Residents of Phsar Daeum Thkov, a subdistrict in inner-city Phnom Penh, talk politics in hushed tones. Some express financial concerns over the European Union’s threat to withdraw Cambodia from a preferential trade deal, a move that could cripple Cambodia’s economy.
Others talk about Chinese investment which, they say, is ruining parts of the country.
But conversations become more laconic when they move onto the demise of the country’s largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was forcibly dissolved by court order in November last year.
“I hope they can return,” says one street-side vendor, who requested anonymity. “They will come back, but I don’t know how,” says Vannarith, a student who, like the majority of this inner city area’s residents, voted CNRP at last year’s commune election and at the 2013 general election the party nearly won.
“Bringing positive change while fighting against dictatorship is a process that will require more than one year,” says the self-exiled Mu Sochua, the CNRP’s vice-president and arguably its most prominent global speaker.
It has been a long year for Cambodia’s erstwhile opposition party, with many now wondering how long the CNRP can play a waiting-game, especially as it struggles with internal rivalries and a greying leadership.
The odds of its reinstatement depend largely on the actions of capricious foreign governments, who may grow tired of the struggle much quicker than CNRP politicians, many of whom fled the country last year and are unlikely to return over safety concerns.
Without the CNRP on the ballot, the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) easily won all 125 seats in the National Assembly at July’s general election, which many in the international community considered illegitimate.
Today, with the CPP almost completely controlling the Senate, parliament’s upper chamber, and virtually all locally elected offices, Cambodia is effectively a one-party state.
Senior officials from the CNRP – which the Supreme Court ruled on November 16 of last year was trying to overthrow the government – have spent the last year traversing the globe to raise awareness of their party’s and country’s plight.
They argue the CNRP’s dissolution was egregious, politically-motivated and not backed by evidence, while its status as an illegal entity in Cambodia is only on paper and can be easily altered.
They also want party president Kem Sokha to be released after he was arrested in September 2017 on treason charges. He remains in pre-trial detention under house arrest.
Their desires are supported by some powerful nations, including the United States.
But the Cambodian government under Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985 and today appears to be making arrangements for his own succession, has repeatedly said it won’t even consider allowing the formal reinstatement of the CNRP, a party it claims was plotting a “color revolution.”
Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles, says the odds of reinstatement at the moment are “remote.”
“When [the CNRP] was forcibly dissolved, this set in motion things that can’t be undone,” he says. “The decision, I’m sure, was not taken lightly by the powers that be … The reputational damage this decision inflicted on [the CPP government] also cannot be undone. It was truly a break from the past. We’re beyond the point of no-return.”
Indeed, it has been suggested that rather than hoping for the CNRP’s reinstatement, a long-shot at best, its politicians should instead form a new political party.
“The only future of the CNRP is as a completely new party with new party leaders and party name. Hun Sen has successfully exterminated CNRP from Cambodian politics,” says Paul Chambers, a political analyst at the College of Asean Community Studies at Naresuan University in Thailand.
But there would be nothing to stop the government from employing the same tactics, which were institutionalized by changes to the law, to dissolve a new CNRP-linked party. Moreover, more than 100 of the opposition’s senior officials are still banned from politics for another four years, meaning a new party would be without senior leadership or familiar faces.
More than a year on, many CNRP officials who were forcibly removed from their elected offices still face regular harassment from the authorities.
Kong Mas, a former member of the CNRP’s working group in Svay Rieng province, was among dozens of party officials who fled to Thailand after its dissolution last year. He only returned to Cambodia post-election when the CPP government began releasing activists, journalists and politicians it had arrested before the ballot.
But he says that CNRP members, especially local activists, “are still concerned about their own safety,” adding: “I still flee from place to place in the country to escape” threats from the authorities.
Today, there appears no domestic solution to the problem. Speaking in Bangkok earlier this month, Mu Sochua rose the prospect of “reconciliation” between the CNRP and CPP, but Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan appeared to reject the proposition out of hand.
