Hun Sen (left) with Sam Rainsy: their new silken road

AFTER Hun Sen bet $5,000 on Manny Pacquiao defeating Floyd Mayweather in boxing’s “fight of the century”, the Cambodian prime minister refused to pay up, arguing that the Philippine hero did not deserve to lose to Mr Mayweather on points. So far, so usual for Cambodia’s strongman: boxing is just like an election, really, only less violent. The opposition has long claimed that Mr Hun Sen’s ruling party stole the last election, and there has been blood on the streets since.

So what to make of the unusual: the recent spectacle of Sam Rainsy, the opposition leader, consorting with Mr Hun Sen, his nemesis who has ruled Cambodia for 30 years and who drove Mr Sam Rainsy into exile for the better part of a decade?

Mr Sam Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had been in a stand-off with Mr Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) since the election in 2013. A parliamentary boycott and a series of street protests followed, as well as a violent government crackdown on dissidents. An uneasy truce was negotiated last July. Yet last month, in plain view near the temples of Angkor Wat, here were Mr Sam Rainsy and Mr Hun Sen celebrating the Cambodian new year together along with their wives, chatting amicably to locals.

So far as Mr Sam Rainsy is concerned, there is now sweetness and light. “I used to hate Hun Sen,” he says. “But then it came to my mind that I should not hate anyone as a human. I should only hate and combat any bad crimes that a person has committed.” Mr Hun Sen has had an epiphany too: he and Mr Sam Rainsy “must stay together because, at the very least, we have the same Cambodian blood.”

How long the amity will last is unclear, but for now it is a marked change. Several opposition politicians have been released from jail. The CNRP will be allowed its own television station as an antidote to the state-run media. And the party will have more chairmanships of parliamentary committees as well as seats on the National Election Committee, whose apparent bias in favour of the CPP was a chief grievance at the last election. The next election must be held by 2018, and on the face of it the opposition should fancy its chances. After all, despite voting irregularities and the state’s apparatus put to the service of the ruling party, the CNRP fared remarkably well in 2013, winning 44.5% of the vote and 55 seats versus the CPP’s 48.8% and 68 seats—down from 90 seats in the previous election. For Mr Hun Sen that result was a blow: his party had kept a firm grip on power since Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the Khmers Rouges in 1979.

The rapprochement has displeased many in the CNRP. Detractors took to social media, accusing Mr Sam Rainsy of being driven by ego and the prospect of a cosier life as a puppet of Mr Hun Sen’s. An assistant to Kem Sokha, the opposition’s vice-president, accused Mr Sam Rainsy of having accepted a very large bribe. Mr Sam Rainsy denies it. He says it was simply time to end “a culture of war, a culture of confrontation, a culture of revenge”. Dialogue, he said, was needed.

A friend of Mr Sam Rainsy argues that this is a notable moment, when Cambodia’s dictator has accepted that a winner-takes-all politics no longer serves, and that power now needs to be negotiated—with prosperity spread beyond a narrow, grasping elite. Yet previous detentes under Mr Hun Sen have not ended well. Funcinpec, Cambodia’s royalist party, entered a coalition with the CPP only to see its influence wane so rapidly that it won no parliamentary seats at all in the 2013 elections. Mr Sam Rainsy has proclaimed a “culture of dialogue” once before, when he returned from exile in 2006—only to flee again four years later. Sophal Ear at Occidental College in California compares Cambodian politics to a game of cat-and-mouse “where only the mouse changes”.

But the cat still has to run for re-election, and the next one, which Mr Hun Sen and Mr Sam Rainsy both say they will contest, already looms. Mr Hun Sen is 62 years old, and has said that he intends to rule until he is 74. Yet Cambodia’s young electorate is tired of decades of corruption and thuggish rule. Even with all the resources at its disposal, the CPP may not win the next election outright and deals may need to be cut. Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who heads Funcinpec, also says he plans to run but, given his party’s abysmal showing in 2013, he offers the prime minister little. Mr Kem Sokha’s frequent and unflinching criticisms of the prime minister render him an unlikely partner. That leaves Mr Sam Rainsy as the most appealing choice.

Mr Sam Rainsy says he will not consider a coalition. He says that if he wins, he will launch an investigatory committee, modelled on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, into allegations of corruption levelled at the CPP. It has prompted Mr Hun Sen to bare his teeth, warning Mr Sam Rainsy that if he “does not let me live comfortably…I have forces that can fight back, that will make him live not comfortably either.” So much for a new culture of dialogue.