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Violence begets violence in Cambodia

Nearly six months after a contested election result, Cambodia’s political future seems increasingly bleak. Some blame the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) for stoking unrest through massive street demonstrations and labor strikes. Others point towards the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) alleged fraud at last July’s elections and subsequent excessive use of force and strong-arm pressure against its political opponents.

The political deadlock, driven by the CNRP’s refusal to join parliament, is testing the limits of Cambodia’s already fragile and flawed democracy. While official election results awarded the

CNRP 55 out of 123 National Assembly seats, a major gain from the opposition’s lackluster performance at the 2008 polls, the CNRP believes it won an outright majority and should be allowed to form the government.

On December 29, police forces loyal to the CPP opened fire on a CNRP-aligned demonstration of striking garment workers who were demanding higher wages. At least four people were killed and 40 injured in the government assault. The CPP extended the suppression the following day by revoking rights to freedom of assembly and violently overrunning Democracy Square, a Phnom Penh park where protestors had congregated.

On the other side of the political divide, radical hardliners loyal to the CNRP, ranging from disgruntled youths, garment workers, and human rights activists, bid to become martyrs for freedom as they employ increasingly provocative tactics to force Prime Minister Hun Sen’s resignation and new polls. Striking garment workers responding to a CNRP call to double the minimum wage damaged plant and equipment during their government-directed action. The CNRP had earlier called on its supporters to block roads in a bid to cripple the capital.

In response, the CPP has adopted a zero-tolerance policy that emphasizes peace and stability. With 68 representatives in the National Assembly, the CPP has justified its increasingly heavy-handed actions citing various vague security-related laws. Investigations into police shootings and other casualties incurred during recent protests, meanwhile, have stalled.

But the ruling party’s use of force in the name of maintaining peace and stability over the past two decades has finally met its match in an equally assertive people’s power. The depth of division between the ruling and opposition parties has polarized the country in ways unseen since the previous debilitating civil war. And both sides unwillingness to meet in the middle has set the stage for more violent confrontations in the weeks ahead.

Violent pattern

Political change in Cambodia has often been driven by violence. Post-election violence in 1993 coerced a power-sharing arrangement with co-prime ministers from the two main parties, despite the fact that the royalist FUNCINPEC party won the United Nations-backed polls. A bloody 1997 coup d’etat and violent clash the following year between the ruling CPP and FUNCINPEC continued the violent political trend. In every historical instance, the ruling CPP has come out on top.

Interestingly, Hun Sen’s government did not initially resort to violence in response to progressively larger demonstrations staged against last year’s contested election result, which the CNRP claims to have won. But as the political crisis extends into a sixth month, the CPP’s non-violent stance is beginning to waver. Indeed, many analysts have interpreted the lethal crackdown on striking garment workers as a proxy attack on the CNRP and a harbinger of future suppression.

Before the attack, Hun Sen’s government had taken concerted steps to negotiate with the opposition and its allied groups. CPP authorities entered into a series of separate talks with both the CNRP and garment workers. On each occasion, however, talks were unable to resolve the disputes. That is in part because the Sam Rainsy-led opposition has maintained an all-or-nothing stance, a hardline position that has intensified the political climate.

There is reason to believe that the government had earlier attempted to avoid the use of force while prioritizing strengthening investor confidence and building up the economy - in line with the pro-business mantra of the CPP’s election campaign. On the other hand, it could be argued that the government was waiting for the opportune moment to strike with legal justification. After months of opposition-led rallies and mass demonstrations, state authorities were finally given the green light to use force against the garment workers.

Authorities claim that their use of force was provoked by attacks of rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails. Though it still is not entirely clear whether agitating suspects were affiliated with the opposition or provocateur thugs loyal to the ruling party, rights groups have condemned the assault as a clear case of excessive use of force, characterized by random shooting of live ammunition when instead rubber bullets could have been used against specific agitators.

This, they say, raises concerns of whether or not the assault was planned in advance. The opposition and human rights groups believe the attacks were systematic, and are currently attempting to charge the Cambodian government, and its leader, Hun Sen, with crimes against humanity via the International Criminal Court. Whether or not there is enough credible evidence for such charges remains to be seen.

Before the attack, the Cambodian government had come under pressure from crucial foreign investors to end garment worker protests, which by some estimates have cost the country nearly US$200 million in production losses. South Korea, which invested nearly US$300 million in Cambodia last year, including substantial outlays in the garment sector, is believed to be among those who have pressed the Cambodian government to take firm action.

