Cambodia On A Rocky Road

The Khmer Times, 29 June 2017

The post local election political environment appears stable. It is a widely-shared recognition that Cambodian democracy is evolving in a positive way.


Some wish for such a trend to continue.


Both main political parties seem to exercise political tolerance and find possible ways to reach political compromises. But underneath this political current, there is a serious trust deficit and also structural risks.


Political development is likely evolving towards a breaking point. The political outlook is bleak.


There are some factors to explain this pessimistic view. First, the political distrust between the top leaders of the two opposing political forces remains deep.


At this moment, there is no sign at all of political rapprochement between the two main political parties, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).


Restoring the personal relationship and reconstructing the political bridge between the top leaders of the two camps is highly unlikely. Personal conflicts between Prime Minister Hun Sen and former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy have reached new heights.


Bilateral political trust has been eroding after a series of verbal confrontations between the two concerning a wide range of issues, from assessing the electoral process of the last commune election to who is a “coward” in the political game.


Second, social and political polarisation is unfortunately on the rise. The CNRP continues exerting its strategy to delegitimise the current regime and criticising the ruling elites for not being able to meet people’s aspirations, while the CPP is accelerating reforms to gain public trust.


The people are divided into two camps. The opposition group wishes to see and believes in “change”.


The pro-establishment group believes in continued reforms and development.


The fight between the powerful and the powerless is intensifying.


Third, both parties have divergent views on historical events and their meanings.


The CPP adheres to the main sources of its legitimacy, which are the liberation of the nation from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, the support from the Vietnamese voluntary forces and the achievements since 1979.


On the other hand, the CNRP accuses the CPP of being a proxy of Vietnam by linking the CPP with the Communist Party of Vietnam, and purportedly, politically interpret January 7 as the day of the Vietnamese invasion.


On June 26, former CNRP president Sam Rainsy posted on his personal Facebook page this question: “Should we celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the CPP (June 28, 1951)?” The question was aimed to attack the heart of the CPP’s legitimate existence.


Such a wide gap of interpreting selected historical memories is worrisome. Different political groups need to come up with a common understanding of Cambodian history based on which national identity can be constructed, reconstructed and strengthened.


Distorted historical facts, with political motivation, put Cambodia on a dangerous path ahead. Without common understanding of history, nation building will fail and it will be back to square one.


The history textbooks used at public schools are the most reliable sources.


Fourth, both parties are under mounting pressures to meet people’s expectations. It is an uphill battle to win people’s hearts.


Political parties might opt for populist politics in an extreme form to beef up popular support for the general election next year.


Populism is a threat to long-term peace and stability. Failing to deliver promises will lead to low public trust in the government, which in turn will widen the gap between the state and society.


Without public trust and social support, no regime will be able to stand.


Finally, foreign intervention in Cambodian politics is multi-layered and complex.


Cambodia is vulnerable to becoming a playground for competing powers, or in a worst case scenario, a proxy war between major powers.


The country’s dark history will repeat itself if Cambodia’s political leaders fail to learn the country’s correct history.


How did the Khmer empire collapse? Why did Cambodia fail to maintain its neutral foreign policy? How did Cambodia fall into the Indochina War?


Peace and stability cannot be taken for granted. It needs to be earned.


It is time for political leaders to step back and reflect on these questions. Is it worth spending time and effort to attack each other?


What are our national interests? Why are we still poor? How can we catch up with other countries?

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