Two decades after the U.N. installed democracy in Cambodia, the CNRP’s 55 lawmakers will on Friday begin sitting in the National Assembly with hopes of using their unprecedented numbers in opposition to achieve what others before them could not.
From summoning long-serving ministers who have evaded criticism since the 1980s, when the CPP standing committee was the communist party’s politburo, to creating Cambodia’s first loyal “shadow cabinet,” the CNRP has heralded a new political culture.
“We want the opposition to be recognized as in the British system, as ‘Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition,’” CNRP President Sam Rainsy said on July 24. With an alternative government established, a smooth power transfer could take place in 2018, he said.
Yet such plans, which the CPP says would be illegal if implemented (the government imprisoned an opposition official for trying to be a shadow defense minister in 2005) have not gone untested in the country.
Mr. Rainsy, now 65, was in fact 9 when the idea was first tabled, according to prominent French historian Henri Locarde.
“Sam Rainsy’s father, Sam Sary, precisely wanted to set up an opposition and even a counter-government on the British model when he had to leave the Cambodian Embassy in London in the ’50s,” Mr. Locard said. “Sihanouk decided to arrest him. But he had been forewarned by friends in the administration and fled.”
Mr. Rainsy’s father had formally lodged the request with Prince Sihanouk in January 1959, four years after the prince set up his authoritarian Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime and crushed the Democratic Party that swept elections in 1946, 1947 and 1951.
Mr. Sary instead joined the Khmer Serei rebels, a nationalist and anti-Sihanouk militia based in the north, which former Prime Minister Son Ngoc Thanh had founded with U.S. support. Mr. Sary was shot dead four years later in Laos’ border province of Pakse.
Mr. Rainsy wrote in his 2013 memoirs “We Didn’t Start the Fire” that his father’s inability to create an institutional opposition symbolized a grave deficiency in Cambodia’s political culture.
“Sam Sary’s lack of established alternatives for constructively opposing the state…encapsulates something of the weakness of the modern state that he helped to found,” Mr. Rainsy wrote. “The concept of loyal and legitimate opposition was not accepted.”
Mr. Rainsy’s family arrived in France in 1965, becoming “the first political refugee[s] in Paris,” Mr. Locard noted, while the Prince would, over the next five years, juggle various opposition movements with decreasing finesse until he was deposed by Lon Nol in 1970.
Almost 50 years on, the unexpected surge of support for the CNRP at the 2013 election may now offer pause for Mr. Hun Sen, who has been in power for 29 years, as he considers Mr. Rainsy’s demands and seeks a pressure valve to diffuse growing dissent.
Mr. Hun Sen has long been a cautious pragmatist, flexing strength among weak opponents but showing latitude when threatened. And the CNRP’s plans could benefit the ruling party if the prime minister sees value in herding dissent into a setting he can manage until other options emerge.
“Still, building a strong opposition in the legislature will not be easy,” said John Ciorciari, a Cambodia scholar at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. “The CPP has an absolute majority and has historically been effective using honey and vinegar to defuse its opponents in the Assembly.”
Mr. Hun Sen has become more authoritarian in his governing style since he was a leading reformist in the late 1980s, but still sits at the apex of a party structure with modern reformists who may come to see the appeal of a loyal opposition, Mr. Ciorciari said.
“Legislative rules and practices that help protect the CNRP today could also be important in any future transfer of power, assuring CPP members that they would enjoy certain institutional protections even if they became a minority party,” he said.
Mr. Rainsy said that offering such assurances to the ruling party is more central to the CNRP’s efforts to create a loyal opposition in parliament than notions they are on a capacity-building mission.
“We, in the bottom of our hearts, know we won the last election…but we have to be realistic,” Mr. Rainsy said. “Our objective now is to create, to try to lay the grounds for a change in the culture.”
“The culture is what Hun Sen has spoken about, that ‘when the waters flood, the fish eats the ants, and when the waters recede, the ants eat the fish.’ We are in this culture of revenge, that any party that comes to power will eliminate the one that was previously in power,” he continued.
“The background of our approach now is to create a new culture and to make the people and the CPP less afraid of any regime change, that it will not bring bloodshed and revenge.”
Yet people closer to Mr. Hun Sen’s trust have in the past failed to create meaningful oppositions in times of even more turmoil.
In the 1980s, as negotiations to end the civil war appeared destined to draw Prince Sihanouk’s Funcinpec guerrillas as a political party to contest open elections against the Phnom Penh government, a group of senior communist officials proposed their own new party.
Led by former Council of Ministers chief Ung Phan, who fled the Khmer Rouge regime to Vietnam alongside Mr. Hun Sen in 1977, the group openly proposed a new “Free Social Democratic Party.”
Mr. Phan, who was then the communications minister, was “assumed to be protected by his relationship with Hun Sen,” noted Evan Gottesman in his book “Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge,” which is based on archives and minutes of communist party meetings before Untac.
Nou Saing Khan, a Communications Ministry official who developed the party’s manifesto, and Mr. Phan were arrested after they distributed copies of their party manifesto to officials including Mr. Hun Sen and party heavyweight Chea Sim, Mr. Gottesman wrote.
Various officials in the Foreign and Defense ministries, as well as Thun Saray, the current president of rights group Adhoc, who at the time led a communist party-aligned research body known as the Institute of Sociology, were also jailed and a purge began that saw ministers replaced.
“The Institute of Sociology closed with the detention of Thun Saray,” Mr. Gottesman wrote. “Khieu Kanharith, the moderately liberal editor of the weekly Kampuchea [and now information minister], was briefly removed from his position. Whatever discussions had been taking place on political reform went even further underground.”
As with later challenges to the CPP’s power, the activities were allowed to develop openly and were then promptly quashed.
Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy, said that avoiding such a sudden backlash would be a balancing act for Mr. Rainsy as he seeks to build his opposition after the precarious deal he cut with Mr. Hun Sen on July 22.
“We have to see what is implemented as in the past these deals have run afoul when the opposition has done something the government, or particularly Hun Sen, does not like,” Mr. Thayer said.
Mr. Thayer said Mr. Rainsy’s biggest task will be continuing to build his base and operating as a parliamentary opposition as Mr. Hun Sen inevitably sours on the CNRP as the 2018 general election approaches.
“The challenge will be to build up his constituency over time and engage Hun Sen in the parliament over time. If he accepts it, it’s a legacy for Cambodia that will endure long beyond him,” he said.
However, David Chandler, the preeminent Cambodia historian, said he thinks it unlikely that Mr. Rainsy will have any more luck than his father did 50 years ago in cementing the idea of loyal opposition.
“It seems to me outside the boundaries of Cambodian political discourse, but seating the 55 opposition members, after their year in limbo, is on balance a hopeful sign,” Mr. Chandler said in an email.
“There’s no such thing in the U.S. or France, and Cambodia’s Constitution is not modeled on the U.K.’s,” he said. “It will be intriguing to see what Hun Sen does with the opposition members.”