After six months humoring opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s proclamation of a new “culture of dialogue” that would smooth the path for regime change without bloodshed, Prime Minister Hun Sen balked earlier this week.
“I want to be clear and send a message to His Excellency Sam Rainsy that the culture of dialogue is not efficient,” Mr. Hun Sen said on Monday during a graduation ceremony in Svay Rieng. “It’s OK now to start challenging each other without the culture of dialogue.”
The same day, at the naval base on Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changva peninsula, the message from long-serving Defense Minister Tea Banh to members of Cambodia’s armed forces was more blunt.
“Things are heating up because of the use of rhetoric, incitement, [and] provocation…to strongly attack the government and the CPP, and they say that only the CNRP can topple the CPP and Hun Sen,” General Banh said.
“Before, we protected [the government] by entering battles to stop the war, but now it is not like that. However, we still must make our stance clear,” he added.
“They gathered some people and started to attack and it started to heat up, so we have to fight back.”
The next day, Mr. Rainsy, laying bare the fragility of the new culture, was left tongue-tied when asked about Mr. Hun Sen’s threats to imprison CNRP lawmakers.
“It is my role, I believe, to avoid any further confrontations, and I do not need to comment any further on this issue,” the opposition leader said in an interview.
It was a hint of the inevitable fate of an arrangement aiming at regime change by relying on the regime’s cooperation, said Lee Morgenbesser, a research fellow at the Center for Governance and Public Policy at Australia’s Griffith University, who studies elections held under authoritarian regimes.
“History suggests Rainsy has little hope of fostering a change to the way Cambodian politics functions,” Mr. Morgenbesser said.
“Hun Sen does not have to make a choice between accommodating Rainsy’s ‘culture of dialogue’ and maintaining close ties with the armed forces,” he said. “He maintains the capacity to negotiate when it benefits the government and repress when the government is threatened.”
“The truth is that Rainsy himself needs to forge closer ties [with] the reform-minded officers inside the military in order to properly circumvent Hun Sen’s dominance.”
Monopoly on Force
Yet Cambodia’s military and police have long been stacked with Mr. Hun Sen’s loyalists, who remain under no illusions about what role they must play when his long-ruling party is threatened by the opposition.
Speaking last week at a convention of military police, Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong recounted how the forces had excelled when called upon to violently crack down on the January 2014 protests led by Mr. Rainsy’s opposition, whom he referred to as “the enemy.”
“We are in charge of the capital and we want the capital to have stability and good security but the enemy—in other words, the opposition party—wanted to push the situation into further conflict,” Mr. Socheatvong said.
He said he had called a meeting with National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha and National Police Chief Neth Savoeun, and decided to crush the CNRP protests.
“We could not let it continue,” he said. “We could not blow the smoke away and had to put out the fire.”
His speech was followed by one from General Sokha, who mounted an argument for why military police must stay constantly alert to make sure they are ready to suppress internal threats brought on by “destroyers,” a reference to the opposition party.
“If we speak about the trick of the destroyers, it ran very deep,” he told the assembled forces. “They wanted change. But they could not change it, because of us: military police, national police, authorities, people who love peace. We could not allow it; we united. We prevented the incident…. [I]f we did not do anything to prevent the trick to destroy, the result of the [July] 28th election would have been rejected.”
Gen. Sokha and General Savoeun, as well as Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Commander Pol Saroeun, are all members of the ruling CPP’s central committee.
Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent lawyer who has campaigned to rid the security forces of partisan loyalties, said that Mr. Hun Sen’s July 1997 ouster of First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh is illustrative of the reappearance of force in Cambodia when conversation breaks down.
“If you look at the coup in 1997, the armed forces were not independent and each favored a party,” Mr. Sam Oeun said, referring to the fierce battles on Phnom Penh’s streets between soldiers loyal to each prime minister at the time.
“It is the same now, but only one party controls them. If you look at the field visits of the ruling party politicians, you can see people from the armed forces join,” he said.
