest protests against him, on January 19 warned the CNRP against returning to the streets of Phnom Penh.
“Previously, the CPP didn’t use the force of its supporters and some people said that if the CPP comes out, there will not be so many people,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “Do you want to know or try a taste?” Mr. Hun Sen then asked. “If Hun Sen comes out to do something, it’s not going to be small.”
The prime minister coupled his warning against mass protests with sporadic enforcement of his ban on gatherings, with district security guards in Phnom Penh chasing and beating those who dared to demonstrate.
By late February, as 23 activists arrested during the lethal January repression languished in prison, Mr. Rainsy emerged publicly and began reacquainting his supporters with his rhetoric of Mr. Hun Sen’s overthrow.
At a public forum in Kandal province, Mr. Rainsy pledged to his supporters that the same wave of change that had led to the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanokovich from power that month would soon sweep away Mr. Hun Sen.
“Around the world, dear people, and in the country next to us and far away from us, dictators who have mistreated the people have lost their positions,” Mr. Rainsy said. “Soon it will be the dictator’s turn in Cambodia.”
With Mr. Rainsy nevertheless unwilling to relaunch his protests, and thus test Mr. Hun Sen’s implicit warnings of a repeat of the January 3 carnage, a stalemate emerged, with the CNRP still refusing to take its parliamentary seats.
Amid the fragile calm, Mr. Hun Sen’s CPP began a campaign to claw back some of the international credibility that the CNRP had slowly been draining since the disputed results of the July 2013 election were released.
With U.S. President Barack Obama signing off on aid cuts to Cambodia and the European Union issuing severe statements because of the January repression, the CPP’s list of close friends was eroding.
Gareth Evans, the former Australian foreign minister who played a key role in the settlement that ended Cambodia’s civil war, and a longtime friend of Mr. Hun Sen, on February 26 called for sanctions on the government.
Mr. Evans, who was called “the father of Cambodia” by senior CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun in 1994, wrote in a column the sanctions were required because the CPP government had been “getting away with murder.”
The CPP government started to show the strain of dual international campaigns led by unions and the CNRP that aimed to delegitimize its faltering grip on power.
Meeting with representatives of some major brands sourcing clothing from Cambodia—H&M, Gap and Puma—Commerce Minister Sun Chanthol in late February defended the government’s violent repression of strikes and protests, citing the need to restore business confidence.
“When the opposition says something, and you’re not in the country, you read the newspaper and say: ‘Oh wow, that’s unbelievable, how can the government do that? Oh my god, that’s our people, our blood, our flesh and blood, we need to take care of them,’” Mr. Chanthol said.
“Either you’re opposition or not, but you’re a Cambodian at the end of the day. I’m doing everything I can…to make it easy for you to make businesses in Cambodia to make better jobs for our people,” Mr. Chanthol said.
An Attempt to Negotiate
The two parties sporadically began meeting on the pretense of negotiating electoral reforms to end to the CNRP’s parliamentary boycott, rarely emerging from the meetings with anything but more friction.
In late March, then-CPP spokesman Cheam Yeap even suggested that one useful electoral reform could be a ban on people with foreign citizenship running for prime minister, a law that would exclude Mr. Rainsy, a French national.
As negotiations dragged on, the prime minister by the end of March implored the CNRP to “be patient,” and hinted again at a state of unease over the potential for the opposition’s crushed protest movement to resurface.
“I have said since after the election: Don’t let one election become one that breaks the nation,” Mr. Hun Sen said, calling for the CNRP to reconsider plans for a rally.
The next day, the CNRP held its first march since January, with Mr. Rainsy suddenly calling on about 1,000 supporters to cross the city following its small public rally to mark the March 1997 grenade attack on a protest.
The government deployed only traffic police, who directed vehicles around Mr. Rainsy’s march.
Breakthrough in Talks
Shortly before the Khmer New Year in April, and with Mr. Sokha, the deputy CNRP leader, in the U.S., Mr. Rainsy suddenly announced he was on the verge of a deal with Mr. Hun Sen for the opposition to join parliament.
On April 9, Mr. Rainsy said that the deal was missing only an agreement on the date of the next election, which he said could be resolved with Mr. Hun Sen the next day.
The following morning, Mr. Hun Sen confirmed he had agreed with Mr. Rainsy to reform the National Election Committee (NEC), which the CNRP accused of rig-ging the 2013 election.
Mr. Hun Sen suggested that he and Mr. Rainsy were united with all the terms, which included a February 2018 national election instead of any earlier one, but that he suspected that the deal could be vetoed by Mr. Sokha.
“If this is not signed, it is not the fault of Hun Sen, it is not the fault of the CPP, and it is not the fault of Sam Rainsy or Sam Rainsy’s working groups,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
“It will be the fault of His Excellency Kem Sokha.”
By the afternoon, Mr. Rainsy announced that the deal had indeed fallen through.
“There is no comprehensive agreement yet,” Mr. Rainsy said at a press conference. “We want the election earlier, at least one year earlier. Originally we asked for midterm, and midterm would be early 2016.”
Mr. Rainsy would not say Mr. Sokha vetoed the deal, and denied there was any division between them.
“Our party is a democratic one, so when we want to do anything, there must be the signature of Kem Sokha, the vice president, and me, the president,” he said. “If we consider our heart, Kem Sokha and I are only one person.”
Freedom Park Shutdown
In May, the CPP swept elections for district, provincial and city administrative councils.
Only commune councillors, most of whom are from the CPP due to its successes at the 2012 commune elections, voted in the council elections, meaning that the results of the poll was a foregone conclusion. Still, the campaign gave the CNRP a chance to take to the streets. During the official two-week campaign, in which the CPP did not take part, Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha rallied supporters in most provinces.
