Hope and worry, visions of doom and general apathy were among the range of reactions on Tuesday that greeted the compromise opposition leader Sam Rainsy struck with Prime Minister Hun Sen in order to return to Cambodia.
To some, the Monday release of opposition party member Cheam Channy and pending return of Sam Rainsy mark a new era for Cambodian politics, while for others, the compromise the opposition party has made may spell its end as a credible force.
“We applaud the efforts by Prime Minister Hun Sen, President of the National Assembly His Royal Highness Prince Norodom Ranariddh and the opposition leader Sam Rainsy to work out their differences among themselves,” US State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement.
“We look forward to the return of Sam Rainsy and to the full resumption of the role of the opposition in the political dialogue of Cambodians aimed at developing the nation and reinforcing its democratic institutions,” the statement added.
US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle said the US could not speculate on how effective the opposition would be now that Sam Rainsy has said he would tone down his criticism of the prime minister.
“Democracy is a relatively new experience in Cambodia so of course there are still challenges,” he said.
The political maneuvers elicited a rare statement welcoming the pardons of Cheam Channy and Sam Rainsy from Cambodia’s largest donor, Japan, dated Monday and received on Tuesday.
“Since the Cambodian National Assembly voted to lift temporarily the immunity from arrest of some members of the Sam Rainsy Party in February 2005, Japan has been concerned,” the statement read.
“Japan hopes that Cambodia will develop in a form that respects human rights and democracy, and continues to watch the situation in Cambodia closely.”
London-based rights group Amnesty International also greeted the pardon of Cheam Channy, who walked free from military court on Monday, profusely thanking Hun Sen and King Norodom Sihamoni for ensuring an early end to his seven year sentence for forming a so-called illegal armed force.
“We hope this marks an end to the practice of using politically motivated trials to silence political dissent,” Brittis Edman, Southeast Asia researcher for the group, said in a statement.
Sam Rainsy told the British Broadcasting Corp on Tuesday that he has not lost his credibility by expressing regret to Hun Sen for linking him to the 1997 grenade attack on a peaceful demonstration, which left more than a dozen dead and 120 wounded.
“Our principles remain the same,” Sam Rainsy said.
On Monday evening, Sam Rainsy said by telephone that he would not rule out joining a future coalition government with Hun Sen, and would not commit to running a campaign opposing his government.
“I do not say I am running with or against anyone” in the 2008 national election, he said. “We will campaign and as any other party which is a consistent party we will seek power in order to implement our reform program.”
Asked what role the opposition will play in the near future, Sam Rainsy said Hun Sen had encouraged him to be a watchdog against corruption and land-grabbing.
“When I last spoke to the prime minister, he encouraged me to help him identify abuses, to help him rid the country of them,” he said. “Hun Sen seems to understand that Cambodia needs a vibrant opposition party in order to claim to be a democracy.”
But some questioned whether Sam Rainsy will now be taking orders from Hun Sen.
The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission said free expression was in danger and that Sam Rainsy may no longer be able to freely express himself.
The pardons “should not lead anyone to believe…that democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Cambodia are thus restored and assured,” the commission said. “Hun Sen has already created a psychosis of intense fear in the Cambodian people from top to bottom with his punishment of these critics of his rule.”
The commission said Hun Sen has subdued Sam Rainsy, forcing him to admit wrongdoing and pledging to discontinue his criticism. “Hun Sen has imperceptibly consolidated his power and repression,” it said.
Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, warned that an opposition that does not criticize the government is not an opposition.
“In the short term we are going to see an improvement of the situation. The opposition leader will be back in the country, and he will prepare some activities ahead of the commune elections,” he said. “In the long-term, I am afraid you will see self-censorship.”
“It is the role of the opposition to speak out if the decisions of the government do not run parallel with the views of their supporters.” he said.
“One person is making all the decisions right now; whether Cambodia becomes authoritarian or not very much depends on that one person,” he said of Hun Sen.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said he welcomes the return of Sam Rainsy, Cheam Channy and Chea Poch to their positions as lawmakers at the National Assembly.
“The government welcomes constructive criticism, but so far the criticism was not clear and lacked evidence,” he said.
Opposition party Acting President Kong Korm claimed the party fully supports Sam Rainsy’s apology to the prime minister, despite party Secretary-General Meng Rita’s statement on Monday that “extremists” within the party have objected.
“I don’t know anyone who feels disappointed over the letter” expressing regret to Hun Sen, he said.
Several opposition activists agreed. “We want [Sam Rainsy] back…the negotiation brings democracy,” said Pich Vannak of Banteay Meanchey province’s Malai district. “The stance would not make the party weak because [the opposition’s] goals are poverty reduction, anti-corruption, higher salaries.”
But at Phnom Penh’s O’Russei market, several members of the public said they felt apathetic about the latest developments.
“Our first priority is feeding our stomachs. We care but we are too busy,” said vendor Heng Saroeun, 24, whose comments were echoed by several others.
“There will be more business if the parties compromise, so I have no more worries than that,” said Kham Koung Heng, 35, head porter at O’Russei market.
“I don’t know anyone who has time to care much about politics,” he said.