Back to back, they face each other

By: Ou Virak - Posted on: March 4, 2014 | Cambodia

Both sides of Cambodia’s political divide need to address the concerns of voters and replace rhetoric with action

By Ou Virak    Photography by Sam Jam

Since July’s national elections, Cambodia has witnessed a seemingly intractable political deadlock between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Despite the opposition making significant gains in the National Assembly, the CNRP – which was formed in 2012 by leaders of the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party – has refused to take up their seats in the legislative body and has been boycotting the government. Meanwhile, the CPP has refused to make concessions on key issues – such as reform of the National Election Committee – and are now effectively running the country as a one-party state. Although there have been reports of ‘secret negotiations’ between the parties, the situation is leaving many people wondering where they stand, and what options are left to escape from this deadlock.

Southeast Asia Globe magazine
Speaking out:
Ou Virak has faced criticism for denouncing anti-Vietnamese rhetoric. Photo: Sam Jam

One of the key reasons why Cambodians are finding themselves in this situation is a failure – on both sides – to debate policies. Instead of taking the opportunity to propose a real plan of action through which they would enact change in Cambodia, the CNRP followed many of the CPP’s tactics. The pre-election campaign was characterised by empty rhetoric, with neither party making available concrete and transparent policies or political platforms for voters to use in evaluating the parties. More often than not, the CNRP’s position has been nothing more than the polar opposite of the CPP’s position on the same issue, and positions are rarely justified by an identifiable political ideology. Both parties have chosen to demonise the other, to engage in you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us rhetoric. This sort of campaigning leaves little room for negotiations or power-sharing.

Increasingly, the debate is being underpinned by strong elements of race politics. The CNRP has resorted to blaming Vietnam – and as a consequence, people of Vietnamese descent – for the country’s myriad problems. However, in addition to fuelling anti-Vietnamese violence, it is only distracting from the real issues. While Vietnam has certainly played a significant role – both positive and negative – in Cambodia’s history, the reality is that the struggles faced by Cambodians today are due to a lack of government policies aimed at protecting people from both state and non-state abuses. The CNRP has an opportunity – and a responsibility – to identify these problems and to propose solutions to improve the lives of Cambodians.

The government’s recent violent crackdown on freedom of expression, which encompassed the recent ban on all demonstrations and marches, the criminal charges levelled against human rights defenders and the violence used against protesters, is nothing more than a recycling of the same old scare tactics the CPP has been using over the years to silence its critics. The relative restraint shown during the first few months after the elections – during which mass demonstrations became commonplace – was the exception, not the rule.

Now we find ourselves in a self-imposed zero-sum game: Both parties want to win and to take all home – essentially a very selfish and self-interested position – without considering the solutions that would benefit the Cambodian population. Yet, if the CNRP takes up its 55 seats in the National Assembly (while the CPP maintains its majority 68 seats), collaboration and communication can be utilised to balance the share of the power and render the body effective. The National Assembly has the potential to be a place where real change happens, where lawmakers can question and debate the policies that are negatively impacting Cambodians, such as uncontrolled development, crackdowns on free speech, the right to assembly and labour issues, as well as propose legislation and policies to address these issues.

In just over three years, Cambodia will hold commune elections. Although the CPP maintained its majority in parliament with the July 2013 elections, it is well aware that it must begin to enact real change and to reform key areas of the government in order to convince the increasingly sceptical voters (the CPP won the popular vote by a margin of only 300,000 votes) to keep voting the party into power. The areas in need of reform are many, but already the government is introducing and moving along long-promised legislation related to the judicial sector, a sign that the CPP may be responding to its drop in popularity. In order to remain relevant in this context, the CNRP will need to assess its campaigning strategy moving forward and come up with a concrete plan
of action.

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Ou Virak is president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights

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