Towards Hun Sen's Cambodia
By Craig Guthrie
PHNOM PENH - Even though Cambodia goes to the polls Sunday for the country's fourth general election since Vietnamese occupation ended in 1989, Prime Minister Hun Sen can comfortably escape the chaotic campaign noise in his heavily guarded, villa-studded compound in suburban Phnom Penh and light up a well-earned 555 cigarette - his smoke of choice since his soldiering days.
The one-eyed, chain-smoking "Strongman of Cambodia" could play a casual round of golf at the private course kept groomed at the complex known to locals as the "Tiger's Lair", or maybe take a helicopter trip from the adjacent military airfield used to whisk him up and down his impoverished nation. In fact, as his foes rally and march around the capital, it probably doesn't matter much what Hun Sen does.
Outside in the streets, colorful campaign convoys are clogging Phnom Penh's frangipani-lined boulevards, with truck-mounted bullhorns and the frenetic clashing of cymbals and drums promoting their respective candidates. The scenes are colorful and vibrant, the atmosphere intense, but many say the underlying political picture is actually black and white.
By all accounts, 57-year-old Hun Sen, in power since 1985, has little to worry from the oncoming polls; in recent months he has increasingly consolidated his hold over the electorate through a masterful opera of jibes, scaremongering and gold-toothed charm.
By outfoxing an already fractured opposition, wooing billions in foreign investment and artfully placating the once-powerful labor movement and previously hostile superpowers, the master manipulator has again outmaneuvered his rivals.
Hun Sen - riding a booming economy, hard-won social stability and a vast network of patronage and blood relations [One big happy family in Cambodia, Asia Times Online, March 20, 2007] - has all but ensured that he and his formerly communist Cambodian People's Party (CPP) will head the country when the potentially boundless riches from oil deposits, found by Chevron off the southwestern coast, begin to flow.
Hun Sen is in full grip of the nation's institutions and tightly aligned with its wealthiest tycoons. He has predicted that his CPP machine will win 81of the National Assembly's 123 seats and 73% of the vote. The margin of victory is probably immaterial, since the country, as proposed by opposition party leader Sam Rainsy, adopted a 50-plus-one seat requirement in 2004 to form a government, replacing the previous two-thirds of the vote rule. The proposal was passed to avoid a repeat of the political stalemates which destabilized the country following the 1998 and 2003 elections, and resulted in fractious coalition governments.
Even so, Hun Sen has been openly deriding his opponent's chances for months. In recent weeks he has told them they can "stay at home" on election day, and has announced that he himself will sit out the last few weeks of the campaign in order to avoid "verbal confrontations".
In another speech, the prime minister pre-picked his cabinet while comparing his management style to Manchester United's football manager Alex Ferguson. This is classic Hun Sen: a powerful orator who mixes paddy-field populism, personal potshots and home-spun humor to embolden his allies and intimidate his foes. In 2006, he laughed at a foiled government attack, saying in a speech reported by the Phnom Penh Post: "I know all. Even if you farted, I would still know. You cannot hide from me."
In the past he has said he has no intention of standing down as prime minister until he is at least 90 years old. This would be a remarkable run: he became the Vietnamese-backed premier of Cambodia in 1985, when he was 33.
As the country some call Asia's "best kept secret" heads into its Fourth Mandate - what the new government will be called - Cambodia is more than ever Hun Sen's nation. This sits poorly with his legion of critics, some of whom have labeled the CPP regime a corrupt "kleptocratic elite" with little regard for the millions of rural rice farmers living in abject poverty. Others, including diplomats, say worse.
In 2006, UN high commissioner for human rights Louis Arbour called the problems within the Cambodian judiciary "profound". Dr Lao Mong Hay, senior researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission, wrote in a June 18 editorial,
...institutions remain subject to the control inherited from pre-1993 communist days, and are utilized to serve the interests of the ruling class rather than those of the people. Although Cambodia has held periodic elections, and preparations for the forthcoming election are underway, its multi-party, liberal democracy has little substanceThe National Election Committee is regularly accused by the opposition of a lack of independence, and many independent election monitoring groups have alleged that state resources and media have been deployed to the ruling party's electoral advantage.
