Cambodia’s Opposition Movement Needs To Start Anew. Taxation and Eco-Nationalism Should Drive It.

It is time for the movement to step away from stale personal and political rivalries and embrace a more concrete, forward-looking platform.

Since the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) took power in 1979, it has seen off at least four opposition movements. By the late 1990s, it had finished off the remnants of the ousted Khmer Rouge, the last of Cambodia’s far-left revolutionaries. The anti-communist nationalism that coalesced around Son Sann and the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front in the 1980s was a spent force by the close of the 1990s, too. The royalist movement around Funcinpec, a party that actually won the 1993 general election and remained electorally strong until 2008, lost its appeal because of the party’s hopeless years in coalition governments and the death of Norodom Sihanouk, the country’s “founding father.” The CPP’s own brand of nationalism and royalism also weakened those movements, as did its enticements that saw senior figures in those movements defect to the ruling party. Repression of these opposition movements goes without saying.

Arguably the most durable of Cambodia’s opposition movements was the one that formed around Sam Rainsy and his various political parties, including the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), from the mid-1990s onward. That movement was driven by the corollary emergence of muscular trade unionism and a rumbustious independent civil society. It also catered to an emerging middle class in the cities who saw liberal democracy as the future and were aggrieved by the blatant corruption of the CPP-linked tycoons, as well as of an emerging working class in the country’s booming garment factories who was drawn to the social welfare policies of the Rainsy-led movement. Ideologically, the movement could be described as social democratic with a flavor of anti-Vietnamese prejudice (a vote winner in Cambodia) and historical grievance; it presented the 1979 overthrow of the Khmer Rouge by what became the CPP not as Cambodia’s “salvation” but as yet another damnation to foreign control and tyranny.

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