Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen is known to be a very good chess player, but his moves on the political front have set himself up for a possible checkmate. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

It has been almost 71 months since Cambodia’s exiled opposition figurehead Sam Rainsy last stepped foot in his country. 

Most parliamentarians from the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) have stayed abroad for security reasons since its forced dissolution in November 2017. Kem Sokha, the party’s president, remains detained on trumped-up treason charges since his arrest two months earlier. 

The exiled politicians have failed in several bids to return to Cambodia. Most now have a long rap-sheet of dubious criminal convictions, prosecuted in absentia. Kem Sokha’s trial has been repeatedly postponed.

The party’s grassroots activists have been systematically harassed or arrested. Others have appealed for clemency and gone quiet. 

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985, says he won’t cut any deals to allow the “treasonous” party to return to politics, something he apparently told members directly when he allegedly hacked into their Zoom call last month.  

Despite all this, senior CNRP figures say they won’t throw in the towel. 

“There is no question of the CNRP stopping its attempts to return, or [that it will] endorse another party,” acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy told Asia Times, referring to more than a dozen small parties now bidding to take the mantle of the main opposition group ahead of next summer’s local elections. 

“There is currently no real, independent and credible opposition party. We don’t want to help Hun Sen – who is not eternal – to fool the world with a façade of democracy,” he added. 

Cambodian opposition politician Sam Rainsy addresses the media in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Kimlong Meng / NurPhoto

But political commentators who spoke to Asia Times said they thought many Cambodians have come to accept a post-CNRP world – or, at least, that the banned opposition party won’t make a return ahead of general elections in 2023. 

“I think slowly there is an acceptance by every one of the end of the CNRP,” said Ou Virak, president of the independent Future Forward think tank. “A slow disintegration of the CNRP will take place.” 

There appear to be only three ways in which the CNRP would be allowed to return to politics. 

The Phnom Penh grapevine says that Hun Sen wants to offer Kem Sokha a royal pardon in return for him running a reformed CNRP as a gudgeon party, just as the prime minister did with its former main political opponent, the royalist Funcinpec party.

Kem Sokha, now under house arrest, doesn’t appear to be playing ball despite a meeting with Hun Sen last year. That might explain why his trial for treason has been consistently postponed. 

Another avenue would be if Hun Sen’s long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has been in power since 1979, believes it would benefit them if the CNRP returns in an emasculated form to create at least the illusion of democracy.

The opposition party’s ban was one reason the European Union partly removed Cambodia’s trade privileges last year, which has become a major problem as post-Covid economic recovery will be an uphill struggle without lucrative European markets for its exports.  

Hun Sen’s task over the next few months will be to create a “facade of democracy,” as Sam Rainsy put it in an interview with Asia Times. Either that or he decides that Western opprobrium over the upcoming, de facto-fixed elections is inconsequential. 

The third and most improbable avenue for the CNRP’s return is a recently-vaunted alliance between it and senior officials from the CPP, perhaps including Interior Minister Sar Kheng, purportedly Hun Sen’s main factional rivals within the ruling party. 

Sam Rainsy and other opposition figures have spoken in recent months about forming a “national unity government” with Sar Kheng, which would remove Hun Sen from office and allow the two parties to rule in a coalition. 

Asia Times reported last week that tensions were brewing within the ruling party as many senior CPP figures opposed Hun Sen’s desire to hand power one day to his eldest son, the de facto military chief Hun Manet. 

Hun Manet, the prime minister’s eldest son, is reportedly not popular among the ruling party elite and is seen by many as being too soft. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Sources said the intra-party leadership contest may play out before the 2023 general election, although it’s also possible that the CPP will delay the conflict until after the ballot and instead focus all of its energy on reviving the economy, long the key decider of the party’s popular legitimacy. 

As such, the CNRP may reckon that it makes sense to wait and play a longer game. Indeed, it is by no means clear that the CPP’s internal problems will be resolved peacefully, nor that the government will maintain stability over a challenging next two years. 

Sam Rainsy, ever the gadfly now as he was when in Cambodia, continues to rile Hun Sen. And the authorities continue to harass and arrest CNRP activists, which indicates they still consider the opposition party a threat even when banned. 

A cigarette-paper thin margin separated the two parties at the 2013 general election, with the CNRP losing by only four percentage points on the popular vote. At the 2017 local elections, the CNRP overturned the CPP’s decades-old control of commune posts and again only narrowly lost to the ruling party in the popular vote. 

The CNRP was banned a few months later, and the CPP went on to win all 125 parliamentary seats at the 2018 general election, cementing its domination over what is now a de facto one-party state.  

The CNRP, to be sure, wasn’t without its faults. It has been accused of perpetuating anti-Vietnamese racism that pervades a toxic brand of Cambodian nationalism. It focused too much on personality, not policies, and could have made more headway in rural areas, the CPP’s voter base. 

Formed in 2012 by merging Sam Rainsy’s eponymous party with Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party, it has long been a divided house, split between the partisans of both leaders. Some senior members threatened to quit because of this as early as 2015.  

If another figure were to replace Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha as the icon of Cambodia’s pro-democracy movement, hopefully they “will be able to work together and adapt to Cambodia’s political reality,” said Sophal Ear, associate dean and associate professor in the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University.

“Whoever steps in, let their flaws be fewer and smaller than the existing leadership,” he added. 

But for all its flaws and the constraints put upon it by the ruling party, the CNRP served an important function of questioning the government and raising critical issues, said Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

“A loss of that further pushes Cambodia toward simply a complete outright autocracy,” he argued. Nonetheless, Kurlantzick reckons Cambodians have accepted that the CNRP won’t be allowed to return to challenge in the upcoming elections.  

Hun Sen prepares to cast his vote during the general election as his wife Bun Rany, left, looks on in Phnom Penh on July 29, 2018. It was a one-horse race. Photo: AFP / Manan Vatsayana

He said this is “because of the rising level of repression by Hun Sen, his desire to solidify his hold on power in the event of an eventual transition, and because the measures taken against the opposition have been so extensive.”

No one expects the ruling CPP to lose the upcoming local elections next summer and the 2023 general election, at which the party will run largely uncontested. 

But they will be considered a test of the ruling party’s popularity, and it has already begun its usual pre-election use of carrots and sticks. Last week, for instance, Hun Sen intervened to add US$2 onto next year’s minimum wage for garment workers, typically CNRP voters. 

At the same time, government repression has intensified. Hun Sen last month warned the exiled political analyst Seng Sary that if he ever returns to Cambodia then “not only will you be jailed … you will be shot. If they see you, you will be shot.” 

In such a threatening atmosphere, it is risky for the dozen or so other parties who reckon they can take the CNRP’s mantle as the main opposition party. They failed at the 2018 general election, when more voters spoiled their ballots than voted for the second-placed Funcinpec party. 

But if any other opposition party was to replace the CNRP in popularity, it would also run the risk of being dissolved by the authorities, asserted Sophal Ear. 

At first, the ruling party would attempt to co-opt the other opposition group. If it refused, as happened with the CNRP, then it would face “dissolution and total elimination,” Sophal Ear said.  The ruling party’s “playbook is a well-worn one,” he added.