Unwavering loyalty

The CPP, which has ruled or co-ruled the country continuously since 1993, is smart, savvy, and highly systematic. While there are persistent rumors of behind-the-scenes infighting and factionalism between those loyal to Hun Sen and other party stalwarts, the party has consistently shown unity and solidarity in public. CPP-sponsored legislation and appointments have sailed through the opposition-boycotted parliament.

Since late September, following one of the biggest electoral blows the party has ever suffered, CPP legislators have universally played down the opposition’s significant electoral gains. Indeed, the ruling party has sent clear signals to the international community that it does not need the opposition to conduct business as usual as a de facto one-party state.

Because of strong loyalty among party members, the CPP carefully covers its tracks, making it difficult for the opposition, human rights organizations, and the international community to challenge acts and accusations of abuse and injustice. Over the years, the CPP has become smarter and more systematic about how it silences opposition to its rule, increasingly using the courts and broad security laws against political opponents.

Consistent with that trend, opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha were called to court this week in Phnom Penh to explain their alleged roles in the December 29 unrest.

Competing nationalisms

On January 7, the CPP-dominated government hosted an elaborate ceremony to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Cambodia’s liberation from the former genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. Congratulatory remarks were given at the event, as portraits of CPP stalwarts Hun Sen, Chea Sim, and Heng Samrin hung prominently in the background.

Vietnamese invaders may have liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge’s killing spree on the historic day in 1979, but these three men, all installed to power during Vietnam’s occupation of the country, have been praised in more recent years for maintaining the peace and stability that has underpinned buoyant economic growth. The CPP has consistently used the January 7 anniversary to promote national pride and patriotism and perpetuate the notion that without the party’s stabilizing influence the country would still be mired in a cycle of death and destruction.

During the recent event’s commemoration speeches, there were also clear hard-line messages directed toward the CNRP delivered by key CPP members, including Heng Samrin. Speakers explicitly blamed the opposition for creating instability and taking the country backwards, not forward.

Pro-CPP speakers said: “The [CPP], as the ruling party legally receiving term from the people, emphasizes that it will do everything possible for the sake of defending the elected National Assembly and the Royal Government, the constitution and democracy.” Another chimed in: “The opposition party cannot use mass demonstrations to resolve political disputes. Only negotiations are the international standard for resolving political disputes.”

While some still praise Vietnam for liberating Cambodia and the CPP for maintaining some semblance of peace after decades of civil war, CNRP leader Sam Rainsy has consistently claimed that Hun Sen’s government remains under Hanoi’s influence more than two decades after the formal withdrawal of Vietnamese troops. The CNRP’s anti-Vietnamese rhetoric and platform have successfully stoked nationalism among radical youths, pushing an almost zealous ethnocentric agenda against so-called “yuon” - a derisive term used for ethnic Vietnamese.

Failed reconciliation

CNRP nationalists view January 7 as the day that Cambodia was “sold” to Vietnam, an ideological position that has been punctuated by recent opposition claims that Vietnam continues to violate Cambodia’s sovereignty along the long border that divides the two nations. In October 2009, Sam Rainsy led villagers in removing border markers in areas he claimed Vietnam was allowed to encroach on Cambodian territory with Hun Sen’s consent.

He fled into exile the following year after being charged with racial incitement and destruction of property and was later sentenced in absentia to ten years in prison. The erstwhile opposition politician was given a royal pardon weeks before last July’s election, though he was not eligible to run. Some read the pardon as a sign of reconciliation that aimed to give the polls greater international legitimacy.

While the CNRP has successfully mobilized anti-Vietnamese sentiment, it runs the significant risk of inciting future violence among Cambodians and ethnic Vietnamese minorities. It is a rising risk as radical youths loyal to the CNRP have demonstrated a willingness to employ violent tactics at recent demonstrations, despite calls by opposition leaders to remain peaceful.

While each side stands by the righteousness of their position, a majority of the population remains agnostic. Many hope a power-sharing resolution to the crisis can be achieved before the violence escalates. Yet non-political actors run the risk of fueling the flames of unrest, whether knowingly or not. The situation has been exacerbated by the media, including certain international outlets, that many feel openly (and sometimes emotionally) promotes the CNRP’s agenda and disproportionately targets the CPP.

With the CNRP now calling for more demonstrations - including in provinces outside of the capital - state authorities will likely employ firmer tactics to maintain public order. Though the government has insisted that it will only use force when provoked, its lethal crackdown on the CNRP-linked garment worker strike has set a dangerous precedent. While violence has settled past political disputes in Cambodia, with the current polarized situation there is a risk it will spiral out of control.

The opinions expressed and the arguments employed in this document are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily express the views of the CETRI.

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