Few See Arab Uprisings Influencing Cambodia

Shortly after late Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi was captured and killed by rebels in Libya in October 2011, Prime Minister Hun Sen said comparisons between himself and Mu­ammar el-Qaddafi made by opposition leader Sam Rainsy were tantamount to threats of war.

“If they want to start a fight, Hun Sen is OK,” he said, stating that he was unafraid of any uprising from the opposition.

“If you want to make war, I would like to contribute a warehouse of weapons to you. But don’t use violence. You don’t have enough men to use those guns,” he said.

–News Analysis

The opposition responded to Mr. Hun Sen by saying the prime minister was making a threat, though Mr. Hun Sen said he was merely offering “feedback” to an opposition party making threats of its own.

“If you compare me to a leader who lost an election, it is OK. If you compare me to a leader who was killed in battle again, it means you want to have a battle and I will take measures first,” Mr. Hun Sen said at the time.

Earlier the same year, Mr. Hun Sen said in a speech that uprisings against Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali would not be repeated in Cambodia without severe consequences.

“I would like to tell you that if you want to have a strike as in Tunisia, I will close the door and beat the dog this time,” the prime minister said at the opening of a hospital facility in Kompong Cham province in January of that year.

Mr. Rainsy too has not been shy about raising the political situation in the Middle East, and Mr. Hun Sen’s comments in 2011 were triggered by Mr. Rainsy’s repeated suggestions of an uprising similar to the Arab Spring in Cambodia, and in particular his comment that Mr. Hun Sen “would meet the same fate” as Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Muammar el-Qaddafi was filmed as rebels captured and beat him before shooting him dead after a bloody civil war developed out of mass demonstrations that ousted his regime.

Upon his return to the country last month after nearly four years in exile, Mr. Rainsy commented that the 100,000-strong crowd that met him could be a sign of the beginning of an Arab Spring-type movement in the country.

But as the opposition prepares for a large rally in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Monday to inform supporters about the current political deadlock, analysts and observers this week gave little sign that demonstrations over irregularities during the July 28 election could have any parallels to events in the Middle East.

Sok Touch, a political analyst at Khemarak University in Phnom Penh, said that any comparisons to demonstrations in the Middle East were overblown.

“Cambodia votes to elect its leaders, and this situation is not like a coup or a revolution…. Most Cambodians want the politicians to make concessions [over current disputes] for the good of the people,” he said.

Mr. Touch added that Cam­bo­dia did not have the same religious divisions as the Middle East.

“In the Arab world, they have two religious sects, and in Cam­bodia there is only one,” he said, referring to the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that has driven many of the revolutions and wars in the Middle East.

The opposition in Cambodia also does not have the same en­trenched anger as exists in some Middle Eastern countries, which has spurred clashes between the government and opposition, ac­cording to Carlyle Thayer, an ex­pert on Southeast Asian politics at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra.

“Cambodia is not an oppressive country like Egypt, and…there is no Muslim Brotherhood here—the opposition has not been smoldering under oppression like the Muslim Brotherhood has for decades,” he said, explaining that contested election results were not the same as a coup. “The parallel would only be if the opposition took over government, and then Hun Sen used the military to take back government.”

But Mr. Thayer warned that if the CNRP holds demonstrations, some parallels in Cambodia could emerge.

“If you hold mass demonstrations in front of any regime that has authoritarian tendencies, you’re looking for an accident,” he said. “I think that people in Cambodia will be watching what is going on in Egypt, and [the crackdowns] may dissuade many from attending demonstrations.”

Still, independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay said there was much uncertainty over how peaceful any demonstration would be, as the opposition has felt more empowered after winning considerably more seats in the National Assembly.

“It seems the mood of many people right now is one of insisting on their claims—some have gone so far as to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to go,” he said. “I think the mood of the CNRP supporters—both in Phnom Penh and across the country—is like that.”

“I’ve heard some people saying ‘We have to go all out for change,’ but it remains to be seen what will happen,” he added.

Though many students here have voiced their reservations about joining any mass demonstrations—the CNRP has said such a protest will only be called as a last resort if irregularities at the polls are not investigated properly—others are quite sure that many are ready to express their discontent on the streets.

A first-year international relations student at Pannasastra University, who asked not to be named, said that the power dynamic in Cambodia was different to many countries in the Middle East—in that only one side is armed—but that it is not out of the question that authorities could use violence on opposition protests.

“The government will use force if it is threatened…but the Cam­bodian people are ready to sacrifice themselves to stop Cambodia becoming communist again,” he said.

“The military is under the control of the government but almost half is not satisfied with the government,” he added. “If the demonstration occurs, the people living throughout the country and myself will rise up and join.”

Ton Pisey, a monk from Wat Neakovoan who studies English literature at Pannasastra Univer­sity, said that the current situation was different to the aftermath of any of the past four elections, as this time round the youth in the country were united in making a stand for change.

“It’s completely different—even the power of the youth [has increased], because they now understand their political rights, so the support for the two parties is so different,” he said, adding that he hoped the differences between the parties could be solved without foreign intervention.

Soth Sathayar, 22, a third-year economics student at Norton University, said that violent response to opposition demonstrations were unlikely, as they would cause the government to lose domestic and international legitimacy.

“The opposition side here has no weapons,” he said.

“If the government here applies the same method of cracking down as in Egypt and Syria, the international community will condemn the Cambodian government.”

Indeed, anyone who issues orders to disperse opposition dem­onstrators using weapons would be liable to be sued at the International Criminal Court.

There is also the risk that aid money to the country could be cut in the event of an outbreak of violence against demonstrators.

The U.S. provided about $6 million in military aid to Cambo­dia in 2011, according to the U.S. Embassy. But it cut off all non-humanitarian aid to the country after factional clashes in Phnom Penh in 1997 saw the ouster of Mr. Hun Sen’s co-prime minister, Prince Ranariddh.

Mr. Hun Sen has already belittled calls in the U.S. to cut aid to Cambodia by boasting that any holes would easily be filled by generosity coming from China.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that as long as the CNRP staged peaceful protests and applied for the requisite permits from Phnom Penh City Hall and the Ministry of Interior, there would not be any problems.

“We are prepared for crowd control and for rioting, but it does not mean we will definitely use force,” he said.

“We’re not like Egypt and Syria. The difference is Cambodia has experience of civil war and all of our leaders are elected to the Parliament,” he added. “The Cambodian people are now mature enough to deal with problems peacefully and not with violence.”

CNRP chief whip Son Chhay agreed.

“Cambodia is a small country. Our people do not have that type of divide in our society,” he said. “It’s a question of people’s rights. It does not have anything to do with religious fanatics and divides…and we have so much suffering in our recent history. I don’t think we’ll see bloodshed in the streets.”

(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)

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