Cambodia’s velvet glove frays


Hun Sen (left), Cambodia’s longtime strongman, faces local elections next year and a national contest in 2018. On his recent provincial swing he pressed flesh, announced local infrastructure projects as though they were acts of personal largesse and even freed birds from captivity—a ritual good deed in local Buddhist practice. But in case his efforts to win hearts and minds fall short, he appears to have a contingency plan: intimidate the opposition and civil society, The Economist reports:

Unlike other regional strongmen, such as Prayuth Chanocha in Thailand, or the leaders of Vietnam and Laos, both avowedly single-party states, international opinion matters to Mr Hun Sen. Cambodia relies on foreign aid and NGOs; to keep funds flowing, he must maintain at least a veneer of democracy. A genuine opposition party and a lack of electoral bloodshed are essential.

The trick is keeping the opposition genuine but unthreatening. One tactic is to alternate between conciliation and repression, the paper adds:

The government lured the CNRP’s president, Sam Rainsy (right), back from his Parisian exile in 2013 with swiftly broken promises of reform. Mr Sam Rainsy returned to Paris last year, pursued by an arrest warrant. The party’s second-in-command, Kem Sokha, has been holed up in its headquarters since May to avoid appearing in court in various cases related to his alleged affair with a hairdresser. On September 9th a court convicted him in absentia of refusing to appear for questioning, sentencing him to five months in prison and a fine of 800,000 riel ($200). He should have parliamentary immunity, but the courts say it does not apply, although CPP officials have ignored summonses to appear before the tribunal investigating atrocities under the Khmer Rouge regime without consequence. Mr Kem Sokha reportedly plans an appeal; if it is denied, he will be expelled from parliament.


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