The impending return of Cambodia’s exiled opposition won’t bring democracy, but it will cement the ruling government’s status as an illegitimate, authoritarian regime.
In recent years, Cambodia has effectively become a one-party state with ever-tightening restrictions on freedom of assembly and freedom of the press. The space for dialogue and democracy has been gradually constricted under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s nearly 35 years in power.
The imminent return of Cambodia’s sole political opposition group, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), won’t solve Cambodia’s problems: it will end in a further crackdown or protracted political dialogue. But the move offers a way forward: it throws the authoritarianism of the current government into sharp relief, making it impossible for Hun Sen and his allies to hide behind any veneer of legitimacy.
CNRP leaders announced in June that exiled party leader Rainsy would be returning to Cambodia from France on November 9, the country’s independence day. At the time, the promise seemed ill-advised and bound for failure. The CNRP was dissolved by court order in 2017 for alleged treason and 118 of its party officials were banned from politics.
Since then, courts have continued to summon former CNRP officials and issue warrants for their arrest. In May, Rainsy was convicted in absentia of violating a lese majeste law and undermining the authority of the military. The CNRP leader now faces at least six convictions and eight pending cases.
This political repression, and a 2018 election that many observers considered, illegitimate has drawn major criticism from the international community and rights groups across ASEAN and abroad.
Domestically, the crisis of Cambodia’s dwindling democracy has become intractable. Journalism is regularly criminalized and dissent of any kind against the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has been met with violence and intimidation.
The return of the CNRP, whether successful or not, will cement the current administration’s status as a single-party authoritarian regime. Hun Sen will either allow its return to politics and expose himself as an illegitimate strongman, or arrest the CNRP leadership (or worse) and erase all pretence of democracy. Regardless of the outcome, the return of the opposition throws the CPP’s regime into the spotlight in a way the international community hasn’t seen before.
The CNRP’s return has slid into slow motion
The CNRP’s planned return hit a number of hiccups as contention around the Cambodian political conflict has spilled across ASEAN. In late October, CNRP Vice President Mu Sochua was deported by Thai immigration authorities upon her arrival in Bangkok. Soon after, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said he wouldn’t allow Rainsy to enter Thailand, claiming that it would violate Thailand’s obligation as an ASEAN nation to avoid interfering in Cambodia’s internal affairs.
On November 7, Rainsy was not allowed to check in for his scheduled Thai Airways flight from Paris to Bangkok and told reporters that the airline had orders “from very high up” to prevent him from boarding. Rainsy was later able to board a flight to Malaysia and then on to Indonesia on November 14, but the CNRP leader hasn’t said when or how he will enter Cambodia.
Rainsy’s choice of route was surprising, as Sochua and two other dissidents were detained upon their arrival in Kuala Lumpur en route to Cambodia a few days earlier. They were subsequently released and allowed to stay in the country for six days.
Malaysia was at first reticent to allow the CNRP to operate inside its borders but seems to have accepted a role as a neutral party. The contrast between this stance and that of the Thai government has only drawn attention to Hun Sen’s tactics and his attempts to force the hand of ASEAN member states.
In Cambodia, the government is making preparations for the CNRP’s return and appears determined to quash any signs of public support. Police and other armed forces have reportedly reinforced border checkpoints and assembled in villages. Police say they deployed least 20,000 additional “security personnel” in Phnom Penh on the day of Rainsy’s scheduled return.
Hun Sen has labelled Rainsy’s return as a coup. The tag prompted yet another round of charges against Rainsy and his supporters in late September. But this is likely all part of the plan.
According to Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, a key piece of the CNRP’s strategy is to “goad Hun Sen into overreactions.”
Overreaction is an unfortunate and likely consequence of the CNRP’s return. However, the CNRP’s strategy may work. If the CPP and Hun Sen “overreact,” they will bear the consequences of any political repression or violent crackdowns, which may further expose the government as illegitimate.
International criticism comes to a head around CNRP
Since 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, has repeatedly called for Cambodia to respect freedoms of assembly and expression.
In recent weeks, the special rapporteur’s office said it had received what it believes to be credible reports of more than 52 arrests and more than 89 people charged with “plotting against the state,” though Hun Sen moved to release many of opposition activists on November 14.
“The rapid increase in numbers of arrests and serious charges filed against CNRP members is alarming,” said Smith. “Arrests based on exercising the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, through political discourse and commenting on public affairs are not permitted. Cambodia must respect its international obligations.”
The US government has expressed concern as well, over what it calls the “arrests, harassment, and intimidation of members of the Cambodian political opposition.” The US embassy in Phnom Penh also crucially referred to Rainsy, CNRP and the Cambodian people as “citizens seeking peaceful participation in the political process”—not orchestrators of a coup—and said that authorities across ASEAN have a responsibility to “protect and respect” the dissidents.
In the past year, international attempts to pressure the Hun Sen regime have centred around the country’s membership in the Everything But Arms (EBA) preferential trade scheme.
The Hun Sen administration is seemingly unconcerned about the prospect of losing EBA privileges despite EU trade constituting over a third of the country’s exports last year. The CPP has shown little concern for its reputation in the West, instead it is accelerating its pivot towards China where it finds a leader happy to ignore the country’s human rights and political repression in President Xi Jinping.
Are limited concessions for the CNRP Hun Sen’s back exit?
On November 10, the Cambodian government lifted restrictions on former CNRP president Kem Sokha, who had been imprisoned since 2017 on charges of “colluding with foreigners.” Rainsy attributed Sokha’s release to “increasing internal and external pressure.” Hun Sen also announced recently that 70 alleged CNRP supporters would be released from detention.
The move is a signal to the EU and the US that the government is still willing to go through the motions of reform and may respond to international pressure. But Sokha is still not allowed to participate in any political activities or leave the country.
“Phnom Penh presents these ‘gifts’ to the West thinking that the EU and the US will be duped into believing this is a major development and huge for freedom and democracy,” said Sophal Ear.
Hun Sen’s move isn’t working: the US and the EU have already said that Sokha’s limited freedoms aren’t enough.
In late October, during the leadup to Rainsy’s return, US lawmakers with the Congressional Cambodia Caucus warned that Hun Sen could face serious international consequences if the government responds violently. Lawmakers threatened “massive sanctions and said that trade could “pretty much stop abruptly.”
Hun Sen may be hoping for turmoil inside the CNRP
There is also a history of political rivalry between Sokha and Rainsy that Hun Sen may be hoping will jeopardize the opposition’s prospects for organizing a successful return.
“It’s very clear what the ruling party wants to do: release Kem Sokha so he can fight Sam Rainsy,” said Sophal Ear, a Cambodian-American political scientist at Occidental College.
“They hope for a cage fight and to create a narrative of good CNRP faction (Kem Sokha) versus bad CNRP faction (Sam Rainsy), just like good Khmer Rouge (Hun Sen) versus bad Khmer Rouge (Pol Pot).”
Hun Sen may see this as a way out. If internal conflict can weaken the CNRP, the weakness and illegitimacy of the ruling government won’t be quite as stark in the international spotlight. But this is unlikely to work: the conflict between Sokha and Rainsy pales in comparison to the existential challenges facing the Hun Sen regime.
The government’s claim to power is essentially hollow: backed by the military, to a point, but not by the people. The CNRP’s return will not bring democracy but it will expose the Hun Sen government as illegitimate, affecting its standing within the international community. This alone won’t end political repression, but it’s the first step towards a more open Cambodia, however tumultuous and tentative.