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)

How to Cement your Grip on Power


Partyforumseasia: Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (17541838), the French statesman and diplomat, held high positions through the French revolution, the Napoleonic era, and the Vienna Congress. He was famous for his political skills, flexibility, and venality. In a well-known bon mot he is quoted as saying that the farewell from power is the most painful farewell in the world. Two political leaders in Southeast Asia, the Prime Ministers of Cambodia and Malaysia, Hun Sen and Najib Razak, seem to feel like Talleyrand and try to avoid losing the upcoming elections at any price.
Strongman Hun Sen has successfully destroyed the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in the last few months. Driving the original leader, Sam Rainsy, into exile, and imprisoning Sam’s deputy and successor, Kem Sokha, was not enough for him. With his CPP-majority in parliament, he had no problem tweaking the party law and had the CNRP dissolved by the constitutional court. More CNRP leaders preferred to escape into self-exile before being detained.
The background and final motif of Prime Minister Hun Sen might be the conviction, based on findings of his intelligence apparatus, that the election coming up in 2018 is not going to be a sure win, and that there is a groundswell against his 32-year authoritarian rule. The local elections in June showed massive gains of the opposition CNRP, and revealed that the ruling party had not even secured the votes of all CPP party members. After getting the opposition out of the way, most of their parliamentary seats have been given to the Norodom Ranariddh Party, which had been wiped out in the 2013 election.
The political cost on the international level might grow in the meantime. Apart from Hun’s  loss of face and the already dented image, the EU is considering sanctions which could hurt Cambodia’s textile imdustry, one of the country’s important cash cows. The Prime Minister seems to count on closer relations and support from the big neighbour China as a handy way of balancing the loss of Western funding, as massive as it was hitherto.

The Malaysian case is similar in the way that Prime Minister Najib Razak is all out to reduce or prevent the challenge of an opposition win in the elections due by August 2018 latest, but possible any time earlier at the discretion of the prime minister. When the unprecedented corruption scandal around Najib, his stepson, and his UMNO party, broke out in 2015, with 682 million US$ found in his private accounts, not many observers beleived in his political survival. But his cold-blooded survival instinct, as well as his absolute control over the country’s finances, since he is finance minister as well, seems to have cemented his grip on power and his unchallenged leadership position in the party.
Dividing or destroying the opposition is a game of Najib which is more sophisticated than the one in Cambodia. The opposition coalition, so far, does not seem united enough to seriously challenge UMNO and its Barisan Nasional coalition. The most charismatic opponent, Anwar Ibrahim, already 70, is still in prison on a controversial conviction for sodomy. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is fighting Najib relentlessly, but at 92, Najib does not take him too seriously any more. Finally, the long-term rival party PAS, an Islamic party with the same vote banks as UMNO among pious and rural Malays, has left the opposition and is now closer to Najib. Vilifying the biggest opposition party, the Chinese dominated DAP, as anti-Malay and anti-Islam, is another promising strategy of the Prime Minister and UMNO president. Obviously, the heavy lopsided gerrymandering which just got the Appeal Court’s green light for further fine tuning, is not seen as a sufficient life insurance. All these manoeuvres, like in Cambodia, betray at least that the leaders have some doubts about their winnability, but, of course, the determination to win at any cost.

Talleyrand, if he could observe this, would understand the two: losing power would be too painful for them and their cronies…

How to Create a Loyal Opposition


Partyforumseasia: Call it drama or saga, Prime Minister Hun Sen continues to get rid of the CNRP opposition because he is not sure that he would win the next general election if it is free and fair. His survival instinct is stronger than the CNRP wanted to believe, though they should have known him better. In the newest twist of the story, Hun Sen calls on the opposition MPs to defect in time before the impending dissolution of their party by the Supreme Court on 16th November. Singapore’s Straits Times on 5 November quotes Mr. Hun Sen as follows:
I want to give you this opportunity to continue in your job… It will not only be that the party is dissolved and then the matter is finished. Maybe more than 100 people will be banned from politics for five years.
The CNRP is accused of treason in collusion with the USA in order to overthrow the government led by Hun Sen and his Cambodian Peole’s Party (CPP). One by one, the CNRP leaders have been intimidated, beaten up, forced into exile, like former leader Sam Rainsy, or imprisoned and accused of treason like Kem Sokha. Their “crimes” are above all to dream of taking over the government, and winning too many mandates in the national and recently the local elections. Like many leaders all over the world who are used to power, and Hun Sen is by now with 32 years the longest serving prime minister, he as not the least intention to retire.
The official trigger for Kem Sokha‘s indictment was a video from 2013, in which he allegedly discusses with US-counterparts how to win the next election. Not only for Americans it sounds rather legitimate and normal for an opposition party to dream of taking over after winning the election.

