Colombo Telegraph

Hun Sen: The Making Of A Cambodian Autocrat

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

Marwaan Macan-Markar

If names of political parties are expected to elicit sympathy, then Cambodia’s hounded opposition has a winner. It is called the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), a name that says much about the fate of multi-party democracy in this still impoverished country.

The two major opposition parties that merged early this year to form the CNRP – the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and the Human Rights Party (HRP) – will certainly have to perform a rescue act to save this kingdom from ending as a one-party state at the forthcoming general elections.

It is all that stands between Cambodia having a multi-party democracy and another right wing autocrat in the mould of Suharto, Ferdinand Marcos, Mahathir Mohamed or Lee Kwan Yew.

At the minimum, that means the CNRP needs to aim for two magic numbers at the July 28 poll for the 123 seats up for grabs in the National Assembly. Were it to secure 30 seats, the CNRP legislators would enjoy power to at least summon government officials for parliamentary inquiries.

And a more ambitious 42 seats would guarantee them significant legislative power to stall proposed laws that could be detrimental to the country’s political and economic life.

But neither of these numbers will be easy to achieve because the opposition is up against a formidable adversary in Prime Minister Hun Sen. He is Asia’s longest-serving leader – in office already 28 years – and he has made it known that he is seeking to cross an unconquered political frontier – complete domination of the 123-member National Assembly.

Were that to happen, Hun Sen’s grip on power would be complete, because he effectively already controls the military, police, bureaucracy and judiciary.

A yearning for such unbridled legislative dominance was exposed in June. Hun Sen’s political juggernaut, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has 90 seats in the legislature, used a loophole in the law to expel 27 opposition lawmakers.

They belonged to the SRP and the HRP, who had contested separately in the last parliamentary poll in 2008. A CPP-controlled parliamentary committee accused them of breaching election laws after they merged to set up the new CNRP.

But that was only the first of many blows meant to grind the opposition in what is clearly an unequal battle. Other strategies include dirty tricks of old. Character assassination is among them, with CNRP vice president Khem Sokha being a particular target.

Popular opposition figure Sam Rainsy, barred from contesting and forced to live in exile for years to avoid a jail term, has not been spared CPP vitriol.

There are also warnings from some quarters that the elections could be rigged. According to a U.S.-based think tank, the National Democratic Institute, a recent survey of a sampling of the estimated 9.6 million registered voters revealed “10.8 percent of eligible citizens who thought they were registered (voters) were not on the registry even though they said they voted in the 2008 elections.”

Moreover, the accuracy of voters’ personal records, such as names, dates of birth and addresses, in the registry “declined compared with 2008, with only 63 percent of dates of birth and 84.4 percent of names matching information in the voters’ ID documents.”

The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights – better known locally by its acronym LICADHO – has also sounded the alarm. It warned that the election’s outcome “is already imperiled by an inaccurate voting list, while the ruling CPP is resorting to increasingly vicious tactics to discriminate and marginalise the opposition.” The CPP has flexed its muscle to “intimidate and obstruct” opposition supporters at the commune and village level, the League said.

A similar sense of foreboding has been echoed by the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia. It has announced that the country’s fifth parliamentary elections is likely to be the least fair in the 20 years since 1993, when the United Nations held the country’s historic poll after the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.

Cambodia’s democracy is “increasingly fragile” and “showed trends towards authoritarianism” noted the local, independent election watchdog.

So, rather than give this questionable elections a veneer of legitimacy, a respected regional election monitoring group has decided to abstain from sending its customary polls observers.

“There is concern from international observers that many areas for a free and fair elections are found wanting,” Ichal Supriardi, executive director of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), told The Edge Review. “We will not officially send an ANFREL monitoring mission, because the presence of foreign observers could be manipulated by state agencies.”

That Cambodia’s two-decades-long political journey has come to this is an indictment of the architects of its post-conflict nation-building project. The promise of a multi-party electoral system was set as a goal by those who charged in to shape its political, economic and social fortunes.

It was, in many ways, an unprecedented political experiment — to give rise to a new country that had suffered 20 years of a debilitating war and civil conflict and the horrors of the Khmer Rouge genocide.

These architects included the United Nations, international financial institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, and the donor community from the industrialised nations.

In fact, Cambodia’s rise as the poster-child of post-conflict reconstruction was copied elsewhere, in places such as East Timor and Kosovo. The philosophical underpinnings of this approach to nation-building were to encourage the growth of a stable government, chosen at regular polls, to support the spread of a free market economic model.

But dealing with Hun Sen, who in 1985, at the age of 33 years, became prime minister in a Cambodia then ruled by Vietnam, put paid to such plans over the years. Using a mix of thuggery, armed assaults, verbal attacks and judicial prosecutions, the head of the CPP grabbed and expanded his hold of the political levers.

From winning 51 seats at the 1993 poll, which was contested by an array of parties, the CPP forced its way to winning 64 seats in 1998, 73 in 2003, and 90 at the last poll.

Despite such ruthless behavior at the polls – refusing to concede defeat in 1993 to the royalist FUNCINPEC party, led by Prince Norodom Ranaridh – or while in government – intimidating opponents, attacking the media – Hun Sen was guaranteed Western development aid.

In 2010, for instance, international donors pledged 1.1 billion U.S. dollars, up from the previous pledge of 950 million U.S. dollars in 2009. That amount, the largest aid package in the country’s history, was announced during the same month the government succeeded in silencing one of the country’s outspoken female opposition figures, Mu Sochua, in the wake of a court battle with Hun Sen that saw her stripped of her parliamentary immunity.

The emergence of China as a major source of aid – with loans for infrastructure projects and development assistance totaling some 19 billion U.S. dollars — has further emboldened Hun Sen, who counters his critics by arguing that he is responsible for guiding Cambodia’s development and restoring peace to a country whose citizens most fear a return to the internal conflict and civil war that plagued it for decades.

“Most of the traditional donors, the World Bank have lost influence with Hun Sen and the CPP, which is essentially Hun Sen,” remarked Shalmali Guttal, a senior researcher at Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based think tank. “His politics is their creation and he knows the donors will not walk away.”

So, come July 28, a landslide victory for Hun Sen in a questionable poll would enshrine his place among the ranks of Southeast Asia’s infamous strongmen. And for the French, Cambodia’s former colonial master, that would be a déjà vu moment.

It was Louis XIV, after all, who delivered that ultimate line summing up the mind of an absolute ruler: “L’etat c’est moi (I am the state).”

*Marwaan Macan-Markar, a Sri Lankan journalist, is a foreign correspondent who has been reporting from Southeast Asia since 2001, following a posting in Mexico City. This dispatch was published in a July issue of The Edge Review, www.theedgereview.com, a new Southeast Asian magazine launched in Kuala Lumpur

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