Cambodia’s Opposition Needs to Take a Sabbatical

by David Hutt

Feb 27, 2024 in CEIAS Insights

Cambodia’s Opposition Needs to Take a Sabbatical

Opposition parties should take a page out of the ruling CPP’s book and begin a process of generational renewal.

In April, Cambodia’s former Prime Minister Hun Sen will end his eight-month sabbatical. After resigning from his position as prime minister last year, after almost four decades in the job, to make way for his eldest son, he will return to frontline politics as the new president of the Senate. His ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 55 of the 58 available seats in the Senate at Sunday’s elections.

Cambodia’s opposition movement could do with a sabbatical, too. The Candlelight Party, the only opposition party to control commune council positions, wasn’t allowed to stand in the Senate elections, just as it wasn’t at last year’s general elections, over a trumped-up issue of paperwork, a problem that isn’t about to go away. In October, it formed an alliance with three other parties, one of which, the Khmer Will Party, probably won three Senate seats. But the CPP – or, rather, the Hun family – now have such a stranglehold over every political and social institution in Cambodia that this might be the point to say that opposition politics, as it currently exists, is dead and there is no use in lurching onward, grasping at every failure in the belief that it’s actually a sign of possibility.

With three and half years until the next election, the opposition needs to take this time to reset. The Candlelight Party took over the mantle of the main opposition party after the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was forcibly dissolved in 2017. In reality, though, no party took over. The entire opposition movement has been in a state of limbo since 2017, not knowing whether things will ever go back to as they were (when opposition parties were allowed some freedom) or whether the consolidation of the Hun family’s power means the end of all oppositional politics for good.

Most symbolic are the roles of Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, the two CNRP chiefs. Kem Sokha was convicted of treason last year, after his arrest in 2017, and will remain under house detention until a royal pardon is offered. Sam Rainsy, in exile since 2015, remains a gadfly, but there is almost no way he’ll ever be allowed to return to Cambodia. The fact that almost seven years on from the CNRP’s dissolution, many in the opposition await the return of these men, as though it is the only solution to the problem. This is a sign of just how much opposition circles are in decay. They’re stuck hoping for the return of the status quo ante, competing in ballots like zombies, dead in all but appearance and traipsing forward in the blind hope that one day the Hun family will take pity and grant them life again. What’s the saying about madness and doing the same thing again and again?

Indeed, what use is keeping things going as they are? It’s not as if the structures of the opposition are thriving. Their leaders are either in jail, have been compelled into silence by government repression or patronage, or (it’s fair to say) are uninspiring. They have lost many of their local activists and networkers. One struggles to know who is in charge at any moment. Splinter parties are legion. It’s also difficult to know what the Candlelight Party or the Khmer Will Party actually stands for. Their only purpose, it seems, is that they’re not the CPP, which is hardly an enticing proposition to Cambodians.

The heroes of the opposition movement – those who broke from the traditional royalist opposition in the 1990s and built what you could call a social-democratic opposition – are either in exile, will never be allowed to return (Sam Rainsy, Mu Sochua) or are in detention (Kem Sokha). Moreover, most of these opposition grandees are in their late sixties or seventies. Sam Rainsy, 74, is older than Hun Sen. Take a look at the Khmer Will Party’s leadership, too. Son Chhay (68) and Hong Sok Hour (67) are vice presidents.

Most importantly, the structures that helped build the opposition movement of the 1990s are also decayed. The trade union movement, which was so integral to the rise of the Rainsy-linked social democratic opposition, has now been utterly decimated by repression or obsolescence. The garment workers were this opposition movement’s main base, but they have drifted away. The anti-Vietnamese hatred that fed the 1990s generation is looking archaic in the face of Phnom Penh’s alliance with Beijing. The young generation isn’t motivated by appeals to the political battles of the 1980s when the current opposition leaders came of age. The West no longer cares about democracy building as it did in the 1990s.

It’s time to say that the opposition movement that began in the 1990s is dead; and that this generation of opposition leaders needs to retire. Indeed, it needs its own succession process, similar to the one the CPP is undergoing. The movement needs a rebirth. It needs to take the next three and a half years to find new, younger leaders with fresh ideas. That means dissolving the current crop of opposition parties. That means the likes of Sam Rainsy, Mu Sochua, Son Chhay, etc, etc, need to vacate the stage. That means accepting that nothing will happen in the next two or three years except for closed-door debates and listening to the opinions of ordinary Cambodians. That means waiting until the legion of specialists and graduates who have joined the Hun Manet government, because of its promise of technocracy, realizes that the new government is just as corrupt, closed, and hierarchical as the old one. Indeed, a new opposition movement needs to quietly but effectively leech away the competent officials who will surely become disillusioned by the government, just as the 1990s generation emerged from those (like Sam Rainsy) disaffected by the failures of Funcinpec-CPP coalition governments during that decade.

As the Hun family marches through the institutions, now dominating all of them, the opposition movement needs to make its own long march to find a new base and meaning. There needs to be a new manifesto, a new understanding of Cambodian politics that addresses the current concerns of Cambodians, not the continuation of policies that were popular in the 1990s and 2000s. The opposition needs more of a reason to exist other than the mere fact of its existence.

It also needs new allies, inside and outside Cambodia. Last year, your columnist suggested that the new opposition movement should use its “wilderness years” to build itself around issues of taxation and environmentalism. It needs to approach Cambodians as consumers, not only as workers. That means letting them know how much of their tax money is being squandered and pilfered by the CPP regime, and how little the authorities are doing to tackle the crippling public debt crisis. It needs to properly embrace new technology. It needs to cease the lingering anti-Vietnamese rhetoric and focus on the problems wrought by Chinese investment. Importantly, it needs to show that it could effectively manage the economy and society, competing against Hun Manet on his government’s promises of competency, and not just values.

The article was originally published by The Diplomat


David Hutt
David Hutt

Research Fellow | Editor

Key Topics

2024 Senate ElectionCambodia opposition partiesHun SenKhmer Will PartySoutheast AsiaCambodia


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