Built from the vestiges of the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea of the 1980s, the CPP of Prime Minister Hun Sen has long been accused by the opposition of subservience to its old master.
One of the most persistent attacks on the ruling party over the years, opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha peppered their protests against the CPP’s 2013 national election victory with claims of diktats coming from Vietnam.
“Cambodia is saying: ‘step down’; the Yuon is telling him to stay,” Mr. Sokha said of Mr. Hun Sen at a CNRP rally at Freedom Park in December 2013, using a term for Vietnamese often considered pejorative. “Who will he choose?”
Yet a year and a half on, the CNRP has been finding increasing and unprecedented success in enlisting the CPP in its campaign to fight border encroachments and illegal immigration from Vietnam—two long-ignored pet issues of the opposition.
In the past month, Mr. Hun Sen—a fluent Vietnamese speaker—has met a Vietnamese Politburo official to ask for “calm” during CNRP trips to the border, while repeated diplomatic missives have been sent by the government demanding an end to Vietnamese encroachments spotlighted by the CNRP.
“The situation in Cambodia has changed. Things are not the same as a few years ago,” said Mr. Rainsy, who lived in exile between 2009 and 2013 to avoid criminal charges stemming from a protest in which he uprooted a border marker.
“The CPP under Hun Sen wants to defend themselves against Vietnam. This change in the situation is a conjunction of different factors: the surge in popular support for the opposition, which the CPP cannot ignore, as well as the growing tensions between China and Vietnam,” Mr. Rainsy said.
The opposition leader said he believed Vietnam’s efforts to court U.S. support in its own territorial battle over the South China Sea with China provided a unique chance for Cambodia to assert its will against Vietnam’s border incursions.
“When I have talked with U.S. officials in Washington D.C., they want Cambodia to be united within Asean against China. For that, they need cohesion in Asean, and therefore the U.S. will be concerned that it is clear there are no tensions between Cambodia and Vietnam,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“From a purely Vietnamese point of view, Vietnam also has an interest, while it is confronting China, not to create tensions with Cambodia, or it will send the message it is using the same assertive policies against Cambodia, its weaker neighbor.”
Mr. Hun Sen’s unusual tolerance of late for border protests by the CNRP (four opposition figures, including Mr. Sokha, were arrested in 2005 for protesting a border treaty with Vietnam) has not gone unnoticed in Hanoi.
Nhan Dan, the Vietnamese Communist Party’s official newspaper, published an article on Tuesday quoting Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Le Hai Bin, decrying a trip to the border by CNRP lawmaker Real Camerin on Sunday.
During the trip to verify border markers abutting Svay Rieng province, Vietnamese civilians reportedly beat Mr. Camerin and his group with wooden sticks in a scuffle that the CNRP lawmaker says occurred well inside Cambodian territory.
“Vietnam strongly criticises recent violent actions by some Cambodian extremists that violate both Vietnam’s and Cambodia’s laws as well as treaties and agreements signed by both sides,” reads the Nhan Dan article, accusing the Cambodian activists of attacking Vietnamese civilians.
“We request Cambodian authorized agencies to deploy measures to…prevent similar actions from happening again in order to ensure the smooth implementation of border delimitation and marker planting for the common interest of both peoples.”
However, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Wednesday that the government had no plans to prevent opposition activists visiting the border.
“Vietnam does not have an opposition party, and they can do whatever they want. In Cambodia, we have a multiparty system. We are a democracy, so how can we stop the people?” General Sopheak said, defending the CNRP’s border trips.
“They have the right to go there because they are the opposition party. Vietnam would understand this if they had a multiparty system, but they have a mono-party system,” he said.
“We are different to Vietnam.”
Kem Ley, a political analyst who founded the “Khmer for Khmer” advocacy group last year, said public anger about Vietnamese land encroachments has never been limited to those who support Mr. Rainsy’s opposition, and that the CPP has come to realize the electoral hazards of its past position.
“From my observations, it is the people, not just CNRP members, but the people as a whole—even from low-ranking to high-ranking government officials—who have the same concerns about the border invasions,” Mr. Ley said.
“When they stay inside the government, they cannot show their face, but in informal discussions they share similar concerns. So the government of Cambodia knows it will fail in getting its popularity back if it does not resolve this issue.”
But Buntenh, head of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, said that the CPP’s sudden change has been influenced by concerns over the 2017 commune elections and 2018 national election.
“Why now would the CPP be likely to join with the CNRP to solve this problem? They know the commune elections are coming, and they will lose if they are not ready to work with the nationalist groups and the CNRP,” he said.
“However, if the CNRP can work with the CPP to solve this problem with Vietnam, the CNRP will be the most popular and they will be congratulated by the people, because the people will see who was committed to solving the problem.”
Yet the ruling party has no plans to cede the issue to the CNRP so easily. CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the government would work with Vietnamese officials on resolving encroachments without Mr. Rainsy’s cooperation.
“He has no right to call for anybody, including the CPP, to join with him,” said Mr. Eysan. “The government has a border affairs committee to work on the border issue…and that committee will meet between July 6 and 9 in Siem Reap.”
“Sam Rainsy should listen and follow that meeting to find out how much the Cambodian government’s border affairs committee has settled so far on border demarcation,” he added.
Nevertheless, Mr. Rainsy said that the era of Vietnamese incursions into Cambodia going unaddressed is over.
“There is a new balance of power in Cambodia now. Cambodia’s political landscape has changed,” Mr. Rainsy said. “Vietnam should update their reactions a little bit to the new situation in Cambodia, and in this region of the world.”