No lotus eaters in Cambodia – The Edge Review


Cambodian opposition presses its case about flawed election – magazine available here (app subscription)

CNRP leader Sam Rainsy addresses an estimated 20,000 crowd in Phnom Penh last Saturday IPhoto: Simon Roughneen)

CNRP leader Sam Rainsy addresses an estimated 20,000 crowd in Phnom Penh last Saturday IPhoto: Simon Roughneen)

Phnom Penh – Monks were told not to show up, but several sat on the stage behind Cambodian National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha last Saturday, as the two opposition leaders told a crowd of roughly 20,000 that they want an independent probe into alleged cheating in the July 28 election, which the country’s election commission said was won by Hun Sen’s long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Two of the group of orange- and saffron-clad monks had travelled from temples in the provinces to attend the rally – Cham Nan from Kandal and Keo Ratana from Kampot. “We are here today as we want to see a good result for Cambodia and because the election was not free and fair,” Cham Nan told The Edge Review.

The monks will likely be back on the streets this weekend, with three days of demonstrations lined up for September 15-17 to protest the official election results announced on September 8, the day after the last CNRP rally.

The results gave the CPP 68 seats in parliament to 55 for the CNRP – a seat distribution identical to figures bandied about by the CPP just hours after voting closed.

The CNRP too claimed victory, saying it would have taken 63 seats in a clean vote, but Cambodia’s National Election Commission (NEC) and Constitutional Committee have dismissed the CNRP’s claims of electoral fraud. “The NEC and CC rejected all our complaints, despite solid evidence,” Mu Sochea, a leading CNRP member, told The Edge Review.

The CNRP’s allegations of fraud have been backed by an array of election monitoring groups, with claims that up to 1.2 million voters mysteriously did not appear on polling station lists, and other concerns about hundreds of thousands of temporary ID cards issued by the government to non-citizens in the run-up to the election, enabling them to vote for the CPP.

The CNRP has said that despite these allegations it would rescind the call to protest if the CPP takes part in any investigation. “We are protesting peacefully for a joint independent commission to investigate irregularities and fraud,” Mu Sochea said, struggling to make herself heard over the din of the crowd at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park last Saturday.

The CPP says the NEC and the CC have dealt with the complaints about the election, and the party contends the official election results entitle it to form a government, even if the CNRP boycotts parliament. Opposition leaders are mulling whether to merely ignore the opening of the legislature on September 23, or stay away indefinitely.

Koul Panha, Executive Director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL), told The Edge Review that in the short-term, both leading parties should negotiate a solution to the growing crisis.

“The election was not free and fair, but the two parties should sit down to discuss a way forward, as a short term solution,” he said, adding that reforms, such as clarified voting lists and an impartial NEC, are needed before the next election in 2018.

But the likelihood that the CPP and CNRP will come to terms – or even talk – seems to be diminishing, as both sides dig their heels in. On Wednesday, Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy reportedly ignored each other at Phnom Penh airport, awaiting the return of the country’s Kingfrom China, where he was receiving medical treatment. Phay Siphan, spokesman for the outgoing CPP government, told The Edge Review that the CPP is unlikely to change its position, regardless of CNRP demonstrations. “We have no reaction to the protest. The CNRP refuses to accept the election results and the will of the people,” he said.

Prior to last weekend’s rally, the Interior Ministry sent a letter to foreign embassies in Phnom Penh claiming that the protests were an attempt by the CNRP to topple the government. Before the election, Hun Sen went as far as to say that Cambodia could lurch back into civil war if the CPP lost – raw scaremongering in a country infamous for undergoing the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and decades of domestic conflict. And while police kept their distance from last Saturday’s peaceful rally, heavy-handed dispersal of protesting workers and dispossessed farmers has been common in the past, meaning that the coming three days of demonstrations are likely to see the capital on edge.

Last weekend, the monks, and many in the CNRP supporting crowd, carried lotus flowers, symbols of peace. But if protests continue, will peace prevail? Carl Thayer, a southeast Asia analyst at Canberra’s Australian Defence Forces Academy, told The Edge Review that the CNRP’s continued defiance amounts to brinkmanship. “Sam Rainsy risks provoking a bloody crackdown and domestic turmoil,” said Thayer.

In the famous poem, “The Lotos Eaters,” by the 19th century English poet Alfred Tennyson, the characters who eat the flower are doped into a soporific and decadent stupor. Not so the Cambodian opposition, who seem set on challenging the election outcome – a contrast to Malaysia’s opposition, which lost a May election there to a long-established incumbent in similarly-flawed circumstances. “We will continue to protest til we get justice,” Yim Sovann, the CNRP spokesman, told The Edge Review.

The 61-year-old Hun Sen, already 28 years in office, has said he wants to remain the country’s leader until his mid-70s and has built up a formidable patronage machine since ousting coalition partners in a 1997 coup.

But, time might be on the CNRP’s side. In the 2013 election, it won seats on the back of a surging youth vote, with younger social media-addicted voters taken in by the CNRP’s call for change. Moreover, the CPP’s showing in the election was its worst in a decade. The party ceded its two-thirds majority in the legislature, which means – if the CNRP eventually joins parliament – it cannot railroad through laws.

The election outcome, said Kheang Un of Northern Illinois University, was a slap in the face for the CPP. “The leadership knows that there need to be reforms on key issues like nepotism, land grabs, civil servants salaries and corruption,” the U.S.-based Cambodian academic told The Edge Review.

Phay Siphan said the new CPP government would undertake reforms, but did not go into details. And even with the best will in the world, implementing reforms might not be so easy, even for an oft-touted “strongman” such as Hun Sen

Ou Virak, Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, expects some “surface reforms” from the CPP, but “nothing systematic.”

“There are factions within the party tied to vested interests, and any attempt to reform will see them step on each others toes,” he said.

And reform too could be undermined if the CNRP stays away from parliament, a move that could undermine the legitimacy of any new Hun Sen government, said Carl Thayer.

After September 23, if the CNRP boycotts parliament, “the issues at hand will turn from electoral fraud to the legitimacy of one-party rule,” he told The Edge Review.

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