As a result of his brutal political purge against the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and its senior members over the past few years, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has got what he wanted. His ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won a “fake”, uncontested election last year and he has prolonged his stay in power. But he has left the future of his country and its people in disarray.
Since the court dissolved the CNRP and banned its 118 members from politics for five years in 2017, Cambodia has become a de facto one-party state, and democracy is practically dead there. The country is facing the prospect of trade sanctions by the West which could put its economy in jeopardy.
Now opposition leaders are calling for a fresh election and reinstatement to their political roles. Their return could help rebalance power in politics, a good thing for the country. Hun Sen should have compromised to let it happen as he has done in the past.
But asking for political pluralism in Cambodia nowadays has proven to be a request too far for the strongman. Since the CNRP’s acting president, Sam Rainsy, and other exiled opposition leaders pledged in August to re-enter the country by land on Nov 9, the country’s Independence Day, Hun Sen has had dozens of CNRP supporters and leaders arrested and threatened to deploy the armed forces against those who dare to return.
The Thai government, for its part, has signalled that it will not allow the opposition leaders to execute their plan to lead Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand on a march back into their homeland as part of a “people’s movement” against Hun Sen. Last Sunday, Mu Sochua, the CNRP deputy leader, was denied entry to Thailand at Suvarnabhumi airport and has returned to the US where she is also a citizen.
While some doubt whether Sam Rainsy’s plan could succeed, it does not supersede the fact that Cambodia and its people would be better off if the opposition party were reinstated and its members allowed to participate in politics again.
For Hun Sen, he cannot overlook the fact that his political crackdown and the flawed election could cost his country trade benefits from the EU and the US. The EU is considering whether to scrap trade preferences — duty-free access for all exports to the EU, except arms — which are vital to Cambodia’s economy, while the US has already begun introducing diplomatic sanctions and reviewing its preferential trade scheme with the country.
Hun Sen may have banked on investment from China over the past few years, but there has been growing unease among many Cambodians regarding Chinese influence, especially given that the benefits of these deals have not been widely shared with local people.
Some may hail Cambodia’s “political stability” as a boon that has helped spur economic growth, but such stability was the result of Hun Sen’s ruthless crackdown on his rivals. Deep down, there must have been resentment among many Cambodians.
Hun Sen should stop gambling on his reliance on investment from, and trade with, China. There is no need to risk losing trade benefits with the West.
To most outsiders, as well as many Cambodians, the political purge against the CNRP is politically motivated and unjustified. Hun Sen should start letting the opposition leaders reenter politics before sympathy towards them grows further — not just among their supporters but also from within the ruling CPP and among the military top brass. A return to democracy will benefit his country politically, socially and economically.
Read the editorial on the website of the Bangkok Post