"Never assume that Cambodia is a democracy," said Chea Vannath, a political commentator. "If a democracy is when a nation is ruled by a government chosen by its people, yes, Cambodia is democratic. But in terms of governance, Cambodia is a different story. There is no check and balance on the executive branch, the judiciary or the monarchy."
In recent weeks he has also even veered away from an earlier commitment to adopt a long-awaited draft anti-corruption law, which foreign donors and civil society groups have long clamored for. And he's deployed old-fashioned scaremongering to justify the controversial move.
"Will corrupt officials agree to any confiscation of their riches? No. Then war will erupt," said Hun Sen in a speech broadcast on national radio at the end of May. "After confiscating for a while, all the rich people will all become poor - as in Khmer Rouge times - more than 3 million people will be destroyed. Don't play with that," he said.
A temple revisited
The country's millions of impoverished farmers and fishermen, for years saturated with state-controlled media looping four-hour-long Hun Sen speeches interspersed with reels of CPP officials handing over packs of instant noodles to needy villagers, are likely headed towards five more years of inequality, drudgery, and bad TV.
The premier's media-influenced popularity was recently pushed to greater heights by the listing last week of the Preah Vihear temple complex as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) national heritage site. When the decision was announced live on national channel CTN, Hun Sen's image was shown with revolving stars around it. A televised concert held to celebrate the listing was attended by hosts regularly shouting words of support for Hun Sen among other cheers of national glory.
The ensuing border tension with Thailand over the controversial listing will be a strong test of his government's ability to stand up to stronger neighbors before a watchful Cambodian public in the heat of an election season. Aside from the temple tiff, a closer look at the less-monitored countryside has revealed that the level of political killings, threats and intimidation that have marred previous elections has substantially diminished in the run-up to this weekend's polls.
But the lack of violence is probably more a testament to the CPP's successful vanquishing of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party's (SRP) grassroots machinery. The opposition's hardship has been brewing for months, due in part to some deft political maneuvers by Hun Sen and the CPP political machine. But their spectacular collapse in the lead-up to the July 27 election has still surprised many political observers. The SRP has been deflated by the defection of more than 20 high profile lawmakers and tens of thousand of grassroots members party executives claims the CPP has bought to switch sides.
"We have seen a people buying campaign ... Prime minister Hun Sen actively seeks out SRP members by using money as bait Each member receives at least US$2,000, and those with high positions in the SRP receive US$200,000," said Rainsy in a recent letter. "I am worried and feel pity for those [defectors] who get cheated. After the election they will be kicked out," he said. Hun Sen responded by saying that SRP defectors "are not goods or animals to be bought and sold".
The SRP has been left meek, and hoping for a highly unlikely post-election "people power" movement to challenge a CPP-dominated government. The SRP campaign has revolved mostly around the now globally recognized opposition stratagem of pointing to high oil and food prices as the incumbent government's failure to serve its people. But both strategies seem doomed to failure: a planned "mass rally" of SRP supporters against inflation saw a mere 300 supporters turn out, leading Hun Sen to quip that a local midget comedian usually has more people in his audience.
The punch-drunk party has also lost one of its more meaningful friends in the trade unions movement, which has the power to mobilize hundreds of thousands of garment and factory workers in a mass protest. The leader of the largest union, Chea Mony - whose brother popular SRP-affiliated union leader Chea Vichea was gunned down in 2004 - announced earlier this year the bloc was withdrawing from politics. The decision almost immediately followed Hun Sen's announcement of a $6 monthly increase to garment workers monthly salaries - bringing them to $56.
The loss of the trade unions - the largest organized sector in Cambodia - is a double blow to Rainsy, who, along with Chea Vichea and Ou Mary, founded the labor movement in 1996.
