A file image taken June 28, 2017 of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen addressing supporters during a Cambodian People's Party ceremony marking the party's 66th founding anniversary in Phnom Penh. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)
The Cambodian government has succeeded in shutting down the political opposition, critical thinking in the media and has sharpened its focus on non-government organizations, which have tried its patience over human rights issues. For some "The Repression" is shocking, for others the crackdown is simply a return to this country's communist past.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and many in his inner circle had their training with the Khmer Rouge, joining the ultra-Maoists after then Prince Norodom Sihanouk took to the airwaves from China in 1970 and urged support for Pol Pot.
That's not to say they are were from the same cloth as the murderous bunch of thugs who obliterated this country between 1975 and 1979. They're not.
Their moral bacon was saved once they defected to Vietnam, joined forces with Hanoi and returned with an invading army that ousted Pol Pot and resulted in a 10-year Vietnamese occupation backed by the Soviet Union.
Throughout Hun Sen and his cabinet were schooled in all the different brands of communism, Chinese, Soviet, Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge, with a healthy dose of homespun interpretation mixed into the decades of policies initiated by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP). Culturally, at least, leaders in Cambodia remain Communist.
It's a recipe that underscores Hun Sen's harshest crackdown on dissenting voices since peace finally returned to this war-torn country in late 1998.
Of his more Stalinist-type threats, the prime minister told a rally of 4,000 Christians he was prepared to "eliminate" hundreds of people if they opposed him, and more recently warned he would use Russian made-rocket launchers, BM21s, against anyone who threatened secession.
In a warning to the now dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), he told students: "Please, don't have hope. I Just want to tell you, don't force someone to put nails in your coffin. If it's in the court's hands, it's another issue, but if it is a secession issue, the BM-21 can be used to attack your area."
Also known as Stalin's Organ and mounted from the back of a truck, a BM-21 rapid fires with such an explosive force that it re-defined modern warfare.
At the same time Hun Sen said he would dispatch his men across Asia and hunt down opposition figures who annoy him. With a personal body-guard unit of more than 3,000 he should have no shortage of men willing to undertake such a nefarious job.
"The Repression," as some are calling it, began in September, with the closure of The Cambodia Daily, the arrest of senior CNRP figures and the dissolution of their party through the courts, while many others have fled. In fact, the crackdown on opposition had simmered since the last election, amid violent protests and allegations of electoral fraud, and the bashing of CNRP politicians on the steps of parliament.
On its final front page, The Cambodia Daily lamented: "Descent Into Outright Dictatorship."
Hun Sen insists a 'color revolution' is being fermented by the CNRP with the support of the United States and his democratically elected government, which is what it was, is under threat, justifying an approach tantamount to putting his country on a war-footing.
Yet no evidence has been produced to substantiate claims that any sort of revolution, secession or even an armed insurrection is being planned by anyone.
His critics, particularly human rights NGOs, beg to differ. They argue Hun Sen is simply fearful of losing the July 29 election where changing demographics led by an aspiring, educated youth vote, is threatening to shift the balance power away from an ageing and outdated CPP.
Reverting to type
That has resulted in a reversion to type, backed by policies lifted straight from a communist playbook, written for dictators everywhere who insist on using intimidation and fear to entrench their power.
First, dissolve the opposition; second, silence the press; third, neuter non-governmental organizations (NGOs); fourth, focus on religious, ethnic and minority groups whose beliefs and customs might counter government dictates.
So far, Hun Sen has scored three out of four. Minority religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, have flourished in recent years with clerics left in relative peace to practice what they preach.
But Muslims are poor, their fish stocks devastated by big business and poaching, and are hoping Hun Sen will live up to relocation promises and provide access to homes, education and jobs. Christians have invested heavily in Cambodia; running health services, educational institutions, vocational training and an assortment of charities.
Both rely on Hun Sen and the government for their survival, and he would have been well aware of that when he warned Catholics that religious freedom would be lost if he was removed from office.
Additionally, a new visa regime, stricter work permit policies, national identification numbers and an emboldened tax department have raised fears in Western business circles that they are being deliberately squeezed in favor of China, Cambodia's great benefactor.
Press passes are harder to get and lese majeste laws are planned, taking Cambodia down the same road as Thailand where the slightest innocuous remark can be interpreted as a royal slight resulting in hefty jail terms. Journalists have been accused of espionage and jailed.
All this is rich fodder in the West where sanctions against Cambodia are under consideration, particularly in the United States with right-wing Republicans, who still harbor grudges over the Vietnam War and tend to view Hun Sen as a communist remnant of the Cold War, hold power.
They have also backed the self-exiled former CNRP leader, Sam Rainsy, who is attempting to raise support ahead of the next poll among the Khmer diaspora in the West.
Rainsy's problem, however, is that he has never won enough votes to convince the skeptics that he has the will of the people behind him.
Meanwhile, Hun Sen has won every election since 1998 and most observers had believed he was on track for another term, extending his 32 years in power — until the events of last September signaled an end to tolerance.
In like-minded company
When Hun Sen joined the Khmer Rouge Mao Zedong was still chairman of the Communist Party of China and since then, in this region and elsewhere, precedents have been set for the prime minister to follow; Suharto in Indonesia, military governments in Myanmar and now Thailand.
Malaysia and Singapore have had leadership change but the same parties have ruled their respective roosts for decades, as has the communist one-party states of Laos and Vietnam.
China, with Russia encroaching, is now the dominant foreign power in Cambodia and speculation is rife in Phnom Penh that Beijing with its sophisticated monitoring technology coupled with Russia's experience in shutting down dissent through compliant courts and an incentivized tax department are behind the logistics of the damaging sweep.
Either way, it is Hun Sen who calls the shots in Cambodia. And given his communist stripes, and an apparent reversion to type, anyone who might be disinclined to vote for him and his CPP at the next election, regardless of how stage managed that poll may be, can expect a rough time ahead.
Alphonsus Pettit is a historian who writes about Southeast Asia.