“We can’t accept reconciliation to violate the law. With the court’s punishment, please wait for five years [before returning to politics]. The punishment was not meted out by the government but by the courts,” he was quoted by local media, referring to the 118 opposition officials who were banned from politics for five years with the CNRP’s dissolution.
If the CNRP has any hope of being reinstated as a political entity, it will most likely come from international pressure.
“In the past 12 months, the CNRP working from outside has made very significant gains as we have the international community speaking with one voice for the release of Kem Sokha, the re-establishment of CNRP and a call for a re-election,” Mu Sochua told Asia Times.
The US has imposed visa sanctions and financial embargoes on certain individuals within the Cambodian government and ruling elite, while two bills currently in the US Senate could considerably expand the punitive measures.
In a potentially more damaging move, the European Union is making preparations to remove Cambodia from its preferential trade scheme, known as Everything But Arms (EBA). Europe imports almost half of all Cambodia-made garment products, the largest contributor to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
The industry, which employs more than 800,000 people, would most likely suffer a big downturn if Cambodia is removed from the scheme and tariffs are re-imposed on exports.
The formal withdrawal process has not yet begun, and will likely be at least a year to take effect once the process starts, but Phnom Penh has repeatedly said it can weather the sanctions, most likely by appealing for financial support from China, its largest investor and now closest ally.
Whether this is a feasible alternative, however, is another matter. “It is irrefutable that Hun Sen is in a more and more untenable position. Therefore, in one year’s time or even sooner, everything cannot be the same as today,” says the CNRP’s self-exiled former president Sam Rainsy.
“The real question is: Can the more and more anachronistic Hun Sen regime survive until 2023 given the new regional and international environment?” he adds, referring to the date the next general election must be held.
Releasing Kem Sokha and reinstating the CNRP would most likely put an end to American sanctions and almost certainly prevent the EU from withdrawing Cambodia from the EBA scheme.
However, the ruling CPP could be hedging that, as the months pass, Western governments might grow weary of the situation and drop sanctions if Kem Sokha is released, but without the CNRP being reinstated.
In recent months, the government has released numerous activists, journalists and commentators from prison, as well as pledging to reform the judiciary and ease restrictions on trade unions, all ostensibly to appease foreign critics. A royal pardon for Kem Sokha also seems likely in the months ahead, possibly after a swift trial.
But unless the CPP agrees to re-do the general election as some opposition officials demand (Mu Sochua said this week that the party doesn’t accept the July general election result or recognize the legitimacy of the current National Assembly) the CNRP is going to have to play the long game.
But as the CNRP marked the one-year anniversary of its dissolution earlier this month, questions are rising whether it will remain a unified group or will split along factional lines. The party was formed in 2012 by a merger between Sam Rainsy’s eponymous party and Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party, but the two groups haven’t always seen eye-to-eye.
Some CNRP members, who spoke anonymously, said that rifts between Sam Rainsy and other senior party officials are now growing. A few party members with the Kem Sokha faction say they don’t support Sam Rainsy’s attempts to reinsert himself as the party’s main leader and most vocal spokesman.
Some also think that his rhetoric is making it less likely that the treason charges pending against Kem Sokha will be dropped.
Yet another indication of this rift was evident this week when, via a letter from his lawyer, Kem Sokha reportedly opposed a CNRP conference set to take place abroad in December, according to a tweet by his daughter and a CNRP spokesperson, Kem Monovithya.
“If the two factions can stick together, the CNRP has a future. If not, I don’t see how it survives,” says Sophal Ear.
In his defense, Sam Rainsy wrote in a recent statement that “Hun Sen is trying to force Kem Sokha to distance himself from Sam Rainsy and to even start criticizing Sam Rainsy on his activities on the international scene.”
“We know [Hun Sen] uses all forms of threats and intimidation against us and he continuously attempts to buy our leaders and activists,” he told Asia Times. “But I continue to believe that the human spirit cannot be crushed and that it will win over the power of the gun and the power of money.”