Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cambodia Power Play

It's been more than a decade since armed militia and security forces loyal to Cambodian strongman Hun Sen violently suppressed the democratic opposition to consolidate the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) in power, and the country is once again on the brink of another political upheaval. This time, the battle lines are being drawn in courts rather than in the streets, but the effect will be the same—the slow but sure consolidation of authoritarian rule.

The immediate issue is the political future of opposition leader Sam Rainsy. Late last month, he tried to score political points against the Hun Sen administration by claiming Vietnam had "stolen" Khmer land by placing demarcation markers inside Cambodian territory. Border politics are a potent tool in Cambodia. Mr. Rainsy proceeded to uproot six wooden poles marking the border area and took them to Phnom Penh to press for an investigation. Vietnam officially voiced its concern.

Associated Press

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen

Rather than let the issue rest, deputies from Mr. Hun Sen's ruling CPP unanimously voted on November 16 to strip Mr. Rainsy of his parliamentary immunity for the second time this year. They can do that because the CPP holds 90 seats in the 123-seat lower house of the National Assembly.

This is no ordinary censure. The legislature's action clears all legal impediments for a provincial court to charge Mr. Rainsy with willfully destroying property. If charged and found guilty by the provincial court, the opposition leader could be subject to impeachment in the National Assembly. And Cambodia would lose one of its most effective—and internationally known—opposition political voices against Mr. Hun Sen's regime.

Cambodians can rightly see this as a step backward in what has already been a struggle to consolidate democracy in their country. Since the Khmer Rouge conflict ended in 1991, the country has held four flawed national elections. For the first three ballots, no party was able to form a two-thirds majority to govern, which made it tough for Mr. Hun Sen to consolidate his power. Mr. Rainsy's secular nationalist party eclipsed the former royalist camp to become the main opposition force in the country.

Last year, Mr. Hun Sen's CPP won 73% of the total seats in a ballot marked by irregularities and administrative faults. CPP rule rests on genuine popularity at rice roots level through its economic development policies and nationalism in defense of Cambodia's territorial sovereignty vis-à-vis Thailand. Mr. Hun Sen's aggressive handling of the dispute with Thailand over land surrounding Preah Vihear temple in 2008 was a vote getter.

But as Kek Galabru, a leading human-rights activist noted at the time, "The ruling party will have the right to amend laws and strip parliamentary immunity from critics. We are afraid our democratic state will shrink and shrink." She has a point: The CPP is not only the dominant political force at the local level, but has also entrenched itself in power through control of the police, civil bureaucracy, judiciary and armed forces.

Faced with opposition threats to boycott the official swearing-in ceremonies, Mr. Hun Sen agreed to amend National Assembly rules to acknowledge the official role of the opposition and opposition leader, provide budgetary support and full immunity for all deputies. Last month's parliamentary decision not only puts that deal at risk, but is a stark reminder that 16 years after United Nations intervention, democracy has not been consolidated in Cambodia. The CCP regularly uses its levers of power to weaken the opposition by enticing defections or intimidating voters, as foreign election observers have noted. CPP-influenced courts regularly dismiss lawsuits brought against the government while convicting opposition deputies of defamation.

Mr. Rainsy certainly understands what's at stake. The day after he was stripped of his immunity Mr. Rainsy flew to Brussels, where he raised his plight with the European Parliament and International Parliamentary Union. According to Mr. Rainsy, "As a matter of principle, [the European Parliament] demands that there be a proper investigation." It is unclear when or if he will return to the country.

Mr. Hun Sen probably will eventually restore Mr. Rainsy's immunity after extracting a symbolic expression of regret for his actions. This is all part of Mr. Hun Sen's style of demonstrating that the CPP holds ultimate power. But no one should be fooled that Mr. Hun Sen's encroachments on the opposition are growing less serious. The international community, and particularly aid donors, must bring pressure to bear on Cambodia by supporting the European Parliament's call for an investigation into Mr. Hun Sen's handling of this matter. Other governments should also lobby Phnom Penh to make it harder for the National Assembly to strip immunity from a deputy.

In the longer term, donors must continue programs to enhance the capability of civil society groups, the media and elected parliamentarians to provide effective checks and balances. While the CPP is popular at the moment, it won't necessarily stay that way forever. Cambodians deserve the right to a choice, and part of that means ensuring the survival of a genuine opposition.

Mr. Thayer is professor of politics at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.

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