Understanding Cambodia

And then again I don’t understand it at all…

The longer you remain at a place, the better you think you understand the people, their habits, their culture. That works for me in Cambodia as well. So by now I understand that a Cambodian on his moped, who passed me at the left side and immediately turns right, forcing me to brake very hard so as not to hit him, doesn’t do that with bad intentions, but just adheres to local traffic customs. I also understand that all the efforts my Cambodian colleagues devote to details and procedures is their way of treating people with respect and doing things right and it is not an attempt to postpone implementation. But then, suddenly, there are those moments you realize that you don’t understand it all, that there’s so much hidden beneath the surface that you will never completely understand. Sometimes that comes from ordinary things like politics.

The ruling party in Cambodia is the CPP, the Cambodian People’s Party. The CPP has been the ruling party since the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, although under a different name in the first years and from 14 January 1985 until now Hun Sen has been the prime minister. Still, Cambodia is not a one-party-state, there are opposition parties. To be precise, the first elections, in 1993, were won by another party, but the CPP refused to accept the election results and coerced the other party into a coalition government. The next elections were won by the CPP with an overwhelming majority.

At this moment there are two relevant opposition parties, Funcinpec (Front uni national pour un Cambodge indépendant, neutre, pacifique, et cooperative) and CNRP (Cambodian National Rescue Party). Funcinpec is the party that won the 1993 elections, a royalist party, founded by former king Sihanouk. Until 2006 the party was led by one of Sihanouk’s sons, prince Ranariddh. In 1993, after winning the elections, he became prime minister, but in 1997 he was overthrown by then “second” prime minister Hun Sen in a bloody coup. He went into exile in France, but returned in 1998 to lead Funcinpec during the (lost) elections. In 2006 he was removed from the party, among other things for too obvious out-of-marriage affairs, and succeeded by his niece. The prince was unable to say goodbye to politics and founded several, more or less successful, new parties. By 2013 the royalist camp was so divided that they didn’t win any seats in Parliament, although they still have a few seats in Local Councils and so in the Senate.

The other opposition party is the CNRP. The party as such isn’t very old yet, it was established only after the local elections in 2012. Two parties then joined together, the Human Rights Party, chaired by Kem Sokha, a former Funcinpec senator and the Sam Rainsy party, named after party leader Sam Rainsy, former Minister of Economy for… Funcinpec. Rainsy became party-leader, Sokha deputy. During the 2013 national elections, CNRP won many seats, although CPP still has a small majority. The CNRP (which actually won a lot) contested the election result because they thought they had won much more and there had been election fraud. The demonstrations that were organized consequently, with more Cambodians demonstrating than ever before, caused a lot of unrest and violence and were eventually countered with a prohibition to demonstrate. Furthermore, the CNRP refused to take its seats in parliament, while the CPP continued to govern. That situation turned out to be unacceptable for all parties in the end, so after a year, both sides made concessions and reached an agreement so both parties are now represented in parliament. The CNRP in parliament is led by Sam Rainsy. That sounds logical, as he is the party leader, but it wasn’t. A few years before he had been convicted to 10 months of imprisonment, probably for political reasons, and had left the country. Only in 2013 the king pardoned him so he could return to Cambodia, but that was too late to register for the elections. After the agreement between CPP and CNRP, the election commission accepted that Rainsy would take the place of another CNRP-representative. The royal pardon for Rainsy was requested by the prime minister.

Then the nowadays languishing Funcinpec. To the surprise of everyone (well, most likely not everyone, but many) the expelled prince Ranariddh has left his lately founded new party to return to Funcinpec as party leader. In western countries the explanations for that kind of move would be political: it’s better for the party, the voters want it, something like that. Basically it would mean: this way we’re able to get more influence, win more seats. That’s not how it goes in Cambodia. The explanation given and accepted by everyone except the prince himself, is that the prime minister wanted the prince to return to Funcinpec, so that’s what happened.

But wait a minute, that prime minister, wasn’t his party the CPP?!?! This is about the same as David Cameron revoking a (non-existent) conviction of Nick Clegg, so he can win the elections, then telling Labour it’s about time Tony Blair returns as a leader and consequently Labour and Tony Blair actually arranging that. I thought I understood something about politics and the functioning of political parties….


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