In Phnom Penh, the CNRP’s director of public affairs, Mu Sochua, slowly began testing the government’s shutdown of Freedom Park. Ms. Sochua’s unceasing efforts to enter the park made a mockery of the government’s efforts to explain its on-again, off-again ban on public gatherings, and eventually led to Freedom Park being completely shut down to the public.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said shortly after one outing, when Ms. Sochua was prevented from taking a morning walk in the square, that her outing was not against the law but had simply annoyed the Daun Penh district security guards patrolling the square.
“This was about her personal behavior. They don’t like her. She always just goes there to provoke and blame them,” he said. “It’s human behavior that the people don’t like her.”
Dozens of political activists and journalists were beaten by the notorious helmeted guards over the coming months as Ms. Sochua repeatedly visited the area around the park in an assertion of the right to public association.
By June, in a significant concession that hinted at improving negotiations after months of silence, Mr. Hun Sen said he would be willing to allow the CNRP to operate a television station once it joined the parliament.
The television station would be the first run by an opposition party, with the broadcast spectrum presently dominated by stations aligned with the CPP and reticent to give coverage to others.
Ms. Sochua’s intransigent efforts to enter Freedom Park reached a crescendo on July 15, when a violent street brawl broke out between protesters and the Daun Penh se-curity guards, leaving a number of the guards hospitalized.
After months of receiving beatings at the hands of the guards, the protesters drawn to Freedom Park finally responded with violence, with the usually aggressive guards attempting to flee.
On the morning of the protest, and in the days that followed, the police, many of whom stood by and watched the beatings at Freedom Park, arrested Ms. Sochua, one of her staff and six other opposition lawmakers-elect.
Video footage released on social media after the event suggested the guards had in fact delivered to the site some of the wooden batons that were used during the beatings. CNRP officials also alleged that the street brawl was first sparked by outsiders posing as protesters.
With the CNRP’s lawmakers-elect and an official in prison facing “insurrection” charges, Mr. Rainsy returned to Cambodia from France, promising to end the political deadlock.
On July 22, a week after the Freedom Park protest, Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Hun Sen led their negotiating teams from the Senate in Phnom Penh, announcing an agreement for the CNRP to end its 10-month parliamentary boycott in exchange for a comprehensive overhaul of the NEC.
With terms that made the deal appear much the same as the one rejected by Mr. Rainsy in April, there was to be no early election, but the NEC would become a bi-partisan institution with four officials from each party and a neutral ninth member.
Later in the week, Licadho president Pung Chhiv Kek, who helped broker the talks more than two decades ago that helped end Cambodia’s civil war, was selected as the neutral member.
A New Deal
The CNRP’s 55 lawmakers were sworn in to their National Assembly seats in August, effectively legitimizing the CPP’s July 2013 election victory.
Against advice from civil society leaders and political commentators, the opposition lawmakers entered the parliament before securing the details of the reforms agreed to in principle by Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Hun Sen.
Almost immediately, the CPP began to throw its weight around, as it had after securing political deals after past deadlocks, with the CNRP left defenseless, having given up its bargaining power when it entered parliament.
On August 28, the ruling party’s delegation of lawmakers blocked the election of CNRP stalwarts Yim Sovann and Mu Sochua as chairs of two of the five parliamentary commissions given to the CNRP on July 22.
The CNRP, left with no choice, instead nominated lawmakers Ho Vann and Ke Sovannaroth to the positions and moved on. “Maybe the CPP just want to send Mu So-chua and Yim Sovann a warning,” Mr. Rainsy mused.
The ruling party’s strong-arm tactics did not end there, however. In talks to draft the law to create the new bipartisan NEC, the CPP’s negotiators suddenly began demanding the important chairmanship of the NEC.
More importantly, the CPP began demanding that dual nationals to be banned from candidacy to the electoral body—a rule that would seemingly prevent Ms. Chhiv Kek, also a citizen of France and Canada, from becoming the neutral ninth candidate.
The CNRP maintained for months that both stipulations were unacceptable. The CPP refused to budge.
With the arrest of CNRP official Meach Sovannara in November over similar “insurrection” charges to those faced by Ms. Sochua and the other six lawmakers in July, it became clear the ruling party was growing tired of the CNRP’s futile attempts to oppose it on electoral reform.
Then, in a major concession, the CNRP announced on November 28 it was backing down from its refusal to ban dual nationals from the NEC—effectively in exchange for assurances the CNRP would receive the TV license it had already been promised.
Mr. Rainsy, who has been Cambodia’s opposition leader since he was stripped of his position as finance minister in 1994, was also finally recognized as parliament’s “minority leader” with “a rank equal to prime minister.”
Mr. Hun Sen said in a speech a few days later that the title recognized the position of Mr. Rainsy as a parliamentary opposition leader, instead of an opposition leader calling for the premier’s ouster on the streets of Phnom Penh.
“This is creating a culture of conversation instead of walking to insult each other along the street pavements or shouting,” Mr. Hun Sen explained.
Yet despite the apparent state of tranquility between the parties a year after the violent crackdown, most of the reforms promised by Mr. Hun Sen and Mr. Rainsy have yet to be implemented.
With the February 2018 national election in mind, the CNRP’s focus over the next year will turn toward securing these electoral reforms while maintaining the cohesion and unity that brought it success.
The CPP, meanwhile, must convince a divided public, and one that is increasingly cognizant of its failings, of its commitment to enact the type of reforms that could neutralize the continuing appeal of Mr. Rainsy’s patient opposition.