Opposition Marks 1997 Cambodian Coup Amid Worries About Today’s Political Strife

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cambodia-kem-05042016.jpg Cambodian opposition party deputy leader Kem Sokha at memorial service for slain labor activist in Phnom Penh, Jan. 22, 2015.

As Cambodian opposition politicians on Wednesday marked the anniversary of a bloody 1997 coup that led to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s complete control of the country, political analysts and nongovernmental organizations warned that Cambodia could return to those dark days if Western nations cut off financial aid over ongoing abuses by Hun Sen’s government.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the Khmer National United Party (KNU) marked the coup d’état that erupted after tensions between the two governing parties at the time broke into factional fighting between supporters of Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC and backers of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The tensions flowed from the 1993 election, in which FUNCINPEC won but was forced to share power with Hun Sen, who had been installed by Vietnam a decade earlier and refused to cede power after the U.N-administered vote.

It is unclear how many people died in the coup, with estimates running from dozens to hundreds, but the clash decisively ended the power-sharing arrangement between the two men, leaving Hun Sen firmly in control. Now 63, he is one of the world’s longest-serving autocrats.

The echoes of the coup can still be found in Cambodia’s current political situation that has seen Hun Sen throw opponents in jail, an opposition party leader Sam Rainsy flee into exile, and Cambodia National Rescue Party acting leader Kem Sokha hole up in the party headquarters to avoid arrest.

Appearing in public for only the second time since government forces attempted to arrest him, Kem Sokha reaffirmed CNRP commitment to nonviolence.

“The opposition party remains committed to upholding nonviolent principles,” he said. “We will not lead the country to an event similar to the July 5-6 coup d’etat.”

CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan said that the ruling party did not commemorate or organize any ceremony like the other parties did because it maintains its claim that Prince Norodom Ranariddh was attempting to lead Khmer Rouge forces into Phnom Penh in 1997.

“We are grateful to those who have sacrificed their lives, but this [event] should be forgotten because it was not a good experience,” he said.

Foreign aid concerns

While Kem Sokha was pledging nonviolence, NGO executives and political analysts expressed concern that democracy and the rule of law in Cambodia will take a step backward if the government turns down international aid money. Hun Sen has dismissed criticism from Western aid donors, including the United States, over his heavy-handed treatment of opponents.

Am Sam Ath, an official with the Cambodian rights group LICADHO, told RFA’s Khmer Service that funding from the West is important and necessary for Cambodia’s social development.

“Do not forget that Cambodia is a multiparty democratic country and a member of the U.N.,” he said. “Cambodia has signed and endorsed all treaties and conventions on human rights to ensure the strengthening of democracy in Cambodia.  If many donor countries cut their funding, Cambodia may face a crisis and the democratic process in Cambodia will continue to decline.”

Both the European Union and the U.S. Congress have expressed concern about the political situation in Cambodia, tying aid to the country to an end to the crisis.

Last week the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a proposal in the State Department funding legislation that cuts off U.S. aide unless the secretary of state certifies that the “government of Cambodia has ceased violence and harassment against civil society in Cambodia, including the political opposition.”

Earlier in June the EU approved a resolution calling for the release of four employees of the human rights organization ADHOC and a National Election Committee member who were jailed on bribery or accessory charges after being accused of attempting to keep an alleged mistress of Kem Sokha quiet.

An arrest warrant has also been issued for a U.N. worker in connection with the case.

‘Go with the flow’

A CPP spokesperson acknowledged in remarks to RFA that foreign cuts will affect the democratic process in the country, but he said it’s domestic NGOs that will pay for it.

“We will go with the flow. The Cambodian people are used to suffering in stages,” Sok Eysan said. “Wanted or not, it would affect some, but I think that it would affect more gravely the majority of NGOs and civil society groups that receive the funding.  More than $70 million in aid is mostly given to the NGOs.”

Chan Vibol, a political science and governance professor, said the government should pay attention to funding from the West, because it has helped Cambodia develop by strengthening democracy and good governance inside the country.

“For the economic domain, if the funding is cut, it will lead to the cessation of economic and trade operations with the superpower countries,” he said.

Reported by Monitroth Morm and Chandara Yang. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.


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