“If they are not a neutral armed force, they feel like they should support the ruling party. So if the ruling party loses the election, what could happen?”
Mr. Morgenbesser of Griffith University said that the CPP is likely confident in its ability to keep the military invested in the party’s longevity.
“It can continue to co-opt more junior soldiers by increasing their monthly salaries. Given the lack of other opportunities, this represents a major incentive to remain loyal to the military,” he said.
The day before Mr. Socheatvong’s speech last week, Mr. Hun Sen announced that low-level soldiers would receive a 50 percent increase in their monthly salary, from 355,000 riel (about $89) to 533,000 riel (about $133).
Despite recent proclamations that its “culture of dialogue” would facilitate regime change and decrease the potential for violence to break out, the opposition has demonstrated an anxiety about the allegiance of the armed forces.
Two weeks after the disputed 2013 national election, which the CNRP entered pledging a $250 monthly salary for the armed forces, CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha said the majority of the military in fact supported the opposition despite the loyalties of their commanders.
“According to research from CNRP officials, more than 70 percent of the armed forces and civil servants voted for the CNRP,” Mr. Sokha said on August 6.
The claim became a theme for the CNRP, with Mr. Rainsy in February 2014 also asserting that the lower levels of the military supported the opposition party.
“I believe the armed forces in Cambodia also love the country and have their blood among us all. Next time, when we hold the protest, will they still dare to shoot at us?”
“If you want a solution without bloodshed and cruel activity, you should stop because one day the people who take orders from you will get tired, wake up, and they will stop.”
Coming a month after military police and paratroopers converged on garment worker protests, killing five strikers in a successful operation that also ended CNRP-led street protests, Mr. Rainsy’s claims —and Mr. Sokha’s claim of 70 percent military support—seemed overly buoyant.
“Kem Sokha’s comments are likely to be a ploy to convince the public that the CNRP has public support and the CPP is not invincible,” explained Carl Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy who specializes in Southeast Asian politics.
Mr. Thayer said both the CPP and CNRP would likely keep a close eye on the lower-level ranks in the military, with the knowledge that their loyalties could prove more important to power relations than any prolonged dialogue.
“The government would be very concerned by the loss of support from the lower ranks for two reasons. The first is that the lower ranks might balk if ordered to use deadly force against public protests,” Mr. Thayer said.
“The second reason is that the lower ranks might support a high-ranking officer who took a popular position against the ruling government at a critical juncture.”
Dialogue or Defeat
For Mr. Rainsy’s opposition, however, the likelihood that the CPP will maintain its stranglehold over the security forces means that its best bet is to simply hope a new political culture takes root.
As David Chandler, a prominent historian of Cambodia, noted, for Mr. Rainsy the “culture of dialogue” is at its core a political tool to help facilitate his rise to power in the face of a great imbalance in armed support.
“Rainsy is not interested in having a dialogue with Hun Sen that diminishes his own chances of gaining power,” Mr. Chandler said.
“He cannot gain power by force,” he continued. “He can gain power only by winning a national election. Hun Sen is determined never to allow this to happen.”
Yet if Mr. Hun Sen continues to opt out of the new culture, the CNRP will be left with little leverage to press its case if the prime minister again calls on armed support for his rule.
“Dialogue means there is two parties. If one party does not like it, it’s going to be difficult to have a dialogue,” acknowledged Lao Mong Hay, a political analyst who now also advises Mr. Sokha, the deputy opposition leader.
This is a view shared by Mr. Rainsy, who said setbacks to his “culture of dialogue” are to be expected, but that there has rarely been a clean break between a culture based on force and one based on conversation.
“I can only point to the example of history. The latest developments in several countries over the past five years is that there were some people, some regimes, who thought they were protected by the military, but thanks to a change in mentality, democracy prevailed,” he said.
“We may have misunderstandings and temporary setbacks, from one day to another, but the trend, I think, is on the right track,” Mr. Rainsy said. “We have to persevere and always try, because of what is at stake. Without a culture of dialogue, we will never achieve democracy.”
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