Opposition off the rails
Rainsy, a former minister of finance who was sacked for complaining about corruption, has tried another political tack. In several well-publicized broadsides, he has attacked the personal backgrounds of what he claims to be former Khmer Rouge members in Hun Sen's government. He recently alleged to supporters at a Buddhist ceremony at the Choeung Ek "killing fields" that CPP stalwart and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong was once chief of the Khmer Rouge-run Boeung Trabek "re-education" center, where thousands of diplomats and intellectuals were interred before execution.
Hor Namhong rebuked the accusation, claiming he was instead a liaison between the prisoners and the wardens at the camp and insisting that several of his close family members were executed there. He filed a defamation lawsuit against Rainsy, but the salvo provided little political capital for the SRP. The arrest of an opposition-aligned newspaper editor who reprinted Rainsy's allegations drew international condemnation, but hardly enough to improve the SRP's electoral chances. Nor has international outcry over the assassination of SRP-aligned journalist Khim Sambor and his son, who were shot and killed in a drive-by shooting on July 11.
The other main opposition party, the royalist Funcinpec, has also disintegrated in the run-up to the polls. Crafty, almost choreographed, moves saw the party's past leader and erstwhile Hun Sen rival, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, ousted in an inter-party coup. The move was orchestrated by Nhiek Bun Chhay, secretary general of the party and a former defense minister. Funcinpec is still the coalition partner of the CPP, but since the ouster of Ranariddh, has been widely seen as a puppet of the ruling party.
Ranariddh was subsequently convicted for pocketing $3.6 million from the sale of Funcinpec's former headquarters and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, a move some have attributed to Hun Sen's alleged influence over the courts. He fled the country in December 2005, and has since resorted to giving telephone speeches to embattled supporters of his new Norodom Ranariddh Party from self-exile in Malaysia.
In June, Ranariddh reportedly sent Hun Sen a humbling private note asking for the return of his private jet. Meanwhile, his magnificent $2 million colonial-era villa in the center of Phnom Penh has already been sold off by the government to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia, which plans to turn it into a carbon-friendly boutique hotel. Hun Sen has said Ranariddh will be "handcuffed and taken to jail", if he returns to Cambodia and has blocked any chance or a royal pardon.
The fledgling Human Rights Party, led by self-styled people's champion Kem Sokha and backed by controversial former head of state Pen Sovann, is assured of winning at least a handful of seats. The party may have carved a small nationalist niche among the electorate, and like the SRP is known to have had US backers. Sokha left his previous organization, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, under a cloud of scandal as 16 former employees accused him of corruption and embezzlement from the US-financed group.
Despite Sokha's grassroots popularity, his HRP is not seen as a major threat to the CPP juggernaut. Nor is the US seen as overtly supporting any particular opposition party, as it has been perceived of in the past. Washington, which in 2004 threatened Cambodia with sanctions for lack of progress on trafficking issues, has since given the nation a glowing report its latest human trafficking report.
The US Embassy in Phnom Penh has commended the lack of violence in this year's election build-up, though it reacted strongly and offered Federal Bureau of Investigation assistance following the murder of Sambor. Washington has taken a softer line towards Cambodia in the past year as China moves to increase its local influence. After Chevron's apparent discovery of oil and gas, the US this year lifted a 10-year ban on direct aid to Cambodia in February and re-started direct military aid in May.
Assuming that the oil and gas deposits are actually there, an energy bonanza would profoundly change the Cambodian economy and its terms of trade. Drilling by a Singaporean firm began in mid-July and state and private companies from China, South Korea, Japan and France are currently negotiating contracts related to the find. Although the government is still awaiting a key assessment from Chevron, estimates range from anywhere between $200 million to $2 billion a year in potential revenues.
That should provide plenty of resources for Hun Sen to further consolidate his political dominance, and if this weekend's elections produce the landslide win for his CPP many analysts project, could signal the beginning of a new era of one-party rule in Cambodia.
Craig Guthrie is a reporter for the Mekong Times newspaper in Phnom Penh. He has covered Cambodian affairs since 2004.
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