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Background Brief Cambodia and Thailand: Comparing Mass Protests Carlyle A. Thayer December 15, 2013

[client name deleted] We are preparing a report regarding the current political situation in Cambodia. We had an exclusive interview with Sam Rainsy on Tuesday in which he said that "people are excited by what happened in Thailand" and "now we have the same ideas, because the Cambodian people have even more compelling reasons than the Thai demonstrators to ask for the resignation of their Prime Minister and to call for early elections." We request your response to the following questions: Q1) Are the situations in Thailand and Cambodia comparable? ANSWER: The situations in Cambodia and Thailand contain some comparable elements and some important differences. Both societies are polarized. Thailand is divided between the opposition so-called yellow shirts and the government and pro-government red shirts. The most recent elections in Cambodia demonstrated the polarization of Cambodia society. Both countries have electoral laws that set a fixed term for national elections; but if the respective legislative bodies are dissolved before the end of their term, a new election must be held within a set number of days. The opposition in both countries is highly critical of the electoral process which it views as biased and rigged. Both opposition parties are threatening to boycott national elections. Both countries have a political culture that respects the monarchy and its role in the political system. In terms of differences: The role of the current Thai King is much more respected than the King is in Cambodian society. Thailand is likely to experience a crisis of legitimacy when the current monarch departs the scene. In contrast, King Sihamoni appears to have many years left to his reign. However, he does not have the moral stature of the current Thai monarch. The role of the monarchy in Thailand is a much more contentious issue than Cambodia.

2 Q2) How likely is it that what has happened in Thailand (i.e. prime ministerial resignation and early elections) could happen in Cambodia? ANSWER: The Cambodian Electoral Law makes provision for the conduct of a national election within sixty days if the National Assembly is dissolved before the expiration of its five year term. I do not think Hun Sen faces pressures comparable to Prime Minister Yingluck and is therefore unlikely to resign. While societies are polarized in both countries, the intensity of the opposition is greater in Thailand than Cambodia. This intensity is based on opposition by the establishment to the new networked politics and populism of former Prime Minister Thaksin that threatened the monarchy. In Cambodia the present opposition has a history of working with the Cambodian Peoples Party in a coalition. There has been no comparable killing of protestors in Cambodia on the scale of Thailand. Finally, the opposition in Thailand hopes to bait the military into intervening. In Cambodia the army is loyal to the Hun Sen regime and does not have a history of coup making comparable to the Thai armed forces. Q3) Xinhua, the tightly state-controlled Chinese news agency, recently slammed Hun Sen and urged him to usher in a program of reform to bolster his popularity. Our two related questions here are: a) How likely are such political and judicial reforms given Cambodia's endemic corruption? b) If Hun Sen were to do so, is it fair to say that in five years time, Mr. Rainsy, unable to take any of the credit , will look marginalised and out-of-touch. ANSWER: Chinese media criticism of Hun Sen was first heard in the immediate aftermath of the last election and again recently. China is obviously motivated to reduce risk to its preeminent economic position in Cambodia. Prolonged political instability is not in Chinas interests. Hun Sen is like to respond by undertaking some reform of the electoral and judicial systems. This may be at Chinas behest but reforms will also be supported by the international community thus giving Hun Sen additional motivation to undertake them. These reforms will not eliminate endemic entrenched corruption in the political system that keeps the Cambodian Peoples Party in power. Any reform effort by Hun Sen will take some of the wind out of the opposition sails. Of course the reform process can be drawn out. Sam Rainsy has to face the old adage that a week is a long time in politics, five years will be an eternity. It is doubtful he can maintain the oppositions rage for five years without provoking the government into repression that leads to bloodshed.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, Cambodia and Thailand: Comparing Mass Protests, Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, December 15, 2013. All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the mailing list type UNSUBSCRIBE in the Subject heading and hit the Reply key. Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.