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Hong Kong-like Protests Not Possible In Cambodia: Analysts

In this file photo, taken on Dec. 30, 2013, Cambodian garment workers, right, are blocked by barbed wire set up by police near the Council of Ministers building during a rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

For Lao Mong Hay, a Cambodian political analyst, Hong Kong protesters have democratic freedoms that enable prolonged protests, with little worry for official reprisals.

Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong entered their fourth month last week, with the weekly protests resulting in a heated standoff between the local government – backed by Beijing – and protesters who continue to push for their demands.

As the protests play out in Hong Kong, Cambodian analysts and observers said there are parallels with the current political situation in Cambodia and similarities to the post-election protests during 2013 and early 2014.

But, there was one major difference, they said. The presence of relatively stronger democratic institutions in Hong Kong – a byproduct of British rule – has bolstered protesters’ prospects, whereas there was little democratic recourse to support such protests in Cambodia.

The protests kicked off following introduction of a controversial extradition bill introduced by the Hong Kong administration, which would allow for residents to face criminal charges on mainland China. After months of protests, which occasionally turned violent, the bill was withdrawn, but protesters say they will continue till all of their demands are met.

For Lao Mong Hay, a Cambodian political analyst, Hong Kong protesters have democratic freedoms that enable prolonged protests, with little worry for official reprisals.

“So, Hong Kong people have freedom of expression, association and to demonstrate, including demonstrations against any proposed decision by the government,” he said.

While Cambodia’s last major protest was against the passing of the Law on Associations and NGOs, the 2013 post-election protests mirrored the events unfolding in Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest the elections results, where the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had claimed victory.

The protests were eventually ended in a violent crackdown by security and law enforcement officials, resulting in at least five deaths and many more injured. Lao Mong Hay said a further erosion of democratic systems in the last few years meant that organizing similar demonstrations was getting harder.

At the same time, the CPP has dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party, jailed its leader, Kem Sokha, and intimidated, arrested and surveilled opposition activists. Additionally, the CPP holds all elected seats in parliament and the judiciary controlled by the government.

With such a tight grip over power, it was unlikely the CPP government would allow anything close to the protests in Hong Kong, said Chheang Vannarith, a regional affairs analyst and director of the Asian Vision Institute.

“The government prioritizes the values of peace and stability so it will take all measures to ensure stability. That's probably the core objective and the core interest [of the government],” he said.

Chheang Vannarith added that Southeast Asian countries would never allow such protests because they placed security and stability above any democratic change.

Po Sovinda, a researcher at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, added that the Cambodian government would be harsher on protesters, compared to Hong Kong officials, where protesters have complained of police excesses and demanded investigations into these incidents.

“If it happens [in Cambodia] like in Hong Kong, it will be worse. There can be a stronger crackdown. So, both situations are different.”

His and Chheang Vannarith’s views were echoed by CPP spokesman and senator, Sok Eysan, who said any attempt to organize protests would result in legal ramifications.​

“We will take actions based on our laws,” Sok Eysan said, refusing to elaborate on what measures will be taken.

Cambodia could soon be heading towards such a situation, after opposition leader Sam Rainsy announced he would return to Cambodia on November 9, though he has made similar claims in the past.

He has called on one million Cambodians to welcome him on his return, as well as for military personnel to defect – which is now being seen as an attempted coup d’etat by the government.

But, Em Sovannara, an independent political analyst, said there was fear among Cambodians of potential legal repercussions, hindering any attempt to successfully see through any such protest.

“Cambodian people do not get along with each other yet and are fearful, while Hong Kong people have no fear or pressure of being arrested nor are they concerned much about their safety,” he said.