A Return To A Culture of Monologue? (The Long Read)
After months of escalating tension between the two biggest political parties in Cambodia, the CPP and the CNRP, the tone is still strong and the heat remains too high for both sides to resume the culture of dialogue. The culture of dialogue refers to the negotiations between the CPP and the CNRP in response to a year long political deadlock after the 2013 general election.
People are asking “Are CPP-CNRP talks going to take place anytime soon?” I say no.
Prime Minister Hun Sen (right) with opposition leader, Sam Rainsy (left) at the Senate headquarters (Source: Reuters)
To shed some light on any possibility of the talk, we must reflect back to the 22 July agreement to justify whether or not both sides had real intentions to solve the issues and truly believed in the culture of dialogue. After the 2013 general election, the CNRP vowed at any cost to boycott the parliament and called for mass demonstrations against the CPP’s government. The parties got locked down for nearly a year until July 22, 2014 when both sides agreed to end the stalemate in exchange for some important concessions. The CPP agreed to reform the National Election Committee (NEC) and give the first vice-president of the National Assembly (NA) and five out of ten NA specialized commissions to the CNRP for ending their boycott in parliament. There were many reasons why the CPP chose to make such a big compromise. One smart reason for them to do so is to get the CNRP in to legitimize the parliament then later on continue to tear down Mr. Rainsy’s group to regain ground in 2018 election.
The CNRP’s Nightmare
On the CNRP side, their intention has been foreseeable since the beginning, that they will join the parliament. In the 2013 general election, the CNRP won 55 seats. That was the most they had ever won, and they were not going to give those seats away. But they had gone too far promising their supporters that they would not join the parliament unless a new election was held. Thus, they first need to, as the Khmer say, “Os Kala”, or “go around the bush”: pretend to not be happy to delay and take the hard line with Prime Minister Hun Sen so that their supporters would not feel cheated. After all, getting inside the parliament was what many expected to see.
The deal they agreed on has become their worst nightmare. Numbers of CNRP lawmakers, senators, and supporters have been jailed. Mr. Kem Sokha, the CNRP acting chair, got stripped of his position as first vice-president of the National Assembly and has been on self-imposed house detention following lawsuits against him. Meanwhile, Mr. Sam Rainsy has gone back into exile abroad. Some may disagree with me and say that the 22 July agreement really reflected the culture of dialogue where both sides put national interest first and party interest second. The culture of dialogue was just a tool the CPP and the CNRP used to regain momentum and later on continue to stab each other in the back.
It is a too-early-to-call situation whether the two parties will resume their conversation. However, there are three reasons that suggest the culture of dialogue will not restart soon.
The CPP’s Mixed Signals
The first reason comes from the uncertain messages from the CPP itself. Following a recent phone call from the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon on June 8, there were different reactions from the CPP insiders about Secretary-General Ban’s call for the continuation of the culture of dialogue. On the one hand, CPP spokesperson Mr. Sok Eysan indicated hope for upcoming meetings between both parties after Secretary-General Ban pledged his concern over recent tension. “Therefore, I think, it will happen very soon. Our parties’ working groups will meet to strengthen the culture of dialogue, and it is complying to the request made by His Excellency Ban Ki-moon”, Mr. Eysan told VOA’s Khmer Service.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Hun Sen vowed to refuse any CPP-CNRP talks in the coming months. Speaking at a graduation ceremony for students from Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) on 13 June at Diamond Island Exhibition Centre, PM Hun Sen had a clear message for the opposition.
“There will be no talk between the CPP and the CNRP in upcoming days. There is only one way to meet, which is in the National Assembly. However, the CNRP has already abandoned this option.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen
Prime Minister Hun Sen and his CPP During the 2013 general election, for example, the PM vowed to move the election forward without the presence of the self-imposed exile CNRP leader, Mr. Sam Rainsy. However, a few weeks before the election day, PM Hun Sen requested King Norodom Sihamoni to grant a royal pardon for Mr. Rainsy. That was a major surprise.
