Cambodia: Can a Deadlock Be Broken?
There is no problem that lacks a solution, though we may not like our choices. Manmade problems are solvable through imaginative, productive, creative thinking and carefully thought-out action. Some predicaments are harder to deal with than others. The pain from the loss of loved ones does not heal overnight. Some learn to live and cope with loss, some seek professional help, some never move on.
There is a Khmer saying that goes, Choss toek kropeu, leung leu khla – there is crocodile in the river, there is tiger on the bank. Yet, being imaginative and creative can help beat such a circumstance. There are alternatives, and a better alternative does come along.
Lord Buddha says, "Nothing is permanent." Life is a series of choices. There is not a perfect world. One makes the choice one thinks takes one closer to an ideal state.
At present, Cambodians have worked themselves into a political deadlock. There are two rivals: The Cambodian People's Party that has ruled Cambodia since January 1979 with Vietnamese help, and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, a mid-2012 merger of the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, that seeks to change the status quo.
Right after the national election on July 28, the CPP government-appointed National Election Commission rushed to declare preliminary election results that favored the CPP with 68 seats and CNRP, 55 seats. The CNRP objected, and declared it had been robbed of its election victory through election irregularities and flaws – a claim backed by many non-governmental organizations. If the election had been free and fair, the CNRP says, it would have won a majority with 63 seats – leaving the CPP with 60 seats in a parliament of 123 members.
Taunting, rhetoric, threats spiraled and augmented tension and news outlets reported the deployment of government troops and armored vehicles.
A few days after the election, on August 2, in a speech to farmers in Kandal province, Premier Hun Sen said that the constitutional rule of 50 percent plus one majority makes a CNRP boycott of the inauguration of a new parliament immaterial, for it cannot prevent the formation of a new CPP government: "We don't need to depend on or beg another political party to attend a meeting." He warned the CPP would take away the seats of CNRP legislators who are no-shows.
Hun Sen's interpretation of the constitution has been questioned. Attorney Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodia Defenders, asserted that a quorum of 120 out of 123 legislators is required to open a new national assembly. Article 76 of Cambodia's 1993 Constitution stipulates, "The National Assembly consists of at least 120 members."
It may be the logic of CNRP leaders that without the presence of CNRP legislators at the National Assembly, there would not be the quorum required to open the Assembly; that without an Assembly a new CPP government, which it must approve, cannot come into being. Thus, a CNRP leader told me, "Time is on our side and we are fully aware we hold the key to a new Cambodia."
Talks failed on forming the joint committee requested by CNRP leaders to investigate alleged election irregularities. Then talks restarted, and talks failed again. The talks were doomed from the start, as reports indicated that neither party entered negotiations in a spirit of compromise, only with demands that the other party yield. The CPP wanted a joint committee to include the pro-government NEC. The CNRP objected. The CNRP, which first wanted the United Nations to be a negotiator, softened its stand and proposed observer status for a UN representative. The CPP objected to any foreign involvement.
But credit must be given to the CNRP as it declared in its latest statement on August 31: The CNRP wants a joint, independent, investigating committee to resolve election irregularities. "After this independent committee has been established and carried out all of its duties, the CNRP will accept any decisions made by this independent committee."
If the CPP is certain it has won fair and square, why not agree to a joint committee?
CNRP leaders have consistently vowed to try all avenues to find a peaceful solution to the election conflict and have promised that street protests would be a last resort. CPP leaders have warned they will arrest those responsible for any violence and destruction.
The CNRP filed its complaints at the Constitutional Council, another CPP-controlled institution, which is required by law to render a final verdict on election results by September 8 – a verdict CNRP leaders expect will repeat the NEC's announcement favoring the CPP.
The Ramvong circle dance is what the words say, a dance in a circle according to the drum beats, thak-thong thak-thong. Some foreign participants joined the circle briefly and left Cambodian circle dancers to perform their chak kbach.
On August 20, US and Australian diplomats in Phnom Penh renewed calls for an investigation of election irregularities. A few days earlier, the European Union High Commissioner's statement said, "Alleged irregularities will have to be dealt with before the final result can be announced" – i.e., on September 8.
But one day after, on August 21, visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi congratulated and welcomed "the victory" of Premier Hun Sen and the CPP. The Chinese urged "all (Cambodian) parties" to hold talks peacefully and "to put in place quickly a new National Assembly and a new government."
Wang then warned outsiders: China – whose government provided Phnom Penh with 1,000 handguns and 50,000 rounds of ammunition for Cambodia's National Police just two days after the election, and has given more than 2.8 billion dollars in aid and loans to Cambodia since 1992 – will not tolerate "outside" interference in Cambodia's political process.
CNRP leaders have seemed to follow the late King Father's "popular consultation" technique when he was a Prince and the country's Chief of State. CNRP President Sam Rainsy and Vice President Kem Sokha toured Cambodia's provinces to report election-related developments to the electorate, to consult the electorate on their thoughts about the next course of action. On August 25, the CNRP held its public hearing, "Voters Seek Truth and Justice" at Freedom Park. Authorities said the number of participants would be limited to five or six thousand; between 10,000 and 20,000 people showed up.
The impression I have formed from correspondence and news reports is that the CNRP public hearing is reminiscent of the late King Father's Sakmach Cheat or National Congress. In the 1960s I attended a few congresses at Phnom Penh's Veal Men, where citizens from different provinces came to raise issues and present requests to those in authority. Scholars and writers referred to the Sakmach Cheat as a kind of town hall meeting under Prince Sihanouk's chairmanship – a "direct democracy," some called it.
