In his New York Times best-selling book “The 48 Laws of Power,” Robert Greene offers simple advice to the reader comfortable in power but threatened by hints of resistance: Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter.
“Trouble can often be traced to a single strong individual—the stirrer, the arrogant underling, the poisoner of goodwill. If you allow such people room to operate, others will succumb to their influence,” Mr. Green writes.
“Do not wait for the troubles they cause to multiply, do not try to negotiate with them—they are irredeemable. Neutralize their influence by isolating or banishing them. Strike at the source of the trouble,” he writes.
“The sheep will scatter.”
If Prime Minister Hun Sen was willing to ignore this advice during the short-lived “culture of dialogue” with the CNRP last year, he has returned this year to seeking its fruits, striking decisively at the shepherds of the resistance against his rule.
With opposition leader Sam Rainsy banished to Paris amid threats he will be jailed here, and his deputy Kem Sokha tongue-tied amid the government’s aggressive pursuit of a sex scandal, the CPP has appeared intent on beheading the opposition before elections arrive in 2018.
“Elected authoritarian leaders know the struggle begins long before the ballots are cast, as possible opponents are cowed or coaxed out of the way,” said John Ciorciari, a Cambodia expert at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.
Mr. Ciorciari said Mr. Hun Sen was likely testing the waters to see whether the CNRP could be disrupted before 2018 arrives and forces him to decide how much of an iron fist to bring to the ballot box.
“Hun Sen has already begun stacking the deck in its favor, hoping not to have to rely on overt interference by the time election day approaches but is unlikely to stand aside if the CPP looks headed for a loss,” he said.
With Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha shut away, the CNRP’s hopes that the new election commission will build a clean voter list have been hit by four separate delays, while authorities have banned the party erecting the antenna for what would be the first opposition TV station.
CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An has also been jailed, despite his constitutional immunity from prosecution, for critical comments on Facebook, while one of the opposition’s commune chiefs has been jailed for “bribing” the family of Mr. Sokha’s alleged mistress with $500.
It’s a very different picture to the position the CNRP was in this time last year, ramping up a devastating monthslong campaign that put the CPP on its back foot on one of its weakest points: alleged complicity in Vietnamese border incursions.
Ou Virak, a political analyst sued by the CPP this week for defamation, said on Thursday the present situation might look different had Mr. Rainsy had the courage to return to Cambodia and stare down his jail sentence in November, as he promised to do in a public speech.
“It would have been a different atmosphere,” said Mr. Virak, who added Mr. Hun Sen himself would not have had the courage to jail Mr. Rainsy.
“It doesn’t mean it would have stopped any of this,” he added. “It could’ve meant things would be better, but it could’ve meant things would be worse. The ball is always in the ruling party’s hands.”
Yet Mr. Virak said he did not think the opposition has suffered from the ruling party attacks that have left Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha largely isolated from the political scene.
“Because nobody has campaigned better against the CPP than the CPP itself. The absence has been overshadowed by these allegations—but [the allegations] have also overshadowed the CPP’s reform efforts,” he said.
“As I said in the Radio Free Asia interview that got me in trouble: I think a lot of the people in the CPP would be frustrated by all of this overshadowing what they have been doing in terms of reform,” he said.
But Buntenh, a dissident monk who heads the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, said he believed the CPP’s recent actions showed it was more interested in trying to neuter the opposition than reforming. But he said the strategy would backfire.
“The government has no way out from its problems besides threatening people,” But Buntenh said. “If the CPP was doing good things, it would be bad for the CNRP, but if they are doing this, it means they are worried that they cannot win back their popularity.”
Yet he said such attacks on the CNRP would be unlikely to silence those sympathetic to the party.
“They must prepare to lose if they go down this path. They cannot stop us anymore,” he said.
“If they think they can stop us, they are the losers already. It is 100 percent that this will make the CPP will lose more popularity. We have been living under this regime for 30 years, and people are ready for new food,” he added. “The CPP’s food is very spoiled now.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he was not concerned that some might accuse the CPP of trying to behead the CNRP by banishing Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha from politics.
“From what I have learned from [CNRP spokesman] Yim Sovann, he says that his party is strongly united not just under the people, but under the main principles of the opposition party,” Mr. Siphan said.
“No matter what happens, the party must go on. Any leadership of the party will follow the principles of the party,” he said of the CNRP. “So I am not worried about anybody alleging that.”
“Sam Rainsy has been sued by the deputy prime minister—that’s a personal matter. The second one is a private matter between Kem Sokha, his mistress and his wife. This is not about anything else but them.”
For his part, Mr. Rainsy said he believed Mr. Hun Sen would have arrested him just like Mr. Sam An had he returned last year and added that any campaigns to free him would have distracted from the CNRP’s efforts.
“My presence in the country under these circumstances would not change anything, certainly not the CPP’s desperate fight for its survival at any cost. My personal situation would only complicate the whole situation and would divert attention from national issues,” Mr. Rainsy said in an email.
“As General de Gaulle said following the invasion of France by Nazi troops in 1940: ‘We have lost a battle but we have not lost the war,’” he added, referring to the French resistance leader who later became president.
“From England, de Gaulle organized and commanded French Resistance forces to eventually free his country from dictatorship and barbarism.”
Mr. Rainsy has said it is best for him to remain abroad while the reformed National Election Committee reregisters the nation’s voters to remove the potential for voter fraud and allow the CNRP an actual chance of winning in 2018.
However, Sophal Ear, an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles and the author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy,” said a lot could happen between now and when Mr. Rainsy decides to return.
“I think at some point, when enough of his people are jailed, it may force his hand. But the ruling party is also creating anger on the other side…so this is going to come to a head,” Mr. Ear said.
The chance is rapidly slipping that Mr. Rainsy can simply parachute back into Cambodia and lead his party in defeating the CPP in free and fair elections, he added.
“As of April 2016, they’re already not truly free. Does anyone think otherwise?” Mr. Ear asked.
Mr. Virak, the analyst, agreed the CPP was already constricting the electoral environment—shifting focus from attacking opposition leaders to their subordinates.
“The stakes are very high for 2018, and this shows what they are willing to do,” Mr. Virak said.
“Election season has come early.”
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