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Politics

Rainsy faces arrest as violence flares

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Cambodia's opposition leader Sam Rainsy   © Reuters

PHNOM PENH -- A Cambodian court issued a warrant for the arrest of opposition leader Sam Rainsy on Nov. 13, little more than two weeks after a pair of opposition lawmakers were dragged from their cars and beaten outside parliament.

     The warrant, related to a long-dormant defamation case, followed an angry reaction by Prime Minister Hun Sen to comments from Rainsy likening himself to Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Myanmar's opposition National League for Democracy, which has just swept to victory in historic elections.

     The move to arrest Rainsy, who was out of the country, all but ends a political truce locally dubbed "the culture of dialogue," which observers had hoped would last until national elections due within the next three years. It follows rising levels of political violence over several weeks.

     On the same day that Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Saphea were beaten after a protest backed by the ruling party, deputy CNRP leader Kem Sokha's house was pounded with rocks by a mob for six hours without intervention by the police.

     Concurrently, Kun Kim, the deputy commander of the army and a long-term ally of Hun Sen, called for Sokha's removal from the vice-presidency of the National Assembly -- a request that the ruling Cambodian People's Party acted quickly on, pushing through a vote to oust Sokha on Oct. 29.

     "This has now just completely derailed what seemed to be the peaceful process for elections in Cambodia," said Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales and Southeast Asia expert.

     "This is a serious assault on democracy -- the intervention of the military in particular is very worrying; statements by the police chief that he won't accept an opposition in government, this is not a good climate."

     Both the United States embassy in Phnom Penh and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights were quick to condemn the attacks and urge an independent investigation, with the latter offering to assist.

     A government team has arrested three soldiers in relation to the beatings of opposition MPs, but observers said there were few doubt about where their orders came from. Interior ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak told the Cambodia Daily after the attacks: "If it were me, I would have used a gun".

Trauma

After almost three-and-a-half decades in power, the CPP has reasons to be apprehensive about the next election. At the last ballot in 2013 the CNRP attracted a surge in support, winning 55 of 123 seats -- largely due to widespread support from younger voters.

     The cornerstone of Hun Sen's election pitch -- that only he could guarantee peace and stability -- rang hollow to many voters born too late to remember  the trauma and brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime, which fell from power in 1979 after a Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Young voters were more concerned by corruption and a shortage of jobs.

     The government's response to its election reverse was to promise reform, but the country remains hamstrung by corruption, despite modest achievements in areas such as education.

     "Clearly, in 2013, the ruling party thought they had it in the bag and they were rudely surprised. But what they learned wasn't to suddenly clean-up their act and play fair," said political economist Sophal Ear, author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy.

     "What they learned was to trot out some reforms and reformers, then engage in some skullduggery and then turn-up the heat," the author told the Nikkei Asian Review in an email.

     In targeting Sokha, the deputy leader of a party formed through an uneasy merger, the CPP was trying to undermine his union with Rainsy, regarded as a more moderate leader.

     The violence was intended to stir the passions of Sokha and his more hardline supporters at a time when Rainsy has steadfastly committed to refraining from any form of provocation.

     Rainsy has twice before gone into self-imposed exile in the face of charges he claimed were politically motivated, returning only after pardons were issued at the behest of Hun Sen. In 2013, about 100,000 people welcomed Rainsy home in an unprecedented show of support.

     The recent outbreaks of violence threaten to undermine the CPP's political legitimacy, secured through long negotiations that ended an opposition boycott of parliament over allegations that the 2013 election was rigged, with potential dangers for the economy.

     Bank deposits fell by about $600 million during the turmoil that followed the 2013 election. In the longer term, a newly democratic Myanmar could emerge as a beacon of political stability in Southeast Asia, reducing Cambodia's ability to attract foreign investment.

     "People investing in Cambodia care about political stability; they don't like this kind of publicity. They're not champions of democracy, but they don't like it when they have to be involved with thuggery," said Sophal Ear. "This is the appetizer folks, the main course has yet to come."

     

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