Sam Rainsy, then president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, speaks to his supporters upon his arrival in Phnom Penh on 19, July 2014. Photo: AFP/Kimlong Meng/NurPhoto
Sam Rainsy speaks to his supporters in Phnom Penh in a 2014 file photo. Photo: AFP/Kimlong Meng/NurPhoto

Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen raised the prospect of delaying or even cancelling Cambodia’s upcoming general election due to possible chaos caused by anti-government protests.

The premier’s warning came after a new movement of exiled opposition politicians said it might call on supporters to organize “peaceful protests,” something Hun Sen interpreted as another example of the opposition aiming to foment a “color revolution” to topple his government.

Official accusations of treason and agitating for revolution brought down the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s largest opposition party, which was formally dissolved by a Supreme Court in November. It’s leader, Kem Sokha, is behind bars awaiting trial on treason charges.

Almost all of the CNRP’s elected officials subsequently lost their positions in the dissolution, which banned 118 politicians from political activity for five years. Many have since fled abroad to escape possible arrest.

Opposition veteran Sam Rainsy, who was forced to step down as CNRP president in early 2017, last weekend formed the Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM), an offshoot of the CNRP that, it says, will agitate for anti-government protests ahead of the polls. It was joined by the CNRP’s now-exiled vice presidents, Mu Sochua and Eng Chhai Eang.

Hun Sen said after the CNRP’s dissolution that its members could form a new political party to compete in July’s election, though many suspected it too would be summarily destroyed. The CNRM’s emergence likely means that no such party will be formed, with the opposition now determined to cast the upcoming election as illegitimate.

Cambodian Prime Minister and president of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) Hun Sen at a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, June 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Sam Rainsy himself has raised the prospect of delaying elections until they can “meet minimum international standards,” by which he surely means a scenario which allows the CNRP to compete. Delaying elections, he said, “would avoid both violence and Cambodia becoming a pariah state.”

The United States and the European Union say they will not send electoral observers unless the CNRP is reinstated, though autocratic Russia has said it would send monitors.

Most analysts agree that the ruling CPP will almost certainly win July’s election, if it takes place, though some suspect the party is concerned that low voter turnout would be a major embarrassment that raises questions about the legitimacy of the polls.

“The CNRM will appeal to the people to stand up and protest on a huge scale,” said Sam Rainsy, who went into exile in late 2015. But exactly how they would organize such protests, and their potential effectiveness, remains in doubt.

On Wednesday, Sam Rainsy repeated that the CNRM would only call for peaceful protests and “absolutely avoid using violence in any form.” This, however, was seemingly not enough of a promise for Hun Sen.

“You cannot run an election with artillery shells and grenades, and you also cannot run an election in a chaotic country,” Hun Sen said during a speech to 10,000 garment workers in Phnom Penh this week, local media reported.

The Interior Ministry is reportedly already investigating the exile-led CNRM. A ministry spokesman this week called it “illegal” and its members “rebels.”

Politician Sam Rainsy and his Cambodia National Rescue Party members. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

One reason why there haven’t been any major protests since the CNRP’s dissolution in November is that the Cambodian people are justifiably scared of the government’s threats of violence.

“[The government] won’t allow [protests], and no one dares to do so,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak after Sam Rainsy’s announced protests. “There is no leader. The civil society organizations also do not have leaders.”

Constitutionally, Cambodians have the right to demonstrate peacefully, but the government warned in November that it would not allow protests to take place, fortifying the threat with a show of military force on the streets of Phnom Penh.

As a result, some CNRP supporters told this journalist that boycotting July’s election is now their only means of protest. But Sam Rainsy appears to have taken a new stance by calling on the armed forces, mainly lower-ranking members, to side with his protestors against the government.

In December, Sam Rainsy said security forces shouldn’t “obey orders from any dictators if they order you to shoot and kill innocent people.” Predictably, Hun Sen later called these comments “treasonous” and “a declaration of war.”

Unperturbed, the CNRM’s statement issued earlier this month says the movement can appeal to the “armed forces to side with the people.”

