The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has drawn first blood in what promises to be an ugly and drawn-out election campaign after Prime Minister Hun Sen took an unusual step and enlisted the support of the senior military in a nasty crackdown on opposition dissent.
Gen. Kun Kim demanded the removal of key opposition figure Kem Sokha from his parliamentary position, and got it after the politician’s wife was terrorized by 200 to 300 men on motorbikes throwing rocks at their family home in a well-documented, six-hour ordeal.
Then two MPs from the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) were dragged from their cars outside of Parliament and bashed just one hour after a military-sponsored anti-opposition rally was staged with Gen. Kun Kim petitioning his demands “for the sake of national security.”
The military intervention made unwanted headlines around the world.
In China, Cambodia’s most generous benefactor, Xinhua was reporting a rise in political tensions, quoting Chheang Vannarith, Chairman of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies, as saying the country was on the verge of a political crisis.
“Political tension between the two main political parties is going to increase, and political polarization is rising which in turn leads to political and social instability,” he said.
Kem Sokha’s daughter and CNRP spokeswoman Monovithya Kem said many of the party’s senior figures were now in hiding and the ousting of her father last Friday as the president of the National Assembly was a violation of the Cambodian constitution.
“The legitimacy of the National Assembly that violates the constitution should be questioned,” she told The Diplomat from Washington D.C., after Parliament voted 68 to nil in favor of her father’s removal from the 123-seat assembly. The CNRP boycotted proceedings.
She and the CNRP want a United Nations-backed independent investigation into the incidents.
Water Festival Cancelled
Hun Sen then added to the sense of drama by canceling this month’s Water Festival, a cherished holiday when Khmers travel great distances from the countryside to the city.
The prime minister blamed the drought and low water levels in the Tonle Sap for the cancellation, but the argument fell on deaf ears as many a local remember past festivals when they say water levels were even lower. Current water levels are just above five meters.
A military victory also highlighted the nonsense of the “culture of dialogue” between Hun Sen and CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, part of a deal that had enabled the opposition to end its virulent anti-government campaign and a 12-month boycott of Parliament amid claims Hun Sen had had rigged the 2013 election.
CPP sources also said opposition protests in Paris, where Hun Sen was to sign an extradition treaty with French President Francois Hollande, became an excuse to act. They said Hun Sen was highly embarrassed by the CNRP protests on French soil.
As a result, analysts said the worst side of the CPP has re-emerged, with the party returning to its dark past of violence and intimidation in order to shut down dissent and start laying the political groundwork ahead of commune elections due in 2017 and the national poll a year later.
The crackdown also lent weight to arguments put forward by Hun Sen’s many critics that he will not hand over control of government after the next election should he lose to the CNRP.
A CNRP victory has remained a real prospect ever since the CPP was returned with a sharply reduced majority at general elections held two years ago. The party, which has controlled the political landscape here since the Vietnamese invaded and ousted Pol Pot in 1979, has also had considerable trouble attracting a younger audience, which is now emerging as a political force.
Hun Sen insisted the military had a right to air their grievances but he tried to distance himself from the violence, blaming it on outsiders while charging the Interior Ministry with finding the culprits responsible for the bashings and the attack on Kem Sokha’s home.
Inside was his wife, 56-year-old Chanmono Te. She was alone with domestic staff. Petrified, she made repeated mobile phone calls to the police for help which were ignored. Detailed photos and a video of the thugs responsible for the assault outside the National Assembly were circulated on university campuses and posted to the Internet.
Reports also said members of Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit were involved in the attacks. Still, no arrests had been made more than a week after Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Saphea were savagely beaten.
One CPP source said the week-long train of events “hold shades of 2003,” when Phnom Penh was gripped by anti-Thai riots.
Back then Hun Sen and his CPP were widely blamed for initiating a nationalist rally over comments from a not terribly bright Thai actress about the fabled ruins of Angkor Wat. The situation soon blew totally out of control. Mobs stoked old enmities and took to the streets trashing Thai businesses and razing the just completed Thai embassy.
Looking for a Fight
“So now everyone is spoiling for a fight. It’s perceived retribution for the sleights in Paris. But who to fight? Like Hun Sen and the military are the only ones with the guns,” one analyst, who declined to be named, said.
“They really believe, and previous elections indicate they might be right, that a crackdown on dissent will eventually deliver victory at the ballot box. That worked in the old days when the war was still fresh and people appreciated strong arm tactics if it kept the peace.
“That said, Cambodia is a different place now when compared to 20, 10 or even five years ago. The antics of this week might backfire and could alienate the CPP further in the electorate.”
That electorate, particularly in the cities, shocked Hun Sen at the polls in 2013 with a big swing to the opposition. Older voters are increasingly concerned about massive land grabbing, and are tired of the corruption and growing wealth gap. Meanwhile the increasingly educated youth vote is demanding well-paid jobs, iPhones, and motorbikes.
They do not share the older generation’s fear of war and are not as easily cowered. Additionally, Cambodia will suffer from sharply weaker economies elsewhere, particularly China. Street crime is rampant and the price of petrol, unlike elsewhere, remains near record highs.
The country is also hobbled by negative stereotyping and has suffered from the problems of its bigger neighbors Thailand and Malaysia, where a military coup, civil unrest, and corruption have driven foreign investors out of the region.
“The recipe is not good. The economy, the drought, and regional politics can all be counted against Cambodia and the prime minister’s popularity at home is dwindling. A lot of people want change,” the analyst, attached to a Western embassy, said.
“His standing abroad is also challenged by the negative sentiment surrounding Cambodia and that impacts on foreign investment.”
To counter this Hun Sen had mounted a diplomatic offensive designed to attract foreign investors. This included slick new promotional material, an appearance on Radio Australia television by his oldest son Hun Manet, and official visits to the United Nations and Europe. A Russian mission will arrive here shortly and Hun Sen has been invited for an official tour of Australia.
Importantly, Hun Sen has always reassured investors that he alone does and can control this troubled country where the crucial tenets of democracy – like the separation of powers between the executive, judiciary, the police and military – are often found wanting.
In September, a four-star general raised more than eyebrows by declaring the military was the property of the CPP and as such would only be loyal to that party. Hun Sen also claims others, like National Police Chief Neth Savoeun, would not accept a CNRP victory.
The removal of Kem Sokha as president of parliament – at the behest of Gen. Kun Kim, a close and senior confidante of Hun Sen from the war years – was as revealing as it was surprising, with major players bullying and positioning ahead of elections still some way off. In doing so, they are reinforcing perceptions that the senior ranks of the CPP can be just as nasty as they have ever been.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt