WASHINGTON (AP) — Cambodia's opposition leader said Wednesday that international donors should not do "business as usual" with the aid-dependent government of longtime ruler Hun Sen unless he agrees to an independent probe into July's disputed election.
Sam Rainsy spoke to The Associated Press during a visit to Washington as he lobbied the Obama administration, lawmakers, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. His party is readying another mass protest next week to press its demand for an investigation into alleged irregularities it claims robbed the party of an election victory.
The ruling party maintains the vote was fair and has steadfastly refused the opposition's demand, although independent observers identified serious problems with electoral rolls. Negotiations to broker a compromise have stalled, and parliament convened last month despite an opposition boycott, extending Hun Sen's 28-year rule.
"The international community, especially donor countries, should not do business as usual with the current Cambodian government," Rainsy told the AP, contending that it represented "half of the nation at best" and lacked legitimacy to sign off on longterm loans and commercial contracts.
Hun Sen has run Cambodia since 1985 with little tolerance for opposition and a reputation for ruthlessness. But over the past decade he has overseen modest economic growth and stability in a country plagued by desperate poverty and nearly destroyed by the Khmer Rouge's "killing fields" of the 1970s.
Yet his party fared unexpectedly poorly in the July vote and its majority narrowed in the 123-seat National Assembly. The opposition, running on a newly unified slate, boosted its number of elected lawmakers to 55, up from 29.
"This is an unprecedented situation in Cambodia because the political landscape has changed dramatically, the balance of power has changed dramatically. We are in a unique position to exert our influence to make our country move toward a more democratic system," Rainsy said, ahead of a meeting with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.
He said that with the demographic and technological of recent years, Cambodia had the ingredients for an Arab Spring-style revolution unless popular demands expressed at the polls for change were met.
The Obama administration has supported the call for a "credible and transparent" review of the July election, but the European Union has taken a softer line, and there's little sign so far that international donors that make up as much as half of Cambodia's central government budget are about to slash aid. In particular, China, a key donor, won't be swayed.
Rainsy is threatening to up the ante by calling a general strike after the mass opposition protest next Wednesday, but he'll also be mindful that his party risks losing its parliamentary gains unless a compromise is reached.
Perhaps hinting at middle ground, Rainsy said his party would be willing to enter the legislature on a temporary basis, pending formation of an election investigation committee, if it received assurances that the ruling party would accept the committee's findings. He suggested such a panel could include civil society groups and the U.N.
He said his party would need control of enough parliamentary committees to be able to block legislation and serve as a check and balance on the government's actions.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Rainsy's meeting with Burns on Wednesday did not signify an endorsement of the opposition leader.
"The United States continues to urge both parties to seek resolution of electoral disputes through a peaceful dialogue that serves the best interests of the Cambodian people and promotes reforms," Psaki told reporters.