What will Cambodia's opposition do next?

Sam Rainsy, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), smiles as he meets his supporters during the day of a three-day protest at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh, 17 September 2013 Sam Rainsy, left, shares leadership of the opposition with Kem Sokha

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For the past two decades, there has been one golden rule for observers of Cambodian politics: never underestimate Hun Sen.

A poorly educated man from a rural village who lost an eye fighting in Cambodia's civil war and came close to being purged by the Khmer Rouge, he has now ruled the country for 28 years.

He lost Cambodia's first post-war election in 1993 but still forced the winning party to share power with him. He won only narrowly in 1998, with just over 40% of the vote. Yet today he dominates the political landscape like a latter-day Angkor king.

So what hope has the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) got of forcing him from office, after yet another flawed election delivered victory to Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP)? So far he has offered minimal concessions - a promise to work on reforming the election commission, and not much else.

'We are firm'

"We have no choice," I was told by Jumsakorn, a man who like so many Cambodians lost limbs - both his legs - to landmines, but who has abandoned his mobile drink stall to attend the opposition rallies in Phnom Penh's Freedom Park.

"Hun Sen has made people cry throughout our country. We have to stand up for our rights."

In the past, Hun Sen spoke skilfully to poor Cambodians like Jumsakorn - he used to be a very effective crowd-pleaser.

He would mix promises of basic development - a school here, a bridge or irrigation canal there - with threats of a slide back to war and revolution if he were to lose power. That argument is a lot less effective these days.

Cambodia opposition rally CNRP's mass protests have striking echoes of those after the 1998 election

"Hun Sen used three ways to weaken us in the past," said Kem Sokha, who shares the leadership of the CNRP with veteran opposition politician Sam Rainsy.

"He would cajole, he would buy us off, or he would threaten us. But he knows I cannot be bought, charmed or threatened. He knows that this time we are strong, and we are firm."

The mass protests organised by the CNRP have striking echoes of those that followed the 1998 election. Then, as now, there were well-founded complaints of fraud, which the CPP-controlled election commission refused to investigate. Then, as now, Hun Sen had a narrow majority.

But the opposition then was very different. Sam Rainsy had his own party, named after him, but very much a personalised party, and much smaller than the main opposition, Funcinpec, led by the erratic Prince Rannaridh.

Hun Sen was eventually able to persuade Funcinpec to join him in a coalition, despite the fact that their armed factions had fought a brief civil war in 1997. Its leaders were repeatedly outmanoeuvred by the prime minister, and the party declined to the point where it split, its two wings winning just two seats each in 2008.

'General discontent'

Start Quote

Hun Sen knows he has lost the trust of the people. There will be general discontent, even anger, in the country towards him - more protests, more upheavals”

End Quote Ken Sokha Cambodia opposition leader

This time, said Kem Sokha, we have learned from our experiences.

The CNRP has learned from other civic movements, tapping into a youthful electorate - a third of voters are under 30 years old - and their use of social networking sites to mobilise volunteers and supporters.

Younger Cambodians are also less impressed with Hun Sen's stability and development arguments, and less tolerant of the wealth and corruption visible among the ruling elite.

At the rallies these young volunteers run food and drink supplies for the protesters, and help police the sometimes emotional crowds. There are first aid volunteers and young performers on stage to keep the crowds entertained in between political speeches.

There is a wide spectrum of opposition supporters at the rallies, from street beggars, farmers and factory workers to prosperous entrepreneurs, all of whom feel they are losing out in the breakneck development unleashed by Hun Sen.

Looming behind the stage is one of the new high-rise buildings constructed by one of the big Cambodian companies that have prospered, thanks to their close ties to the prime minister.

The mantra of change is a lot more appealing these days to Cambodians of all ages.

"Hun Sen knows he has lost the trust of the people," says Kem Sokha. "There will be general discontent, even anger, in the country towards him - more protests, more upheavals."

Unclear effect
Young activists who are part of the opposition in Cambodia Younger Cambodians are less tolerant of corruption in the ruling elite

But there are other, darker forces at work in the opposition too. From the stage, young activists perform songs that glorify Cambodia's ancient past, appealing to a prickly nationalism that is never far from the surface, and which partly fuelled the frenzied revolution of the Khmer Rouge.

And there is open anti-Vietnamese sentiment on display; the number of settlers from Vietnam, a larger neighbour which occupied Cambodia for 10 years after 1979, is a sensitive and hotly debated issue. They were openly accused of taking Cambodian jobs, exhausting the once-abundant fresh-water fisheries, and of stealing national territory.

Managing the emotions in this diverse mass movement will be a tough challenge for its leaders as they continue their battle of wills with Hun Sen. They know any descent into street violence, even if provoked by the government side, will play to the prime minister's strengths.

Just as challenging will be maintaining the momentum of their unexpectedly successful election campaign through the messy post-election period. They are promising more protests and a boycott of parliament, but to what effect is not clear.

And there is the question of the CNRP's dual leadership. Kem Sokha, a tough human rights activist, and Sam Rainsy, a French-educated banker with an immense sense of personal mission, have often clashed in the past when trying to unite their two parties. They buried their differences to form the CNRP, but they are two very different personalities, each of whom wants to run the country.

"This is one of my biggest worries," Kem Sokha said. "Whether we can keep up the solidarity between us that we showed during the election."

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