«Forthcoming, Security Studies 25:4 (2016) While the existing literature emphasizes that elites often have incentives to pander to nationalist ...»
Yingluck.” 86 Cambodian authorities regarded continuing Thai protests as credible policy constraints on her administration and did not hold her responsible, again showing how protests in weakly institutionalized democracies can sometimes produce foreign concessions.
Nationalist Demonstrations in Cambodia In Cambodia, nationalist protests have demanded hardline policies toward both Thailand and Vietnam. The government fomented anti-Thai demonstrations during the run-up to Cambodia’s 2003 national elections, when the ruling CPP sought to solidify its electoral Thomas Escritt and Amy Sawitta Lefevre, “Thailand Braces for Trouble as U.N. court backs Cambodia in border row,” Reuters, 11 November 2013.
See, e.g., Noelen Arbis, “Preah Vihear Ruling Another Test for Yingluck’s Legitimacy,” CogitAsia, 12 November 2013 (arguing that Yingluck had “little maneuvering room.”) Cheang Sokha and Kevin Ponniah, “Cambodia ‘won’t rush’ Thais,” Phnom Penh Post, 18 November 2013.
dominance but still faced significant challenges from domestic opposition parties. 87 After its electoral lead and authoritarian grip on power widened in 2003 and 2008, 88 the CPP repressed anti-Thai protests, but it has wavered on trying to subdue anti-Vietnamese protests that have emerged since mid-2013, when a revitalized opposition captured nearly 45% of the vote. The Cambodian case thus shows variation within an electoral authoritarian system consistent with expectations that greater electoral vulnerability makes incumbents more likely to instigate or tolerate protests, even when those protests raise risks of escalation and are not perceived by rivals as credible constraints. It also shows how incumbent leaders’ incentives to quash protests grow as negative international repercussions become evident.
OUT OF CONTROL: THE 2003 ANTI-THAI DEMONSTRATIONSThe spark for the 2003 demonstrations was unusual—alleged remarks by a popular Thai actress that the iconic Khmer temple of Angkor Wat belongs to Thailand. Prime Minister Hun Sen responded angrily in a televised address, saying the Thai actress was “worth less than a blade of grass at Angkor.” 89 His remarks made the front page of Cambodian papers and inflamed The CPP took power by force in 1997, ending a UN-brokered power-sharing deal with the royalist party Funcinpec. In the 1998 national elections, the CPP won 41% of the popular vote, compared to 32% for Funcinpec and 14% for its other main domestic rival, the Sam Rainsy Party.
The CPP won 47% of the vote in 2003, versus 22% for Sam Rainsy and 21% for Funcinpec, and expanded its lead in 2008 (58% versus 22% for Sam Rainsy, its lone significant challenger).
Cambodia Human Rights and Development Association, “Monitoring Report on Riots Against the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh from 29-31 January 2003,” http://www.bigpond.com.kh/users/adhoc/publication/riot_29_01_03/monitoring_riot_report.htm.
public anger, 90 tapping into frustration at perceived Thai condescension to Khmers and historical encroachment on Cambodian land.
On January 29, thousands of Cambodians protested in front of the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh. After a false rumor circulated that a Thai mob had killed several Cambodians, violent riots erupted. Khmer youths burned down Thai-owned businesses and the Thai Embassy.
Thailand withdrew its ambassador, sealed the border, suspended bilateral cooperation, and put its armed forces on alert. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told Hun Sen that unless Cambodian authorities subdued the protests within 90 minutes, he would send Thai troops to do so, illustrating the risk that anti-foreign violence may precipitate foreign intervention. 91 Thailand did dispatch military aircraft to evacuate several hundred Thai civilians.
The slow response of Cambodian police and the participation of the “pagoda boys”—a youth group loosely affiliated with the CPP—led many Thai and international observers to conclude that the CPP had encouraged or acquiesced in the attacks as a “political ploy” in advance of July 2003 elections. 92 The CPP had consistently repressed previous public protests, usually concerning labor rights and land reform, 93 suggesting that it could do so again. A senior Thai military officer asked: “Without [Hun Sen’s] consent how could such a thing happen in Alexander Hinton, “Khmerness and the Thai ‘Other’: Violence, Discourse, and Symbolism in the 2003 Anti-Thai Riots in Cambodia,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 37, no. 3 (October 2006): 446.
“Whose Angkor Wat?” Economist, 30 January 2003.
See, e.g., “Hun Sen’s Poll Ploy Backfired,” The Nation, 3 February 2003; Seth Mydans, “Cambodia feels threatened; Thailand’s strength annoys a ravaged land,” New York Times, 3 February 2003 (citing an “article of faith” among foreign observers that Hun Sen’s instigation or complicity was required for such violence).
Kheang Un, “Cambodia in 2012: Beyond the Crossroads?” Asian Survey 53, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 144.
Cambodia, where he has nearly absolute power and full control of the military?” 94 Thaksin added, “We are a victim of complications in Cambodian politics…Someone tried to stir a sense of nationalism....” 95 Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy added: “If Phnom Penh wanted to prevent such violence, it could have done so” 96 and compared Hun Sen to “a child who plays with fire,” stirring nationalism for electoral gain. 97 The Cambodian government soon restored order, apologized, sacked the local police chief, made more than 150 arrests, and offered compensation for the damage. 98 That reaction showed that the government had the capacity to control and disperse the protests rapidly. It also suggested that CPP leaders were caught off guard by the pace and scale of the violence. 99 Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith confessed: “We did not expect this to go this far.” 100 Bangkok Post, 6 February 2003. Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai also accused Cambodian authorities of arousing anti-Thai sentiment and encouraging the demonstrations. Mark Baker, “Shaken Thais not ready to forgive,” The Age (Australia), 6 February 2003.
