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Desperate to hang on, a strongman shows his true colors

Cambodia's Hun Sen has wiped out his political opponents, but it may not be enough when the polls come around
Desperate to hang on, a strongman shows his true colors

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen shouts slogans on the last day of the commune election campaign in Phnom Penh in this June 2 file photo. (Photo by AFP)


Published: November 03, 2017 05:01 AM GMT
Updated: November 03, 2017 05:02 AM GMT

Any hope of a democratic national election in Cambodia next year has all but disappeared.

When Prime Minister Hun Sen marked the recent anniversary of the peace agreement that established multiparty democracy by stating that the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) would be dissolved, the veteran leader appeared to take the country one step closer to outright dictatorship.

"Because they didn't respect the Paris Peace Agreement, the political party will be dissolved in the future, this is a fact," Hun Sen said in a speech on Oct. 23, exactly 24 years after the accord that paved the way for democratic elections in 1993.

Things were very different less than five months ago as CNRP leader Kem Sokha beamed in front of a media scrum as he cast his vote in the commune elections, where the opposition made large inroads.

Now Sokha is detained on treason charges after a midnight raid on his home in early September over accusations of collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the government, in what was widely branded a politically motivated move to silence the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), the only threat in next year's general election. He could be jailed until he is 94.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on Oct. 30 summonsed Sokha to appear in court in November for a hearing related to the potential dissolution of the CNRP, the Phnom Penh Post reported. His lawyers said he will not attend, citing the "politically motivated" nature of the trial.

The Interior Ministry has requested the dissolution, based on recent amendments to a law, including a clause that prohibits people with criminal convictions from holding high-ranking positions within a party.

The dismantling of the CNRP, which has been carried out against a backdrop of shuttering independent media outlets and an increasing obsession with rooting-out opponents — often labeled "color revolutionaries" — has left many wondering: what does the future hold for Cambodia if it continues the path towards dictatorship?


Fear and paranoia

"There is a lot of anger at this moment. There's a lot of uncertainty, a lot of anxiety," said deputy CNRP leader Mu Sochua from Morocco, where she fled to in October after being tipped off that she was also to be arrested.

Hun Sen's fear of losing his 32-year iron grip on power was descending into outright "paranoia," she added.

"He's not only protecting his wealth, he's protecting the empire and the family wealth, which is very typical of any dictator. We can understand why he lives in fear, and he actually lives in paranoia,"  Sochua said.

Deputy CNRP leader Mu Sochua at an undisclosed location in Bangkok Oct. 5 after fleeing Phnom Penh. (Photo by AFP)


Hang Vitou, the director of the Young Analysts Group, a consortium of budding political commentators, said he had encountered widespread discontent during recent investigative trips to the provinces. The group was mentored by government critic Kem Ley, who was murdered last year in what was widely perceived to be a politically motivated hit.

In what's being interpreted as an overture to the family, Hun Sen on Oct. 28 agreed to contribute an additional $20,000 for the construction of stupa to hold Kem Lay's ashes on top of $50,000 he pledged in July, the government-friendly Khmer Times reported.

"Many people in the countryside are very disappointed with the government. They said they will not go to vote because they think that the vote is useless and the national election is useless," Vitou said, sitting with friends in a Phnom Penh restaurant.

Vitou predicted mass demonstrations could erupt among CNRP supporters if Hun Sen continues to ignore the will of millions of voters, but he was in little doubt about what the deadly consequences would be.

"The police will crack down. They will get injured, they will be killed or go missing," he said.


Defectors welcome

Hun Sen has promised opposition commune chiefs that they will be allowed to keep their positions if they defect to the CPP, while CNRP National Assembly seats will be redistributed among other minor parties. A total of 23 CNRP commune chiefs have defected to Hun Sen's CPP so far, the pro-government Fresh News reported on Oct. 28.

Still, Hun Sen could be facing an uphill struggle to win support from millions of voters who want change.

The premier has been making a concerted effort to court the country's estimated 700,000 garment workers — who turned out en masse for the CNRP in 2013 — through factory visits, weekly audiences and bonuses for pregnant workers.

This was followed by a recent increase in the garment-worker minimum wage to $170 a month — the biggest hike since 2013 — when widespread strikes and protests resulted in five deaths as security forces fired live rounds as clashes erupted in Phnom Penh's garment factory zone.

Pok Bona, 35, a garment worker who supports the CNRP, said she wasn't buying Hun Sen's efforts to increase his popularity through wage hikes and orchestrated photo ops.

She branded the legal assault on the CNRP "unjust" and said she would stay away from polling booths come July if she cannot put her thumbprint next to Kem Sokha's party.

"If they dissolve the CNRP, what would I go there for? There would be no one, no party that I love,"  she said.

A 27-year-old garment worker, who requested he only be identified as Borey due to fear of repercussions, said he believed most workers, like himself, remained loyal to the CNRP.

"I think most still support the CNRP because they don't fully trust the promises of the government," he mumbled quietly, while looking around nervously for anyone listening in.

"They won't be happy if [the CNRP] are not in the elections but they are too scared to speak out," he said.


Old ways 'won't work'

The CPP's well-trodden path to drum up support of the populace through patronage and handouts had worn thin, said Ou Virak, director of the Future Forum public policy think tank.

"It's not enough. In the old days it was pretty easy, direct handouts were pretty effective, but it's not going to be effective now. The people want more than that," Virak said.

"Once people have food on the table they want to be heard, they want to express themselves and they want to be listened to," he said, adding that raising the minimum wage too high would kill off the garment industry.

Hun Sen needed to balance providing jobs and development while allowing "space for people to express themselves" to stand any chance of quelling discontent, Virak added.

Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy, said there were ways Hun Sen could win over those disenchanted with his rule, but his autocratic nature and continued pivot to China made this highly doubtful.

"Cambodia's economy is growing at a strong rate, one of the fastest in the region. In order to attract CNRP supporters he would have to open up the economy further and diversify Cambodia's external relations to lessen, but not end, economic links with China," Thayer said.

"Hun Sen will not take this path because his instincts are autocratic, his default position is domestic repression and increased dependence on China."

Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen's Cambodia, said even if Hun Sen decided to make efforts to push large-scale reform in areas such as land and forestry, it could be constrained by the premier's reliance on the economic and political support from those who most benefit from those sectors.

"Sooner or later, if he is interested in making life better for the Cambodian people, Hun Sen will have to confront the fundamental contradiction of the CPP system: that pursuing reform too forcefully would threaten to undermine the powerful economic interests upon which the system depends," Strangio said.

"The question is whether Hun Sen can deliver enough benefits to head off serious popular discontent. At this point, it's really too early to say one way or another."

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said that claims the CPP was trying to court garment workers through wage hikes were simply accusations.

He also rejected criticisms the government was "dismantling democracy" through the targeting of its opponents and inviting them to join the CPP.

"This is a new chapter and political order has to be respected. It's not the end of democracy, it's the beginning," he said, adding that CNRP supporters would be welcomed with open arms.

But analyst Vitou said any efforts by Hun Sen to win to win the hearts of millions of Cambodian voters — particularly young people who yearn for change — was a case of "too little, too late."

"If he had the real will to develop Cambodia, I think it's okay, but I think it's just a game and now people know his game," he said.

"I think that the game is over."

Additional reporting by Ouch Sony

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