Over the past month, Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly warned of a return to war if his ruling CPP loses July’s national election.
The message that an opposition victory might result in armed conflict, a destruction of existing infrastructure or even a return to the Khmer Rouge, has been repeated at least a dozen times by Mr. Hun Sen since he first raised the issue in late April.
The threat has become a central theme in the ruling party’s campaign platform and has reached millions of voters through radio and television stations that air the entirety of Mr. Hun Sen’s speeches each time he takes to the podium.
Analysts agree that the likelihood of a return to civil war is slim—mainly due to the fact the CPP is all but guaranteed a comprehensive victory on July 28.
So why is it that Mr. Hun Sen is so keen to harp on the issue? And how much might it influence the decision of the electorate when they go to the polls?
John Ciorciari, a Cambodia expert at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, said that for those Cambodians who have suffered through the Khmer Rouge and ensuing factional fighting, the prospect of violence would encourage a vote for the status quo.
“The warnings remind voters—especially older voters—of the horrors of conflict and encourage them to stick with the highly imperfect but relatively stable government they have,” he said in an email.
“Voters may also see the warnings as an implicit threat that the CPP itself will disrupt the peace if it loses elections rather than risk the consequences of CNRP [Cambodia National Rescue Party] rule,” he added.
Although Mr. Hun Sen’s rhetoric might be intended to scare voters away from supporting the CNRP, some in the country may have grown disengaged with the prime minister’s message that chaos will erupt without the CPP ruling the country, according to Cambodia Institute for Media Studies director Moeun Chhean Nariddh.
“His [Mr. Hun Sen’s] messages are meant to be a threat, particularly to supporters of the opposition. But after four elections, the voters have…become quite skeptical about what they should listen to and care about,” he said.
Two decades of work by donors, NGOs and civil society in educating voters on the democratic process has strengthened the electorate’s ability to critically engage with political parties and question the claims and promises coming from their candidates, Mr. Chhean Nariddh added.
“[T]he CPP, particularly the prime minister, has used the same messages several times and the people have become pretty bored with these messages—such as ‘the CPP was the liberator from the Khmer Rouge.’ So I think going to war is not a strong message anymore,” he said, noting that fear of war is not nearly as widespread today as it was only a decade ago.
For Koul Panha, the executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, the repeated warnings from the prime minister that anarchy may reign if voters cast their ballot for the opposition may ultimately discourage people from participating in the election at all.
“I think the way they [the CPP] campaign does not encourage voters because people feel that to change the government through elections is a high risk. The possibility of war if the opposition wins the election does not encourage people to feel that elections are a means to stabilize the country and create a better democracy and encourage freedom,” he said.
Despite views that Mr. Hun Sen’s warnings are more about fear mongering than reality, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that the threat of war if the CNRP is elected to power is very real.
“Everyone [in the non-ruling party aligned media] tries their best to manipulate their bias toward the prime minister’s speeches. He tries to share with the public that the opposition is trying to separate the government from its people,” Mr. Siphan said.
Mr. Siphan said that the widespread use of anti-Vietnamese rhetoric among candidates for the opposition party, and claims that CPP leaders are puppets of Vietnam, would make it very difficult for the CNRP to bring about national unity if they win July’s election.
Additionally, the opposition party’s promise to bring border disputes with Vietnam to The Hague in order to win back lost Cambodian land make it likely that if the CNRP were voted to power, they could end up in military conflict with Vietnam, Mr. Siphan said.
“The opposition CNRP, their campaign does not respect national unity, does not respect national security…so they do not respect people’s power,” he said.
“In 1993 [when peace accords were signed], we learned we have to walk away [from conflict], we have to respect each other, we have to be united. But…the opposition is saying ‘the CPP is brought up and established by Vietnamese,’ that ‘this government is Vietnamese.’ The people voted us into power, not Vietnam,” he added.
However, CNRP candidate Son Chhay said that the opposition party has moved away from anti-Vietnamese language used by the SRP in past elections, and is instead focusing on their seven-point platform of higher wages, lower commodities and free education and health care.
“This time we have no plan to use Vietnamese as the way to attract voters. We have written a policy regarding how to deal with our neighboring country through peaceful negotiations,” he said.
Whatever the likelihood of violence, Kem Ley, a research consultant with the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said this year’s election would more likely center around people’s views on the CPP’s policies over the past two mandates.
Mr. Ley said that many of the policies implemented by the CPP in the past 10 years have had a negative impact on rural poor populations. “Because the CPP over the last five years has implemented policies and guidelines that have produced a lot of negative impacts—especially regarding land reform and judiciary court reform—they [CPP candidates] hesitate to advocate or inform people about their policy or guidelines for the next five years,” he said.
A number of policies, which in theory are meant to benefit the poor, have turned out to disproportionally benefit the wealthy, according to Mr. Ley. As an example, he said that economic land concessions have created a limited number of employment opportunities while leading to numerous land disputes.
“So they try to raise the other things in their political campaign in order to make worry among the Cambodian people,” who are well aware of the terrors of war, Mr. Ley said.
Questioned about the prospects of war if the CNRP comes to power and whether the country’s military was preparing for armed conflict after the election, Minister of Defense Tea Banh laughed.
“Nothing will happen and [the CNRP] will not win [the election],” he said Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)
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