Seth Mydans, “Face that Stirred the Cambodian Riots,” New York Times, 1 February 2003.
Mark Baker, “Hun Sen accused of inciting anti-Thai riots,” The Age (Australia), 1 February 2003.
John Aglionby, “Cambodian prime minister apologises for anti-Thailand riots,” The Guardian, 31 January 2003.
“Cambodia Apologizes to Thailand Over Riot,” New York Times, 31 January 2003. Cambodia paid Thailand roughly $6 million in March for embassy repairs and pledged more for damaged hotels and businesses.
“Thailand, Cambodia restore diplomatic relations,” Bahrain News Agency, 12 April 2003.
Hinton, “Khmerness and the Thai ‘Other,’” 451-54. This is a view shared by Sam Rainsy and U.S. State Department officials. See Agionby, “Cambodian prime minister” (in which Sam Rainsy says Hun Sen “did not expect it to go so far and it got totally out of control”); and U.S. State Department, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Report to the Congress on the Anti-Thai riots in Cambodia on January 29, 2003 (14 May 2003) (accusing the CPP of incompetence and mishandling of the crisis).
Mydans, “Face that Stirred.” Hun Sen attempted to limit the diplomatic damage by blaming the riots on “a handful of extremists” and arguing that he acted as swiftly as possible to control the rioters without shooting on them. 101 Tensions subsided after the Cambodian apologies, 102 but not before Thailand threatened a military intervention that Cambodia’s leaders did not wish to confront. The episode won Cambodia no international sympathy. The U.S. government publicly condemned the violence, 103 and international media coverage uniformly painted the episode as an “international embarrassment” 104 that would “carry a huge price tag for Cambodia” 105 in political and economic terms.
The 2003 debacle shows that while leaders in electoral authoritarian states sometimes have incentives to stoke nationalism, especially around elections, doing so can backfire if protests descend into anti-foreign attacks and invite foreign retaliation. In addition, nationalist protests generate no meaningful international leverage or sympathy when foreign observers believe the government fomented them or can subdue them at little cost.
QUELLED ANTI-THAI PROTESTS IN 2009 AND 2010 Anti-Thai nationalism resurfaced several years later amid the territorial dispute over Preah Vihear. In July 2009, on the first anniversary of Thailand’s incursion into the temple area, “Cambodia blames ‘extremists’ for riots,” BBC News, 3 February 2003.
Thaksin later said the Cambodian government “underestimated the situation which resulted in the delay of them tackling the problem.” “Cambodia-Thailand ties on the mend,” The Star (Malaysia), 5 February 2003.
U.S. State Department, Daily Press Briefing, 30 January 2003.
Richard C. Paddock, “Rumor of Thai Actress’ Words Salted a Wound,” Los Angeles Times, 3 February 2003.
“Cambodian ‘incompetence’ in anti-Thai riots,” CNN, 3 February 2003.
Cambodian nationalists sought to organize a rally in Phnom Penh. The government clamped down swiftly, with riot police dispersing the protesters. In July 2010, protesters again planned a “Day of Anger” demonstration in Phnom Penh “expressing hate and demanding that Thai soldiers withdraw” from Preah Vihear. 106 Four days before the planned demonstrations, Cambodian officials banned the rally, citing public safety concerns. 107 The organizers proceeded, but on the day of the event, 150 riot police and soldiers—more than the number of protesters— broke up the demonstration. 108 Cambodian leaders repressed the demonstrations for diplomatic and domestic reasons.
They feared that facilitating protests could exacerbate tensions with Thailand and raise the likelihood of conflict, especially since Thai leaders said they would hold the Cambodian government responsible. Before the July 2010 demonstrations, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said “Cambodia organised the Day of Anger because the government there wants to strengthen feelings of patriotism.” 109 Prime Minister Abhisit also accused the Cambodian government of playing “psychological warfare” in advance of UNESCO meetings—suggesting a Cambodian effort to broadcast popular grievances and mobilize international sympathy. 110 Kim Yuthana and Thet Sambath, “Police quash anti-Thai gathering,” Phnom Penh Post, 16 July 2010.
The “Day of Anger” was a reference to an annual holiday in Cambodia in which survivors express grievances against the Khmers Rouges.
“Cambodia Bans Rally Against Thailand,” Thai-ASEAN News Network, 15 July 2010.
Kim and Thet, “Police quash anti-Thai gathering.” See also “Cambodians Hold Anti-Thai Protest in Phnom Penh,” NTD Television, 16 July 2010, video available at http://ki-media.blogspot.com/2010/07/cambodianshold-anti-thailand-protest.html.
“Anupong visits border troop positions,” The Nation (Thailand), 14 July 2010; and “Suthep: Day of Anger won’t harm ties,” Bangkok Post, 14 July 2010.
“PM: Unworried over Cambodia’s Day of Anger event,” MCOT Online News, 14 July 2010.