Hun Sen tightens hold on power as Cambodia pivots to Beijing




Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia has been in power for more than 30 years. He recently vowed to stay in power and resist foreign interference. Authorities in the country arrested opposition leader, Kem Sokha and voted last week to approve his prosecution on charges he committed treason in collusion with the United States, The New York Times notes.

Opposition party lawmakers were turned away from a prison in the country’s Tbong Khmum province on Monday (above) following a failed second attempt to visit jailed CNRP leader Kem Sokha, who is being held on a charge of treason, RFA adds.


Mu Sochua, the deputy leader of Cambodia’s main opposition party, says her country’s government is waging “psychological warfare” on its opponents in an effort to break them. “Democracy is in danger, my life is in danger,” she says, speaking in the office of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in a suburb of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, during an interview with The Financial Times:

The arrest was part of a crackdown on opposition politicians and independent media by Hun Sen, the Cambodian prime minister who has ruled the country for more than 30 years, and this month vowed to stay in power for another decade. Authorities recently closed down the National Democratic Institute, a US-funded group active in election monitoring and grassroots political organizing, and ordered radio stations carrying the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia to stop broadcasting. The respected Cambodia Daily newspaper closed earlier this month after a tax dispute, carrying the headline “Descent into Outright Dictatorship” on the cover of its final issue.

“It would have been unthinkable to kick out the NDI and close the Cambodia Daily five years ago,” says Ou Virak, head of Future Forum, a public policy think-tank. “They would have pushed back, and the government would have caved.”

Ahead of 2018 elections, the U.S. should also re-form a Cambodia contact group to devise a plan to help Cambodia find its way back to a path to reform, says Heritage analyst Olivia Enos. For freedom in Cambodia, and in defense of Kem Sokha, the U.S. should make clear now its commitment to a democratic Cambodia.

However, analysts say Hun Sen has stacked the chances of winning in 2018 in his favor by silencing outspoken media, in so doing repeating a past pattern of tightening and then loosening the screws on dissent, The FT adds.

“This is what he has been doing for the past 25 years,” says Cham Bunthet, a commentator and legal adviser to the smaller Grassroots Democracy party. “He gives the opposition some breathing room, and then he cuts it.”

Yet, Cambodian history also shows us that foreign powers are never the answer for true reforms and positive change – foreign powers often come and go without much investment into Cambodia’s future, analyst Sothie Keo writes for The Diplomat:

Cambodia does not have the luxury of being at a strategic geopolitical location that would serve as a useful ally for foreign powers to develop and inject massive amounts of capital. Cambodians should not expect foreign powers to be their answer for perpetual peace and stability. Foreign powers will always come and go, but Cambodians are the ones who will always be here. It is ultimately up to Cambodians to be the agents for their own reform and their own perpetual peace and stability.

The regime has accused the Cambodian opposition and NGOs of colluding with Western democracy assistance groups in a plot for ‘regime change.’

“Speculation that the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) or NDI have a ‘secret agenda’ in Cambodia is wrong and baseless,’ said Jane Riley Jacobsen, NED’s senior director of public affairs.

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