Instead of a dialogue with the government, Cambodia’s embattled opposition party must focus on a dialogue with the people.

The late Christopher Hitchens used to tell the story of telephoning his friend, the Polish Holocaust survivor and political dissident Isreal Shahak, who lived in Jerusalem.  When Hitchens asked, “How are politics developing?” Shahak would reply, “There are encouraging signs of polarisation.”

Today, we appear to be dwelling in a global political culture where partisan and conflict have almost become vulgar terms — we should all love our enemies, and learn to converse with them. In Cambodia, the desire for consensus politics was found in the so-called ‘culture of dialogue’, an agreement between the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP, first tabled after the 2013 elections, which gained momentum towards the close of 2014.

The agreement was meant to end the mudslinging that typified relations between the two parties and usher in an era of mutual disagreement but placid co-operation. It is not clear how long the culture of dialogue lasted, a year at best. Today it’s apparent that it is over — finished and left in tatters except for the CNRP’s crowing for it to resume.

The culture of dialogue found its greatest advocate in Sam Rainsy, president of the CNRP. Anyone who has read his autobiography, We Didn’t Start the Fire, can deduce parallels between it and ‘moral rearmament’, a revivalist movement which emphasised cooperation, honesty, and mutual respect between opposing groups. This was most likely one of the first political lessons Sam Rainsy learnt, after he became aware of it in his early twenties, and has most likely stayed with him for his political life. In the autobiography, Sam Rainsy wrote: “One of the key ideas [moral rearmament] promoted was that post-conflict reconciliation on the personal level can have an important political impact.”

Writing in Southeast Asia Globe in September 2015, the political analyst Markus Karbaum noted that the arrest of opposition senator Hong Sok Hour a month earlier meant the ‘culture of dialogue’ was looking “a little one-sided”. Karbaum added that the “culture of dialogue seems to be little more than an agreement between the two party leaders, rather than the parties themselves,” an indication of the ‘personal level’ approach of moral rearmament.

But the culture of dialogue, in fact, was always one-sided, and the inclusion of the word ‘dialogue’ was a misnomer since it implied an equality of debate. In reality, what we saw was the same old ‘culture of monologue’, with the CNRP becoming reticent in criticism, and the CPP remaining  quick to use it.

In April 2015, Prime Minister Hen Sen warned that the culture of dialogue was at risk and, in the same speech, made an unveiled threat against Kem Sokha, vice-president of the CNRP. Comparing him to a snake, the PM said: “next time [we] beat the snake, [we] will not beat the tail and the middle, but [we] will beat the head. Next time, if there is a problem, we will beat it at home.” Today, with Kem Sokha in hiding in Phnom Penh to avoid arrest, these words seem rather prophetic.

Can one imagine,  Sam Rainsy being allowed to make a similar riposte? Of course not. Instead, the CPP continued with tradition – any criticism of the government typically equated with either rebellion or treason – while Sam Rainsy clamoured over the selfies he took with Hun Sen during a family dinner together in July 2015 to show that the consensus was working.

The “historic meal”, as Sam Rainsy called it, was obsequious at best and demonstrated the flaws of the culture of dialogue. As the CPP spokesman Sok Ey San explained, Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen broke bread to “get to know and understand each other”, but at the dinner table “nothing serious was discussed”. Suppose, for example, that you were one of the ex-Boeung Kak residents beaten from your home, or a farmer extracted from his land to make way for illegal logging. Would you want the person who says represents your interests to not discuss this with the one man who has the power to make changes? The answer is obvious. But muteness was the price, figuratively and literally, of getting a seat at the table.

No doubt, the culture of dialogue benefitted CNRP politicians. Mu Sochua, an opposition MP for Battambang, wrote an impassioned op-ed in the Phnom Penh Post extolling its virtues. First, it allowed for more interaction between “Majority and Minority MPs”, as she put it. Second, CNRP members could meet “more freely” with constituents, who were more inclined to communicate their grievances. Third, she argued that since  “mistrust and fear divide us, the nascent culture of dialogue alleviates political tensions, it encourages people at different ends of the conflict to find a middle way.”

Mu Sochua knows the problems facing her party, so fair enough. Until, however, one asks: can there actually be a middle way in Cambodian politics? In an interview with Radio Free Asia in June, Sam Rainsy was clear about the political situation. “The world has learnt that the situation in Cambodia has reached a most dangerous stage due to the strategy of the dictatorship of Cambodia,” he said. But, only a few breaths later, added: “I want to emphasise that I always value and hail the culture of dialogue…we have to have trust that the culture of dialogue will remain alive and replace the culture of violence.”

Of course, no one wants to see the arrest of opposition politicians or violence committed against them, but Sam Rainsy’s two aforementioned comments illustrate the casuistry of the CNRP. The CPP is either unreformable and incapable of bringing about genuine democracy and human rights to Cambodia, which Sam Rainsy has claimed in the past, meaning that there is no purpose whatsoever in trying to work with it to find political common ground. Or the CPP is capable of instigating change, which makes the CNRP’s posturing as the only viable instigator of social and democratic development misleading. The CPP is either the root cause for  all of Cambodia’s ills or it isn’t. Hun Sen must either be removed from office to allow democracy to flourish or, if he can improve it himself, need not step aside for the CNRP. He is either a dictator or not.

To put it more bluntly, if the CNRP doesn’t think there is a major problem with the CPP and the political structure it has created, why should the public be? If the ‘representatives’ of the downtrodden and poorly-treated can find the good in the CPP, and sit down to eat together, and refrain from criticism for the sake of progress, why should activists face violence and arrest by protesting against the government? Why should the electorate risk instability by voting CNRP at the general elections in 2018?

There was the suggestion that the culture of dialogue was mere realpolitik by the opposition; it allowed them to buy time to form its promised television station, to reform the NEC and to gain the confidence of the government that it wanted to remove from power. If this is the case, then it has backfired spectacularly, and the CNRP’s naivety deserves to be regarded as such.

Today, the culture of dialogue is all but over, despite however much the CNRP wants it to resume. Now that it is out of the way the fundamental problem of Cambodian politics can once again be addressed: how can the CNRP actually achieve power through elections.

In July 2015, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann stated: “No one wants war, no one wants violence”. Besides pointing out the obvious, it is an astute awareness that if the CNRP does engage in confrontational politics, it is unlikely to succeed. Hun Sen is a virtuoso of  confrontation, and the CNRP, with its president in exile and vice-president in hiding, is not.

Instead of a dialogue with the government, the opposition must instead focus on what it does best, a dialogue with the Cambodian people who want change and doubt this will come from the hands of the CPP. And it must remember that there are alternatives to violent confrontation other than consensus.

David Hutt is a journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.