Despite troubling developments, a little more optimism is warranted as the Cambodian people get ready to go to the polls.
“Descent into Outright Dictatorship.” So read the front-page headline of the final edition of the Cambodia Daily, an English-language newspaper closed this month because of taxation issues. This came the day after Kem Sokha, the leader of the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was arrested in his Phnom Penh home on treason charges. Now, the government is threatening other CNRP politicians with possible warrants for arrest, which, one assumes, would eventually lead to the party’s eventual dissolution. Still, this has yet to happen, and a vitally important general election is just ten months away.
Many people, journalists included, have nonetheless rushed to claim that democracy in Cambodia is now dead, or words to that effect. The Financial Times, on September 7, claimed that “Hun Sen’s Cambodia slides into despotism.” The Washington Post, a day earlier, opined that “Cambodia’s ruthless leader is stepping up his authoritarian game.” The latter, arguably, best sums up what is happening: an escalation, not an outright descent.
No doubt, many those who argue Cambodia is now a dictatorship and democracy dead hope that the international community will step in and sort out the matter. This is unlikely to happen. For starters, Cambodia, despite what has happened, remains relatively stable. There have been no major demonstrations or deaths, yet. And while foreign investment might drop, especially from the West, Chinese money continues to pour in.
More important, Cambodia is just one islet in a sea of repression. Vietnam, to its east, has never even promised to hold elections in decades but now is one of America and the European Union’s main partners in Southeast Asia. To Cambodia’s north, nominally communist Laos is in an even worse situation when it comes to freedom. To its west lies Thailand which has been under a military junta since 2014 and shows few signs of returning to democracy, in any meaningful sense of the word. And, further afield, the democratically-elected de-facto leader that is Aung San Suu Kyi, who the West invested heavily in making an icon, is today arguably an apologist for crimes against humanity.
The Rohingya issue no doubt is now taking up much of the time of Western diplomats, pushing Cambodian democracy further down the list of concerns. But even if the United States or the EU decides to punish Phnom Penh it will raise unwanted questions, among them why the West has been so generous to Vietnam or Thailand in recent years. And any sanctions imposed by Washington would be simply paraded as a sign that the United States is conspiring against the Cambodian government, as it now claims (Kem Sokha was charged with treason for working with Americans to overthrow the government).
Then there’s the fact that Donald Trump cares little about despotic nations. And the EU, long divided over human rights and interventionism, actually finds unity when it comes to its own financial matters, which would no doubt be harmed if punitive actions are taken.
So the CNRP is correct when it says only the Cambodian people can change Cambodia. “A legitimate government can only be born from the will of the people,” CNRP vice-president Mu Sochua told me some weeks ago. But saying that the country has descended into a dictatorship does a disservice to Cambodian voters. If it is a dictatorship, then why should they bother to turn out at next year’s general election, to be held in July 2018? If the country has already fallen, why care about changing politics peacefully?
At the moment, one might say what democracy Cambodia has left is in a perilous condition, as is free speech. But nihilism serves no one. Until the ballot is taken away from the people then there is always a chance that their votes can make their wishes felt. And until the CNRP is actually dissolved, even in its currently enfeebled state, it still stands in opposition to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
One ought not to forget that June’s commune election had the highest voter turnout in decades: 85 percent of eligible voters went to the ballot three months ago. In fact, at every election since its first real election in 1993 the number of people turning out to vote has tended to decrease, except in June. And, that month, the CNRP gained significant ground on the CPP, a rarity in local elections. What are we to make of this? Quite simply, it shows that Cambodians are either now more politically engaged or believe their vote actually matters.
Most are, however, not so naïve to think that an election will result in a peaceful transfer of power. As I have noted in my column on numerous occasions, the CPP is unlikely to back out of government willingly or peacefully. But optimism is better than nihilism if a democracy is to be born. And while the people still have the opportunity to tell their government that they don’t want it to rule, power is not solely in the hands of one person.
So what has changed since June? Well, an English-language newspaper has closed, as have radio stations carrying U.S.-funded Khmer-language programs; a U.S.-funded democracy-building organization has been ordered to cease working in the country; and the CNRP president arrested. The question, then, is whether these incidents are enough to stop Cambodians going to the ballot at next year’s general election.
Of course, as I noted in a previous article for The Diplomat, the ruling CPP has combined repression with “generosity.” The government has promised the 700,000-odd garment workers, long loyal CNRP voters, another raise in their minimum wage before next year’s general election. And more social welfare policies have been promised, as they have been promised in the past.
Nonetheless, before the 2013 general election the party’s then-president Sam Rainsy had been in exile for years beforehand (he was allowed to return weeks ahead of the vote). And even without the figurehead in the country the CNRP still received only 300,000 fewer votes than the CPP. Today, with one leader in jail and the other again in exile in France, it still might not be enough to perturb voters from opting for the CNRP next year.
Moreover, the fact that more than three million Cambodians cast their votes for CNRP candidates in June, even after Sam Rainsy resigned as party leader and the party threatened with dissolution, is arguably a sign that threats don’t always work. After all, as CNRP voters have told me, the party gains its support for what it represents, not just who represents it. Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have not been forgotten and their names remain rallying cries, as does b’do (meaning change).