Cambodia’s opposition is gone, but the desire for change lives on

With Cambodia’s main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) dissolved and 118 of its officials banned from politics for five years, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party has effectively crushed the last threat to his 30-year rule. Occidental College associate professor Sophal Ear discusses the new face of resistance in a nation that no longer offers its citizens a political path to reform

Police stand guard outside Cambodia’s Supreme Court just hours before the decision to dissolve the CNRP is announced. Photo: Reuters / Samrang Pring

In June, more than three million people voted for the CNRP. How do you think those people feel about the decision, and what new shape will that desire for change take?

They feel that their votes were just flushed down the toilet. All three million of them. The desire for change remains; just because your car has been towed doesn’t mean you will stop moving. You still have legs; your mind remains intact; you still have dreams. You just won’t get there as fast, and you’ll have to be creative.

Supreme Court President Dith Munty was a card-carrying member of the ruling party – what does the Supreme Court’s ruling say about the state of the judiciary in Cambodia?

It is certifiably politicised and cannot be seen in the context of judicial independence. The rule of man and by man applies. There’s nothing to see there, what does rule of law mean when you can just pass a law and dissolve the opposition? It just means you make it up as you go along.

What do you see as the next possible step for the 118 CNRP officials now banned from Cambodian politics for five years? What avenues are left open to them?

I guess they are forced to halt their aspiration for higher office, but it’s no different from Singapore bankrupting its opposition leaders. You have merely made 118 martyrs. I wonder if they switched to the ruling party whether they’d still be banned? But then they wouldn’t be martyrs anymore.

With open protests seeming unlikely given the ruling party’s strength, what possible options do the Cambodian people have to express their dissent?

They will always have their conscience. It was true in the Soviet Union. It was true under the Khmer Rouge. Just because you cannot protest now doesn’t mean you agree with what’s going on. More Cambodians will decide, no doubt, that they cannot live in Cambodia. Some of the best and brightest will leave. The crowning achievement after 25 years is a return to autocracy, which is a pity for Cambodia and millions of Cambodians.

This article was published in the December edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here

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