The CNRP public hearing "Voters Seek Truth and Justice" brought mostly CNRP supporters and sympathizers and interested citizens to Freedom Park, where both sides exchanged views on how to seek "Truth," i.e., what really happened at the July 28 election, and "Justice," i.e., remedies for the irregularities and flaws that prevented the voters' true wishes from being implemented.
The hearing was reportedly lively. I enjoyed James Pringle's piece (8/29) that described the event (good cheer, laughing people, an old folk song sung by CNRP Mu Sochua, speeches, applause, brave words from participants, among others).
"This is to fulfill our responsibility, to keep the people engaged, and to take their complaints to His Majesty (King Sihamoni) at some point," a CNRP leader told me.
A subsequent statement released by the CNRP called on the CPP to hold talks to establish an independent investigative committee to examine election irregularities. The statement repeated the CNRP position that failure to form such a committee would compel "the last resort . . . a mass peaceful demonstration against the result of the election. It will be held on September 7." The international community would be urged not to recognize the election results, nor any government created by those results.
The CPP responded it also wanted to talk.
But these exchanges were only the chak kbach movements by the Ramvong circle dancers. There cannot be talks between two non-talkers.
On August 29, a CNRP training session facilitated by an NGO was provided to CNRP working groups on tactics for a nonviolent and peaceful mass protest on September 7. Two protest rehearsals were planned for September 1 and 5.
Sam Rainsy took the time to clarify that the purpose of the mass demonstration is to reinforce the demand for creation of an independent investigative committee.
As the CNRP has its first rehearsal on September 1, the Phnom Penh Municipality gave a special training to 2,000 anti-riot police on how to handle the September 7 mass protest.
Last Friday, August 30, came a royal letter from King Sihamoni, who is in Beijing for a medical check-up. He called on Cambodians to respect the Constitution, the supreme law of the land, and use it to resolve their conflict. A day later, CNRP MP Mu Sochua posted on her Website: "His Majesty has called for the respect of the Constitution" and "The voters will use the Constitution as the supreme law of the nation to call for freedom, rights and justice."
That brings me back to the CNRP's mini-congress at Freedom Park on August 25 and on what reminded me of the late King Father's legacy, Sakmach Cheat or the National Congress.
In light of His Majesty King Sihamoni's call, would it not be in the Cambodian people's interest to seek implementation of Article 147 of Cambodia's 1993 Constitution (formerly Article 128) on the National Congress?
Article 147 stipulates, "The National Congress shall enable the people to be directly informed on various matters of national interests and to raise issues and requests for the State authority to solve." (Italics mine)
In the old days, Cambodians from remote areas of the kingdom traveled to Phnom Penh for a few days to participate in the Sakmach Cheat. Of course, some government officials exploited their ignorance and fear of authority, and manipulated issues for the officials' own benefits. Yet, some folks had the courage to speak their minds.
Today, I am focusing on Cambodia's supreme law of the land that provides an opportunity for the people "to raise issues and requests for the State authority to solve." I am also focusing on Article 149 (formerly Article 130) which stipulates, "The National Congress shall adopt recommendations for consideration by the State authorities, Senate and the Assembly."
I see the recent CNRP public hearing as a mini-Sakmach that seized the spirit of Article 147. Why not take this CNRP mini-Sakmach of supporters and sympathizers, and concerned citizens, a step further and convene a Sakmach Cheat with emphasis on Cheat on National/Nation to include the Khmer people from anywhere in the country and members and supporters of all political parties ready, willing, and able to attend? Let the world observe how, when an army and a police force do not engage in politics, but remain neutral institutions, the people would be able to come to a peaceful solution to the country's problems?
The July 28 election has shown us that the Cambodian people on the whole have developed and matured in their thinking. They may lack political sophistication, but they are no longer seduced by the glitz of new construction in the capital. They know they are hungry, that many have had their land confiscated, that there are not health services, good schools for their children, or the capacity have their basic needs met. Their souls long for a higher level of contentment. They may not understand what change entails, but they know what they don't want. So they voted. And now they question how it was possible for this election to have been lost. What went wrong?
I am conscious that in Article 148 (formerly Article 129), it's the Prime Minister who has the responsibility to convene the National Congress that shall proceed under the King's chairmanship. I don't expect the CPP Prime Minister, to convene such a meeting, at which he would be confronted by dissatisfied citizens; but let there be an official request to the Prime Minister and the King. The King's recent letter reminded Cambodians of "responsible institutions" "tasked" by the Constitution to resolve national issues. Is the National Congress not an institution tasked by Article 147 and Article 149 to serve the people? I expect many reasons to be given why the Sakmach Cheat cannot be convened. Let the explanation flow. And let the people express what they think on September 7.
But if the answer is a Yes to a Sakmach Cheat, then let the Cambodian people come from across the land on September 7 to gather in Phnom Penh "to raise issues and requests for the State authority to solve," and to "adopt recommendations for consideration by the State authorities, Senate and the Assembly."
I like to think positively and take risks to reach an ideal.
If my ideas do not meet with your approval, you have only lost about 15 minutes of your time reading and you can toss this article away. But what if an idea or a process suggested here catalyzes productive change? I seek only to make Cambodia a better place for its citizens. I thank my compatriots for reading this article.
The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.
About the Author:
Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States.
# # #
About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.