To come or to default – Sam Rainsy’s predicament

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As Nov 9 to 11 fast approaches, Sam Rainsy is facing a tough dilemma: to come back as promised or to default. Many political analysts have tried to conjure up a different scenario for either way but none seems yet to be the best option for Rainsy considering the  politico-socio-economic reality in Cambodia and Rainsy’s state of mind.

To understand Rainsy, one needs know his past, his family situation, his education and his political commitment.

Rainsy was born to an old elitist Cambodian family. He has been raised and treated as an aristocratic child and master.

His French education provided him with a comfort zone. Being “le pere prudent et avise” – a sage father – is his modus operandi.

As such, he has an aversion to taking risks. He would rather invest his efforts in getting people to bring what he needs to him on a silver plate. Of course, he would dream to be the conqueror but he would rather sit as a strategist general behind the frontline. This behaviour has always successfully kept him out of big trouble – until now.

However, this aspect doesn’t mean he’s a coward. He’s a natural born leader. As such, he could not follow someone else. That is what had him thrown out of the Funcinpec party. As the leader, he has the conviction that his security is prime for the survival of his cause.

Following this logic, the best hope for Rainsy is to create social unrest in Cambodia by all means and, only then, would he feel secure enough to come back as a ruler and to create a new order. However, the Cambodian socio-politico-economic reality would not show such clemency to this expectation.

 

Tense situation

Sam Rainsy’s logic has been to create a tense political situation to get people to rise up, a concept he calls people power.

His assessment is not wrong, because in Cambodia today only he could have this influence considering what happened in 2013 when he came back after Hun Sen managed to get him a royal pardon. However, from 2013 to 2017, the faith in the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has dropped as witnessed by the votes expressed in the commune elections before the party was disbanded.

Furthermore, many social issues have been tackled by the ruling part. These include raising the minimum wage for garment workers from $80 in 2013 to $182 in 2019, the expectation of another increase  to $190 in 2020, improving working conditions through the reduction of electricity costs and maintaining room rental costs at current levels.

In addition, public servants, especially in the medical, education and armed forces fields, have seen their salaries raised as has medical care for all workers in both the private and public sector. In addition economic growth has kept pace at about  7 percent per annum.

 

Social unrest

People will thus have a lot to lose if there is any social unrest.

Of course there are still supporters of the former CNRP but they are divided and they are different from hardline supporters of Rainsy.

As the D-Day approaches, the government has been  shrewd enough to arrest key supporters who have the potential to gather unlawful movements by employing the charge of “crime of attack” against lawful government.

 

Tactical error

If he sees it as a clever strategy to return, Rainsy will have made a tactical error that will cost him dear. His call for people power is very confusing with its element of a coup by seeking the armed forces to disobey orders.

He also insulted His Majesty the King, which is a crime under Cambodian law.

Rainsy craves attention for his return but his approach is one of attack, which gives government lawful reason to arrest him.

It will also cost him the support of the international community, especially precious Asean member states such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Without Thailand not letting him gather his Cambodian immigrant supporters, the comeback with a big “fanfare” is impossible.

 

Rainsy’s best choice?

Whether his political life survives or not will depend on his next move. Time is running out. Not only did he put himself in this dangerous poker game but he also put his supporters in it.

To fold his hand or to go all in will have a serious consequence, depending on the determination of his opponent, Prime Minister Hun Sen.

PM Hun Sen has wowed to “destroy” at “any cost” all disruptive forces threatening Cambodia’s peace and stability. For the PM, his priority will be to keep his legacy and assure a smooth inter-generation transition.

Rainsy’s timing is bad. The Cambodian People’s Party leaders have learned the bitter lesson of 2013 when they let Rainsy in. It cost them 22 seats in  parliament and half a year of protests and social unrest. This time, no one will advise Mr Hun Sen to let Rainsy freely roam and rock the country.

Does Rainsy have to go all-in or fold in this card game? Another possibility is to negotiate between the two players without having to show their cards.

Rainsy has understood that without any move he will be simply forgotten. As a politician, glory is the goal, but his successive failure in all elections would deny Rainsy a place in the pantheon of Cambodia’s history.

In the other hand, if Rainsy succeeded, then would Mr Hun Sen accept losing?

PM Hun Sen, who has survived war and destruction to build what he has built today, wouldn’t disappear without trace.

He knows war strategy and especially how to win a war without fighting, if possible.

 

New generation of opposition?

This still could be Rainsy’s door if he knows how to open it. At 70 years old, Rainsy needs to reassess his life’s achievements. His influence and credibility fray with the time he spends outside the country. But what he still has, even though it’s not enough to win the hand, is his capacity to be a trouble-maker – for good or bad reasons. Trading off this capacity to free Kem Sokha and all other supporters who were arrested as suspects of the  “crime of attack” would make Rainsy’s image shine again in the country and for posterity. He could be the guarantor of a new generation of opposition that Cambodia needs for a balanced society with proper checks on power.

Rainsy still has time to save his face and to be creative enough to get a deal with Mr Hun Sen for the good of the country. But with a weaker hand, he needs to make his move first through any backdoor channel before his time is up.

 

Chir Vichara is political analyst based in Phnom Penh.

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