Mon, Nov 18, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Why Asia’s longest-serving leader is warning about a coup

Discontent is building in Cambodia over skyrocketing household debt, an influx of Chinese investment and a lack of jobs, and Hun Sen’s opponents see it as an opportunity to pounce

By Philip Heijmans  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Yusha

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.

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