Nearly a decade after being wrongly convicted for the 2004 murder of union leader Chea Vichea, two men, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, were released Thursday — one day after Prime Minister Hun Sen pledged to enact judicial reforms by early 2014.
The release has been heralded by rights activists as the start of potential thaw in Cambodia’s tightly controlled judiciary. But the nation’s longtime leader has good reason to parrot a crowd-pleasing stance. Since his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) party won elections in July, narrowly defeating the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Cambodia has been mired in political deadlock. The opposition, led by Sam Rainsy, maintains that Sen’s party manipulated the election results, robbing them of victory. After boycotting the opening of parliament this week, the CNRP is threatening a nationwide strike, with the not-inconsequential backing of Cambodia’s 100,000-strong Free Trade Union.
Despite the controversy, Sen retook office on Tuesday, albeit before a thinned National Assembly. But his ruling party’s legitimacy remains in question — Sen has refused all calls for an independent probe into the elections — and public confidence is wavering. Little wonder that Sun proposed a platform of “deep reforms” on Wednesday (in a six-hour speech, no less) promising to implement “three fundamental laws” that would codify court jurisdictions, regulate the responsibilities of judges and prosecutors, and clarify the Supreme Court’s role. But amid a backdrop of political tumult — the Rainsy-led assault led to the CPP’s worst showing in national elections since 1998 — the prime minister’s pledge rings empty. Especially since the Cambodian leader made similar promises in the past, even as draft legislation for judiciary reform has languished in Phnom Penh since 2006.
Nonetheless, the politically expedient release of Samnang and Oeun, whose convictions had sparked a wide domestic backlash, could win Sen some brownie points among frustrated constituents. As could other, uncharacteristic, conciliatory gestures: meetings with Rainsy to find a peaceful resolution to mass protests and discuss reforms to Cambodia’s election committee.
Sen may already have a leg up on his opponents. Though the beleaguered prime minister faces a formidable adversary in the charismatic Rainsy, the opposition leader is barred from running for office. If his CNRP party continues the parliamentary boycott, it risks losing its hard-won minority voice. True, Rainsy has earned the support of Cambodia’s largest unions. But Sen, in power for 28 years and counting, still controls the country’s armed forces, state media, and — as Thursday’s symbolic release makes crystal clear — its courts.