Cambodian politics has been a mixture of power dynamics and national reconciliation. Prime Minister Hun Sen, widely regarded as the master of power politics, is also pragmatic and flexible when it comes to political negotiation. His win-win policy in the late 1990s is a testament of his political pragmatism.
The release on bail of Kem Sokha early Monday was a milestone in promoting national reconciliation after more than a year of political tensions. The tactically brilliant political move could be understood as a genuine political will of Prime Minister Hun Sen in cooling down the political temperature and forging ahead with national reconciliation and possibly a strategic initiative at an inclusive 6th mandate.
After his release on bail, Mr Sokha will be under close monitoring of the court and his movement restricted within the zone assigned by the court. In Cambodia, there is no such law as “under house arrest”, similar to the one in Myanmar, so there is legal flexibility to this case. Since he is not convicted, he cannot be pardoned by His Majesty the King.
Legal issues aside, there could be many sides to the political interpretation of Mr Sokha’s release. But one thing is clear. It is a positive sign of political compromise and reconciliation. Both sides have shown a certain degree of political will in promoting national reconciliation and unity, which is paramount to reforms and nation-building.
If Mr Sokha shows his genuine political will in moving national reconciliation forward, there will likely be more positive steps. Now the ball is in the court of Mr Sokha and his family to decide the future path of political reconciliation and negotiation. Political trust can only be built through frank dialogues and negotiation based on mutual respect.
However, the path to political reconciliation will be derailed if Sam Rainsy, the leader of the overseas resistance movement, continues to sabotage political trust, create political confusion, and mislead the public about the possibility of the reinstatement of the outlawed CNRP and the re-organization of the July 29 general election. Mr Sokha must be wise not be manipulated by Mr Rainsy.
So what does the latest political development imply?
Firstly, it shows that Cambodian politicians are stepping back from cutthroat power politics and veering towards a more conciliatory phase of political reconciliation after the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) secured a landslide election victory on July 29. However, it is highly improbable that we will see a comeback of the outlawed CNRP and a new general election, as demanded by some “unrealistic” opposition leaders.
Secondly, Cambodia’s relations with the US and the European Union will likely be improved after experiencing a confrontational hard look at each other for over a year, due to wrangling over the political interpretation of democracy. It needs to be noted that though Cambodian democracy is fledgling, it is thriving in the country.
Thirdly, in a broader perspective, as the government takes prudent measures to counter and reduce risks stemming from the dynamics of domestic politics and geopolitics, there will be more efforts to mitigate and avert risks in order to maintain and strengthen investor confidence and a stable business environment.
Fourthly, from the political leadership perspective, pragmatism is the main leadership trait on the part of Mr Hun Sen in calculating risks and adjusting his position accordingly. And negotiation from the position of strength is his persistent strategy.
From a very broad perspective, the conditional release on bail of Kem Sokha also raises the possibility of a changing political landscape whereby the release of the former opposition leader could open the door for his supporters and those in self imposed exile to return home to engage the government and the CPP in an inclusive way.
By doing this, if it happens, would be an impetus to forging true national reconciliation. In the process, it would provide a platform for these outlawed politicians to voice their sentiments and thoughts in a constructive manner rather than be destructive, which is currently taking place abroad.
There have been vocal negative comments about Mr Sokha’s conditional bail. Those making those comments are overlooking the fact that the legal process must take its due course. The Cambodian government does not react well to external pressure and time and again it has been proven that a head-on collision only makes matters worse.
The establishment of the Consultative Group comprising members of the opposition parties is a step in the right direction for an inclusive government. If the release of Mr Sokha results in scores of opposition members, now abroad, returning home to be part of the new political environment – then the dream of a more united and promising Cambodia will be realised. Let us turn swords into ploughshares to build a Cambodia for all.