Cambodia: ‘old-style politics in a new society’


For 30 years, Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge fighter, has wielded power through a combination of threats, clever deal-making and sheer willpower. And for most of that time, Mr. Sam Rainsy (left), a French-educated former finance minister, has been his foil, The New York Times reports:

Mr. Hun Sen, who met with President Obama at a regional summit in California this week, tolerates periods of relative freedom and political dissent to a point, but resorts to coups, crackdowns and court cases when serious challenges arise.

Mr. Sam Rainsy is now as well known for fleeing the country in the face of legal threats as he is for his reform-minded agenda. His retreat to France was his third in a decade….His decision not to return to Cambodia, analysts say, was a lost opportunity, if not a surprise.

“The biggest threat to Hun Sen’s grip on power would be Sam Rainsy in jail,” said Ou Virak, the founder of Future Forum, a research institute. “The international condemnations and the potential closing of the American market in the garment industry, that would be nerve-racking for businesspeople.”

Hun Sen (right) and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which kept power after staging fundamentally flawed elections in 2013, took no steps to improve the country’s overall rights situation or to address corruption and other issues provoking public anger, according to a recent report from Human Rights Watch:

The government claimed that it was committed to fighting corruption but did not act against the most blatant cases. Crony companies and individuals connected to the ruling party forcibly displaced thousands of families for businesses such as palm oil. Authorities repeatedly rounded up “undesirables” from the streets of Phnom Penh and arbitrarily detained them in abusive conditions, at times resulting in death. Criminal suspects were routinely tortured and prosecuted in unfair trials.

“Hun Sen ignored his commitment to a ‘culture of dialogue’ with the opposition and reverted to a culture of violence and intimidation in 2015,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “He used his control of Cambodia’s security forces, courts, and civil service to force the opposition leader into exile, beat up opposition politicians, jail critics, pass draconian laws, and increase the ruling party’s stranglehold on the country’s institutions.”

Ou Ritthy, 28, the founder of a youth political discussion group, said he and his peers were exasperated with the cat-and-mouse game of Cambodian politics, The Times adds:

“Hun Sen, many things he has been doing are for power, for party interests, and Sam Rainsy also does the same,” he said. “It’s old-style politics in a new society.”

Mr. Ou Ritthy credits the sharp rise in Internet penetration and smartphone use for changing the dynamic here.

“Youth have two things,” he said. “Information — they got informed from  — and smartphones. They are more independent in terms of information. They are not told what to do by their parents like in the past.”

“It is superficially true that relative peace and stability occurred during the reign of Hun Sen’s three decades in power,” said Theary C. Seng (left), founding president of the Center for Cambodian Civic Education. “But Hun Sen’s ‘achievements’ are only relative to the blackness of the Khmer Rouge.”

Both parties are keenly aware of the demographic shift and are trying to chase the changing electorate, The Times adds:

In his absence, Mr. Sam Rainsy has led town halls via Skype and shared political commentary and vacation snapshots with his fans on his widely followed Facebook page. …Mr. Hun Sen joined Facebook in September and has taken to it with a vengeance. …According to a study by the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, he already ranks second among world leaders for engagement with Facebook followers. He is increasingly conducting government business on Facebook. He has made several policy changes based on complaints posted to his personal page, and last week, he announced the creation of dozens of “Facebook working groups” to gather information about citizens’ concerns.


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