Preeminent foreign historian of Cambodia David Chandler has said he does not believe the country will ever have free and fair elections and that political change could only ever occur through the death or armed overthrow of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
In an interview with Voice of America (VOA) published online on Monday night, Mr. Chandler said that opposition leader Sam Rainsy had proved an easy opponent for Mr. Hun Sen to deal with over the past 20 years, and that he did not think things would change.
“Hun Sen has been able to take charge: arrest him, release him, arrest him—play games with him, in other words. He does that, and [Mr. Rainsy’s] people don’t have any guns,” Mr. Chandler said in the interview.
“I’m never going to say on your program or anywhere else that Hun Sen should be overthrown by force, but he is not going to be overthrown any other way.”
Mr. Chandler said Mr. Hun Sen did in fact fear losing an election but would never let that happen—citing past elections he said the government had rigged—before acknowledging his view on the chance for change in the country was not “optimistic.”
“If being optimistic means political change that would produce a more liberal government where the National Assembly has the power as it is supposed to have under the Constitution—I don’t see that happening as long as [Mr. Hun Sen is] alive,” Mr. Chandler said.
“He started this dialogue a few years ago but he just didn’t believe in it. It’s not his style. Monologue is his style. And it was Sihanouk’s style, and Jayavarman VII’s style. Those guys don’t do dialogue,” he said.
In October, a month before Mr. Rainsy fled back to France after being hit with a reactivated two-year prison sentence for defamation from 2011, the prime minister threatened war, the return of the Khmer Rouge and massacres if the opposition party won in 2018.
Military commander Pol Saroeun and National Police chief Neth Savoeun would rise up against a CNRP government, Mr. Hun Sen claimed, if the opposition moved to replace them—remarks that observers said made it clear the prime minister had no plans to ever give up power.
The CPP has also moved to assert a stranglehold on the new National Election Committee (NEC), having party stalwart Tep Nytha reappointed as its secretary-general and his deputy, Ny Chakrya—considered to be an independent check on Mr. Nytha’s power—arrested late last month.
Yet Mr. Rainsy, the opposition leader, said on Tuesday the past should not be taken to predict Cambodia’s future, asserting that the political landscape the premier must now contend with is vastly different from the one he has negotiated so well in the past.
“Politics is not fortune telling where fate is seen as a static situation at one point of time in the future that is pre-determined and cannot be changed whatever you do or try to do before that happens,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“Politics is in fact a dynamic and interactive process where people are actually their fortune makers in that they can…intelligently and effectively act on the objective factors that determine the course” of events, he added.
Mr. Rainsy said the worst thing would be for the international community to now give up on free elections in Cambodia, allowing “the new (but still-CPP-controlled) NEC” to manipulate the 2018 election—“thus making David Chandler’s prediction come true.”
“The very fact that the risks associated with that worst scenario are now being exposed and analyzed—with relevant plans being devised and implemented to counter them—is helping reduce and possibly suppress the likelihood of that worst scenario materializing,” he said.
Despite Mr. Hun Sen’s threats and the CPP’s recent tightening of its grip on the political environment in the country, the government has repeatedly promised to ensure there will be free elections in 2018, saying it does not want a repeat of the CNRP’s protests in 2013.
“Whatever the result of the election, we will accept it,” CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said late last year. “We respect election results.”
Committee for Free and Fair Elections director Koul Panha said Mr. Chandler’s disbelief in the possibility of free elections was worrying, but that he had never seen such an engaged population.
He said Mr. Hun Sen would have to deal with what that means for Cambodia’s stability and the interests of wealthy elites as 2017 commune elections and 2018 national elections approach.
“Now, Cambodia does not stand alone but we are integrated with globalization and regionalization, and this pushes the country. Many countries are moving toward political reform in order to respond to the demands of economic liberalization,” Mr. Panha said.
“If they don’t have legitimacy, how can they deal with the risks when people protest?”
He added that he could not discount Mr. Chandler’s predictions given the government’s recent suppression of dissent, but that current trajectory of other Southeast Asian dictatorships was cause for some optimism.
“The worst case scenario is still like what he has found out, but I still have hope. In Myanmar, for example, many people had no hope at all, but there was movement, and people were surprised,” Mr. Panha said, using another name for Burma.
“Cambodia is also moving. We just need the support from the international community to ensure we move toward free elections,” he added. “Hope has not yet been lost.”