Despite mass protests, accusations of rigged elections, a brief hunger strike by a prince and a threatened boycott of parliament by his rivals, the long-ruling Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen remains firmly in control.
After his worst poll result in 15 years and a series of demonstrations drawing tens of thousands of people, experts say the former Khmer Rouge fighter-turned-prime minister must realize that something has to change.
“Hun Sen got a huge kick — a huge wake-up call — during the election,” Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak said. “So I think Hun Sen is getting the message that people are not happy with the way he runs the country.”
Three days of demonstrations descended into violence earlier this month when a protester was shot dead as security forces clashed with a stone-throwing crowd.
Cambodia’s political crisis faces a crucial juncture this week with the opposition set to boycott parliament when it convenes today unless Hun Sen agrees to its demand for an independent probe into the disputed July polls.
Several rounds of talks between Hun Sen and Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy over the past week failed to break the deadlock, raising fears of a protracted dispute and further mass protests. The two sides agreed to seek a nonviolent solution to the impasse and made a vague pledge to set up a mechanism to bring about election reform.
The key demand of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) is for an independent “truth committee” to investigate Hun Sen’s controversial election victory. On that, the prime minister has refused to budge.
The crisis took a new twist on Friday when a pro-opposition Cambodian prince — the cousin of Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni — went on hunger strike in protest at Hun Sen’s contested win, demanding “justice for voters.”
His protest ended on Saturday after military police expelled him from the pagoda where he was holding the hunger strike.
Experts say that ultimately the emergence of a more vocal and emboldened opposition should be positive for a country that has been run almost single-handedly by Hun Sen for 28 years.
“We’re moving towards a two-party system, which is good for the country, for a healthy democracy,” said independent analyst Lao Mong Hay, a former researcher for the Asian Human Rights Commission.
According to official results of the July election, the Cambodian People’s Party won 68 seats against 55 for the CNRP.
The opposition has rejected the tally, alleging widespread vote irregularities.
The CNRP has warned of further protests unless Hun Sen agrees to its demands, which also include an overhaul of the National Election Committee. The questions now, say experts, are how much ground Hun Sen will be willing to cede to the opposition and how his rivals will use their new-found political clout.
“The natural role of the opposition in Cambodia in the past has been defensive, the role of a victim, impulsive and not very disciplined,” said Jackson Cox, an analyst with the consultancy firm Woodmont International. “They should and must demonstrate they are not the opposition party of the past. They have to act proactively.”
The CNRP faces a dilemma — if it refuses to compromise, it risks losing its voice in parliament. However, if it strikes a deal with Hun Sen that leaves the strongman in power, then it could face a backlash from its supporters who appear hungry for change.
“I want justice, because people voted for CNRP,” opposition supporter Hok Rim, 32, said. “If there’s no solution, I’m ready to join more protests.”
From land-grab protests to strikes in the key garment sector, public discontent shows that Hun Sen can no longer rely on his image as a liberator from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge to underpin support, experts say. Hun Sen is a former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected and oversaw Cambodia’s rise from the ashes of war. His government is regularly accused of ignoring human rights and suppressing political dissent.
While garment exports and tourism have brought double-digit economic growth, Cambodia remains one of the world’s poorest countries, and younger Cambodians are also increasingly intolerant of endemic corruption. However, experts say the 61-year-old prime minister — who has vowed to rule until he is 74 — is unlikely to relinquish his grip of power yet.
“Hun Sen will want to take the moral high ground and appear to be cooperating in the interest of national unity and reconciliation,” said Carl Thayer, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “But he will not let political reforms undermine the basis of his power.”
EVOLVING SITUATION: Of the latest cases, 23 percent were found to be asymptomatic, but the coronavirus strain in Da Nang is more contagious, authorities said A COVID-19 outbreak that began in the Vietnamese city of Da Nang more than a week ago has spread to at least four city factories with a combined workforce of about 3,700, state media reported yesterday. Four cases were found at the plants in different industrial parks in the central city that collectively employ 77,000 people, the Lao Dong newspaper said. Vietnam, praised widely for its decisive measures to combat the novel coronavirus since it first appeared in late January, is battling new clusters of infection having gone for more than three months without detecting any domestic transmissions. Authorities yesterday reported one new
‘COVIDIOTS’: Politicians condemned the protest that came amid surging infections in the country, while a marcher said government-induced fear weakened the body Loudly chanting their opposition to masks and vaccines, thousands of people on Saturday gathered in Berlin to protest against COVID-19 restrictions before being dispersed by police. Police put turnout at about 20,000 — well below the 500,000 organizers had announced as they urged a “day of freedom” from months of virus curbs. Despite Germany’s comparatively low toll, authorities are concerned at a rise in infections over the past few weeks and politicians took to social media to criticize the rally as irresponsible. “We are the second wave,” shouted the crowd, a mixture of hard left and right and conspiracy theorists, as they converged
The Australian government yesterday said that it plans to give Google and Facebook three months to negotiate with media businesses fair pay for news content. In releasing a draft of a mandatory code of conduct, Canberra aims to succeed where other nations have failed in making tech firms pay for news siphoned from commercial media companies. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said that Google and Facebook would be the first platforms targeted by the proposed legislation, but others could follow. “It’s about a fair go for Australian news media businesses, it’s about ensuring that we have increased competition, increased consumer protection and a sustainable
SURGE CONTINUES: India recorded its steepest spike of more than 57,000 new virus cases in 24 hours, as Vietnam went from no virus deaths to reporting three South Korean prosecutors yesterday arrested the elderly leader of a secretive religious sect as part of an investigation into allegations that the church hampered the government’s COVID-19 response after thousands of worshipers were infected in February and March. Prosecutors in the central city of Suwon have been questioning 88-year-old Lee Man-hee, chairman of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, over charges that the church hid some members and underreported gatherings to avoid broader quarantines. The Suwon District Court granted prosecutors’ request to arrest Lee over concerns that he could temper with evidence. Lee and his church have steadfastly denied the accusations, saying they are