In his plea to military personnel, Sam Rainsy went as far as to say that, if the CPP was to lose power, a CNRP government would redistribute wealth from the “corrupt, powerful and high-ranking generals” to those lower down the military hierarchy.

A Cambodian activist (front) runs as military police disperse a protest in Phnom Penh on January 27, 2014. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Jonathan Sutton, a researcher on Southeast Asian authoritarian politics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, recently reported that only about 30% of lower-ranked soldiers “now genuinely support Hun Sen,” based on information provided by a former government insider.

True or false, the threat of violence isn’t the only problem the CNRM will face if it decides to call for mass protests.

Some political commentators think the CNRM was formed so that Sam Rainsy can retake the helm of opposition politics, a position he lost after his resignation from the CNRP to avoid the party’s dissolution because of his past criminal defamation convictions.

Less than a week old, the CNRM has already angered some CNRP members who want to continue operating under the party name. So far, the most public advocates of this are members of the Kem Sokha-founded Human Rights Party (HRP), which merged with the Sam Rainsy Party in 2012 to form the CNRP.

Relations between the two composite parties have long been fractious with each group atomized under the two leaders. But at a time when the CNRP requires solidarity among its members, the CNRM’s formation poses the risk of splitting affiliates and activists.

More to the point, if Sam Rainsy and his ‘movement’ do call for protests, it poses the problem of whether ordinary Cambodians who support the CNRP will respond by taking to the streets.

Those loyal to the HRP are wary of protests since, they say, demonstrations would only make it harder for Kem Sokha when he goes to trial. Indeed, one former HRP lawmaker criticized the CNRM for using Kem Sokha’s name on its mission statement, though the group only said his release is one of its aims.

Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha (L) arrested by police at his home in Phnom Penh on September 3, 2017. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Another difficulty is that most senior opposition leaders are now in self-imposed exile, meaning any mass demonstration would be devoid of on-the-ground leadership. Just as important, many of the CNRP’s grassroots activists who would be called on to actually organize the protests continue to face intimidation by the authorities.

Another problem for the opposition movement, as alluded to by Sopheak, is that many of the opposition’s allies in civil society are now either conspicuously mute or visibly repressed.

Three civil society leaders face lengthy prison sentences after being charged on January 18 with misappropriating funds raised for the funeral of Kem Ley, the political activist who was assassinated in 2015.

But Buntenh, a prominent activist monk, Pa Nguon Teang, founder of Cambodian Center for Independent Media, and labor rights activist Moeun Tola each face between one and three years in jail.

Independent trade unions also find themselves stifled. Many took part in the mass protests following the 2013 general election, which the CNRP claimed at the time was fraudulent. These later expanded into demonstrations for better wages, with Sam Rainsy leveraging his historic connection to the labor movement.

After several months, protests petered out in January 2014 after five striking workers were shot dead by police. But the controversial Trade Union Law passed in 2016 has severely weakened many independent trade unions.

Garment workers hold petrol bombs after clashes with police broke out during a protest in Phnom Penh January 3, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

As early as 2016, some unions that were once supportive of the CNRP stressed that they wouldn’t participate in any “political” demonstrations with the opposition group, a decision some analysts say was motivated by fear. Other union grandees who maintain allegiances to the CNRP have faced their own troubles.

Chea Mony, the former leader of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia and the brother of assassinated union leader Chea Vichea, is currently faces a joint lawsuit filed by almost 100 government-aligned trade unions.

An additional concern for the opposition movement is whether it can still rely on its base supporters, especially the 700,000-plus garment workers that Hun Sen has been bidding to woo in recent months.

Using the capital’s garment factories as lecture halls, Hun Sen has promised them yet another raise in the minimum wage as well as substantial welfare benefits. Still, garment workers told this journalist many were “forced” to attend Hun Sen’s speeches and many are still loyal to the CNRP.

So far, the CNRM has received praise on social media from Cambodians thankful opposition politicians haven’t lost their fighting spirit for political change. But how to turn online support into a substantial street protest movement is likely to be the opposition’s most arduous task faced in years.

“CNRP supporters at the grassroots level have described the situation as living without a head… At least they will know that their leader is not sleeping,” political analyst Meas Nee told the Phnom Penh Post newspaper.