Cambodia: Who is who’s Nemesis?

No way anymore!

Partyforumseasia: Authoritarian rule is getting more difficult, unless the rulers have sufficient control of the social media. But long before the age of the omnipresent hand phone and internet penetration, it was difficult to suppress rumors and political jokes. That was always a valve for the subjects to signal like mindedness and disagreement with the prescribed views of the government.

Prime Minister Hun Sen won the election last year after eliminating the strongest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), through dissolution by the Supreme Court. Its chairman, Kem Sokha, was imprisoned, and Sam Rainsy and other leaders were pushed into exile. After all this, Mr. Hun Sen may have thought that he could relax. But the exiled and domestically low lying opposition is alive, maybe newly energized by the announcement of Sam Rainsy that he will come back to Cambodia on the 9th of November which is also constitution day. Whether this is a strategic manoeuvre or not, Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP leadership are apparently alarmed enough to react. And whether it is only a rumor or fake news injected by Sam Rainsy, that he has massive support in the armed forces and a budget to compensate the officers and soldiers who join him in a revolt against Hun Sen, this “plot” is already making waves and triggers detentions of activists from the illegal CNRP. More than twenty CNRP activists have so far been detained under charges of “plotting and incitement to provoke serious chaos to national and social security”. On October 7, the Prime Minister stated that any armed rebellion would be crushed immediately, and that for the detention of Sam Rainsy no warrant would be needed.
Mr. Hun Sen may be better informed than an outside observer, but the statement above sounds rather unusual and may betray a higher level of nervousness. So far, Hun Sen has certainly been Sam Rainsy’s nemesis, and a reversal of roles has always looked more than improbable. Sam Rainsy has often played indirectly with the support of his international connections in Europe and the USA. With economic support from China, Hun Sen could always shrug off all the external calls for more democracy. Therefore, the big question is whether there is a realistic chance for Sam Rainsy and the CNRP to come back and topple the CPP-government with sufficient popular support.

One possible cause for the top brass in the army to be unhappy may be the “request” of the Prime Minister in August, to rescind the “Oknha” titles of altogether 75 army officers. The honorific title, bestowed by the king, is given to individuals for “humanitarian contributions” of USD 500,000 and more. The regime has for long helped selected supporters to enrich themselves, what is easily done with business concessions and related privileges. But they had to be prepared that the Prime Minister, on one of his visits to the countryside, promised the local community a new school or new hospital and immediately turned around to the Oknha among the crowd to take over the funding. The collected “donations” were also suspected to be a main funding source for the ruling party.

As a result of the Prime Minister’s ultimatum, to drop the title or leave the army, seventy-five (75) officers have given up the title, while another 24 have left the armed forces. The 75 quitters were ranking between generals and lieutenant colonels, and the exercise was officially explained as a reform to avoid conflicts of interest. The director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said it in a rather charming way: “The changes make our armed forces more trustworthy because when officials have the Oknha title next to their military rank, the public begins to believe that they are leveraging their positions in the armed forces for financial gain.” (Phnom Penh Post, 25 September)

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