Ironically, to warn and threaten the opposition, Prime Minister Hun Sen has used a speech on the anniversary of the Paris Peace Accord of 1991 which established a multi-party democratic system in Cambodia. This democratic big bang was what the Western signatories believed and accordingly pampered the CPP-regime with generous development aid, regularly pledging more millions than the government was asking for. Interfering now in support of the CNRP seems to be out of the question, of course.
The opposition, especially Sam Rainsy and his party with the same name, and merger partner Human Rights Party under Kem Sokha, who formed the CNRP in 2012, have become somewhat overoptimistic with their rising popularity and election success and rhetorically more aggressive. Getting their funding to a certain degree from the Cambodian diaspora abroad, and supported by American and European pro-democracy NGOs and the Western embassies in Phnom Penh, their optimism and self-confidence may have seduced them to underestimate Hun Sen’s resolve to stay in command. He is preparing his son Hun Manet as a possible successor, and his extended family has much to lose as well. Global Witness, a London-based NGO, reports that the family has registered interests in 114 private domestic companies,   mostly as chairpersons, directors or major shareholders. When Hun Sen first declared his assets in 2011, he was quoted as saying that besides his official salary of 13,800 USD per year he hadn’t any other income…

Cambodia: Who is a Traitor decides the Dictator


Partyforumseasia:     Opposition leader Kem Sokha detained for “treason”.
Lately, we have been reporting about Cambodia relatively often. The last few headlines were not positive, neither for the opposition nor the the ruling CPP: April 30, 2016: Party Competition Cambodian Style, October 14, 2016: Cambodia’s Opposition Getting More Sticks and no Carrots, January 2, 2017: Final Blow for Cambodian Opposition?, June 28, 2017: Cambodia’s Commune Elections – Final Results Not Really Glorious for the CPP.
Don’t blame pessimism in politics, it can always turn from bad to worse:
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy had been driven into exile in 2016 and practically forced to resign as chairman of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) because a new legislation allowed the suspension of the CNRP under a “convicted” leader. Even all his pictures had to be removed under the new law. Deputy chairman Kem Sokha took over and continued to prepare the party for the general election due by next year.
But Hun Sen, in power since 1985 and one of the longest serving prime ministers worldwide, seems to be nervous about his ruling party’s victory in 2018 and determined to do whatever it takes to continue his rule. He is only 65 by now, which is no retirement age for politicians. Known much more for his iron fist than for velvet gloves, Mr. Hun Sen has initiated a series of measures to guarantee that he stays in control. The newest was the arrest of Kem Sokha, Sunday morning, 3 September, 12:30 am at his home by 100 policemen and sent to a prison 200 km away from Phnom Penh. Prime Minister Hun Sen was quoted as explaining the urgency: “The treason of colluding with foreigners to betray the nation requires {us} to make an immediate arrest”. The foreigners, also called “the third hand”, are the USA who, like it or not, do have a tendency to promote their idea of democracy by intervention and regime change, which is certainly not always popular in the recipient countries. In the case of Cambodia, the US supported the coup of general Lon Nol which ousted the late king Sihanouk in 1970. It is no secret that the US and European countries who have supported Cambodia with billions of development aid have been disappointed with the Hun Sen administration’s resistance against crucial domestic reforms.
Kem Sokha, who has already endured legal attacks over an alleged extramarital affair last year, is known for his very balanced and conciliatory personality. But as an experienced politician and human rights activist, he is also a good campaign speaker, and, of course, his aim as opposition leader is no less than winning the upcoming election. That is normal and completely legitimate.

Other measures of PM Hun Sen are complementing the arrest of Sokha:

An attack on press freedom: With a surprise tax bill of over six million USD, the 24 year old English language “Cambodia Daily” feels forced to close down immediately.

A CPP internal party purge: End of August a leaked secret paper informed about a party-internal exercise to review the attitude and reliablity of the CPP’s 5,370,313 members, no less than 68 percent of the nation’s 7.8 million registered voters. Many, especially the bloated civil service, have been expected or forced to join. All reliable members will get a new membership card after passing the personal screening by a party team.

If the CPP should have any remaining Communist elements, the party purge reminds of the infamous Lenin quotation “Trust is good, but control is better”...