As anti-government protests continue in Thailand, where demonstrators are gearing up for a mass rally on Sunday, another opposition movement is pushing forward in neighboring Cambodia with equal steam, albeit against a more daunting adversary in Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for 28 years.
On Wednesday, Cambodia’s largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), warned that it would stage its “biggest [anti-government] protest ever” in January and provoke the closure of national highways. The threat comes amid lingering tensions following July 28 parliamentary elections, which saw the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) win by a narrow margin. Since, the CNRP — buoyed by the return of its once-exiled leader Sam Rainsy — has been crying foul, and demanding an independent probe into the election.
Now, the opposition movement is heating up, fueled, it would seem, by the (relative) success of the Thai protests. (Rainsy has repeatedly cited the December 8 dissolution of the Thai parliament, in response to mass protests, as a model for the Cambodian government to follow.) On Sunday, the CNRP launched daily rallies that will supposedly continue for three months — or until Sen steps down, or agrees to hold new parliamentary elections. But while CNRP leaders have seized on the Thai model of prolonged protests, which has demonstrators in Bangkok rallying for their own prime minister’s resignation, the similarities may end there.
Unlike the Thai opposition, which has limited influence in the country’s military and judiciary, the CNRP is a politically isolated party. Its makeup is different as well; far from appealing to the country’s elites, as do the Thai protests, Sam Rainsy’s movement is largely a grassroots one, which has built upon resentment in the Cambodian hinterlands towards Phnom Penh.
Not that the battle is unwinnable. Fissures in Sen’s rule are visible, not only in his party’s close win in parliamentary elections, but also in recent defections within the CPP and an eroding support base. Demographics are at play here as well. In many ways, Sen has built his iron grip on Cambodia on the public’s fear of another genocide — a justification whose strength is weakening in a country where the majority of its population (70% under age 30) is too young to remember Pol Pot.
However, after seizing power in a violent coup, and orchestrating two national elections to stay in power, it’s unlikely that Sen will exit the scene quietly — or at all. More probable is a series of cosmetic reforms, which will appease anxious international observers, like the United States, that have hesitated between endorsing the recent elections and supporting Cambodia’s protest movement.
Rainsy will then have two choices: accept Sen’s olive branch and risk losing credibility for his party; or continue to fight. If the oppo leader chooses the latter option, look for Sen to pull out the big guns — though perhaps not in the way Rainsy would like. There are already hints that the government is prepared to use force against protesters. But Sen is smarter than that. Rather than run the risk of martyrizing Rainsy and his movement through violent means, the longtime leader would be well served by resorting to subtler tactics. Like, say, using a generous interpretation of Cambodian law to redistribute the CNRP’s parliament seats and dilute its minority vote — a plan reportedly already in play.