2. Dr. Kem Ley’s Assassination
Another major cause of divisiveness was the assassination of a prominent political and social analyst, Dr. Kem Ley, on July 10. The killing of Dr. Ley, who had been a major critic of the CPP government, immediately created another political drama for both sides. Mr. Rainsy immediately threw the hot potato to the CPP, saying the assassination was planned and orchestrated by the ruling government. Mr. Rainsy went on Facebook to denounce the ruling side for the shocking killing of Dr. Ley’s slaying,
“Because he [Dr. Kem Ley] apparently represented a political danger for the other side [CPP], the latter hired a hitman to assassinate him as they had, in a recent past, hired hitmen to assassinate Chea Vichea and Chhut Vuthy, two other dignified sons of Cambodia who were at the forefront of the battle to defend the Khmer people’s interests, just as Kem Ley was.”
Sam Rainsy, Opposition leader (CNRP)
Source: Facebook, Sam Rainsy
In the post, Mr. Rainsy also linked this shooting to the grenade attack on 30 March 1997 in Phnom Penh. His comment led to more fierce tension with the CPP and lessens the chance for the culture of dialogue to be reinstated. It is reasonable to assume the prime minister is mad about this accusation. One day after the killing of Kem Ley, PM Hun Sen appeared to be already aware of the accusation from the CNRP. Speaking at an inauguration ceremony of gendarmerie facilities in Phnom Penh, he warned politicians to not politicize this assassination. Until recently, the heat continues to rise when prime minister filed a lawsuit against Sam Rainsy on 1 August for his accusation about Kem Ley’s assassination.
3. Kem Sokha’s Self-Imposed Detention
The culture of dialogue reached another lock down after the deputy head of CNRP, Mr. Kem Sokha, went on self-imposed house detention following an arrest attempt on May 26 after his car was stopped by armed security police along Norodom Boulevard. He later stormed into the party headquarters. Since then, he has not come out, to prevent himself from getting arrested by the authorities. This has interrupted any possibility for him to resume talks with the prime minister.
Kem Sokha’s car, white Toyota Land Cruiser, stopped by armed police on Norodom street. (Source: Twitter, Noan Sereiboth)
Kem Sokha (Left) having packed meal inside CNRP’s headquarter in Phnom Penh. (Source: Twitter, Noan Sereiboth)
On top of that, the prime minister, again, got irritated by a comment made by Kem Sokha in his recent interview with Reuters: “What he [PM Hun Sen] is scared of most is defeat in the election. His strategy is to remove the opposition leadership, so now he is targeting me.” The prime minister replied the next day while speaking at the Cambodian customs department. He warned Mr. Sokha of possible arrest at anytime saying, “Come out here! It is not time yet. Even if you do not go to jail, jail will come to you!”
Some people may argue that the culture of dialogue can be resumed anytime as long as PM Hun Sen wants to. However, it is not that easy since the CNRP does not have any good cards left to play with the CPP. They used to have many after the 2013 election, including mass demonstration and the CPP’s one-party parliament. A softer and non-reactionary approach would ease the way toward negotiation.
All of the latest developments suggest to me that there will be no CPP-CNRP talks soon. The reactions from the ruling side following UN Secretary-General Ban’s concern is bizarre in sound and strategic in meaning. The stone has gotten hotter following the assassination of Dr. Kem Ley, who was an outspoken critic on both sides. The argument has gone to another dead heat when Mr. Rainsy pointed his finger at the government, saying the killing is politically motivated. Mr. Kem Sokha’s self-imposed detention came as another blockade between the two parties, especially when his daring comment irritated PM Hun Sen. The whole things would get a lot nastier if Mr. Kem Sokha got arrested. We could expect mass demonstrations, if this were to happen. The stakes are too high at this time to foresee any possibility of resuming the culture of dialogue. After all the agreements, arguments and political dramas, Cambodian politics has now returned to its traditional form of culture of monologue.
This piece reflects the views of its author only, and not necessarily that of the Politikoffee Media team and editors.