On his path to becoming Asia’s longest-serving leader, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has mastered the art of fighting for power.
When he first took charge of Cambodia as a 33-year-old in 1985, he battled remnants of the Khmer Rouge for control of the Southeast Asian nation.
After losing the first election following a UN-brokered peace in 1993, he threatened to secede unless he was made co-prime minister. Four years later, a de facto coup put him solely in charge, a position he has kept to this day.
Now 67, Hun Sen is suddenly worried that a group of exiled dissidents might overthrow him by force — a claim that looks hysterical on its face given that many of his main political opponents have been locked up or fled abroad since he won all of the country’s parliamentary seats during a boycotted election last year.
Yet he has lots of reason to worry. Discontent is building among the country’s 16 million people — most of whom have never been alive under another leader — over skyrocketing household debt, an influx of Chinese investment and a lack of jobs.
The EU is threatening to pull preferential tariffs that could upend the garment sector, the economy’s most important industry, and questions over succession are spurring rumors of internal rifts in his ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
“There could easily be a popular uprising,” said Ou Virak, director of Phnom Penh-based think tank Future Forum and former chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
Hun Sen’s opponents see an opportunity to pounce. Long-time opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has spent the past four years in Paris, has vowed to return to Cambodia to fight for democracy along with others who fled abroad.
Hun Sen’s government said that the efforts amounted to a coup attempt, and he moved the military to the border while warning he would use “weapons of all kinds” to stop them.
After arriving in Malaysia, Rainsy told reporters this week that he and his colleagues would head to Cambodia “when there is a material, physical possibility to do so.”
He said the whole world wanted democracy in Cambodia, except for China, and called for a “peaceful uprising” among the masses.
“I have called on the Cambodian army not to shoot at the people, not to shoot at the civilians, not to shoot at innocent people, and Mr Hun Sen is very afraid because he is not sure of the loyalty of the army,” Rainsy said. “The army will stand with the people. The army will not stand with dictators.”
On Thursday last week, Rainsy arrived in Indonesia to meet some of the country’s lawmakers as he considers when and how to return to his homeland.
On Tuesday he said that he could return to the country “at any time.”
Phay Siphan, a Cambodian government spokesman, dismissed talk of an uprising, a mutiny in the army or any internal dissent within the ruling party.
“Everything is under control,” he said by telephone, while also ruling out talks with the opposition.
“The government will in no shape or form negotiate with Sam Rainsy,” he said.
On Wednesday evening, the government issued a statement appealing to opposition supporters to “stop listening to Sam Rainsy,” adding that it had fully restored public order after defeating the exiled leader’s attempted coup, The Associated Press reported.
Still, Hun Sen has taken at least one step to ease tensions.
The government on Nov. 10 released Kem Sokha, the founder and coleader of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), after for more than two years.
Another 85 political prisoners are still in custody, the UN said.
The prime minister on Thursday ordered the release on bail of more than 70 opposition activists arrested in the past few weeks for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government, Reuters reported.
One reason for Sokha’s release might be the EU’s looming decision on whether to pull Cambodia’s access to a preferential trading scheme due to its deteriorating human rights record.
Such a move could decimate its US$5 billion garment industry and threaten the jobs of about 750,000 Cambodians, some of whom stood with Rainsy during mass rallies in 2013 calling for the prime minister’s resignation.
We “expect the Cambodian authorities to reinstate the political rights of all opposition members banned from political life and to fully release all opposition members, supporters and activists recently put under detention,” the EU wrote in a statement on Monday last week.
In a confidential report submitted last week, the EU told the Cambodian government that it had not done enough on its human rights record to prevent the loss of its special trade privileges, Radio Free Asia reported on Thursday.
Hun Sen’s move to curtail political and media freedoms over the years has coincided with closer ties with China.
As Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) biggest ally in Southeast Asia, the Cambodian government has garnered US$7.9 billion in Chinese investment from 2016 to August, representing more than one-third of all foreign investment, Xinhua news agency reported.
The slew of Chinese property projects and tourists has led to a growing backlash in the capital Phnom Penh and the once sleepy coastal resort town of Sihanoukville, where more than a dozen new casinos have driven up crime and prostitution.
China’s stake in an investment zone encompassing 20 percent of Cambodia’s coastline also raised fears in the US that it would become a Chinese naval base, something the government denied.
“Cambodians do not feel good about the Chinese influx and it created insecurity inside the country,” said Noan Sereiboth, an influential political blogger and frequent contributor to the youth-centered media group Politikoffee.
Another headache for Hun Sen is growing discontent over mounting public and personal debt.
With a median of US$3,370 per loan, Cambodia now has the highest average for small loans in the world, a report published in August by local rights groups said.
Mostly owed to just nine lenders, the total outstanding amount is equal to roughly one-third of the country’s entire GDP for last year, while seven largest microfinance institutions made more than US$130 million in profit in 2017.
During last year’s election, Hun Sen disavowed connections to microfinance lenders.
Confounding the problem is the question of succession as various factions jostle for power.
Hun Sen’s three sons are seen as competing for the top spot, with his eldest, Hun Manet, the odds-on favorite.
Educated at West Point and commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, Hun Manet was elevated last year to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s Standing Committee, a key decision-making body.
Without specifically addressing the opposition’s calls for an uprising, Hun Manet took to Facebook on Tuesday implore citizens to enjoy the annual water festival this week.
“What the people do not want is chaos, insecurity, instability and the loss of peace,” he wrote. “We must work together to fully protect the peace we have today.”
For all the noise, Rainsy’s move is “desperate” and has little chance of success, said Lee Morgenbesser, author of the book Beyond the Facade: Elections Under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia.
“A failure to try re-enter Cambodia would raise significant questions about whether those exiled are the right leaders for Cambodia’s pro-democracy movement,” Morgenbesser said.
Still, those outside the country see this as one of their final chances to act.
Vanna Hay, 33-year-old CNRP supporter living Tokyo, plans to join other activists in returning to Cambodia.
“No matter whether Sam Rainsy was on Cambodian soil on Nov. 9 or later, the people will rise and people power will bring Hun Sen down,” Vanna Hay said. “They will collapse soon by their own sin they made.”
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