Hun Sen flirts with dictatorship

Hun Sen, prime minister of Cambodia, is a survivor. He has exploited opportunities provided by the international community to fend off all challengers for over three decades and cement his grip on power. While he has come close to dispensing completely with a legal framework, never has his flirtation with dictatorship been as alarming as it is now.

Hun Sen rose to power in Cambodia as a member of the murderous Khmer Rouge during the 1970s. Purges forced him to flee to Vietnam, and he returned with the Cambodian government installed by Hanoi after its 1979 invasion. He became prime minster in 1985 and has held that position ever since, a term in office that ranks him among the world’s longest-serving leaders.

With longevity comes both personal loyalties and powerful vested interests committed to his — and their — continuation in office. Hun Sen has a heavily armed, personal bodyguard of more than 6,000 personnel and close ties to business interests that dominate the Cambodian economy and have extraordinary personal wealth.

While his popularity has gone up and down, no real opposition has emerged. For sure, there is an opposition party, typically headed by a charismatic politician. But Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party have seen off all challengers, using a combination of legal instruments, brute force and intimidation.

One of the most persistent thorns in Hun Sen’s side has been Sam Rainsy, who has sought to check the prime minister’s power since he joined Cambodian politics in the early 1990s. He served briefly as minister of finance in 1994, but was soon forced from office. He formed his own party in 1995 and has battled Hun Sen even since — invariably losing as the prime minister deployed all the resources of the state to discredit, undermine and even force Rainsy into exile.

His most recent victory occurred in February, when Rainsy was forced to step down as president of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) following passage of a law forbidding anyone with a criminal conviction from heading a political party. He was replaced by Kem Sokha, who was arrested last week on charges of conspiring with a foreign power. The basis of the accusation is a speech he gave in Australia four years ago that mentioned support and advice he had received from the United States. He faces 15 to 30 years in prison.

The arrest is a transparent attempt to shut down the opposition. Hun Sen has said that he is willing to “eliminate 100 to 200 people” to protect national security while government officials have warned that more arrests will follow. Reportedly, there is a list of nearly a dozen political leaders to be detained; many have gone silent or gone into hiding.

This offensive is part of a larger campaign to silence all dissent in Cambodia. Independent newspapers and other media outlets have been shut down or restricted while government-supported sources whip up nationalist sentiment. Social media are monitored and critics of the government arrested. Nongovernmental organizations and international institutes that promote democratic practices have been harassed or closed. The government has passed new laws and regulations to restrict the operations of any possible source of political opposition, including trade unions and political parties.

Plainly, Hun Sen is worried. His party prevailed in 2013 parliamentary elections by just 4 percent of the vote, with the CPP share falling over 9 percent while the CNRP vote grew nearly 16 percent. In local elections in June, the CPP margin of victory was slightly larger, but Hun Sen appears willing to take no chances when it comes to national elections. Failure to replace Kem Sohka would disqualify the CNRP from contesting the next parliamentary ballot in June 2018.

While Hun Sen has ruled with an iron fist, he has maintained a veneer of democracy. That mask is slipping. He declared that he intends to stay in power at least 10 more years, a plain statement of disdain for democratic processes. Sadly, he may get away with it. The United States has shown no concern for democracy recently and other regional crises demand Washington’s attention. China is increasingly supportive of the Cambodian government, providing diplomatic cover for abuses of power, along with military equipment and training, and more than $1 billion in investment and $265 million in aid. In return, Phnom Penh has backed China in ASEAN councils, particularly on questions related to the South China Sea.

Japan has been a key player in Cambodia since the peace accords of the early 1990s, and is the second-largest source of investment there. Unfortunately, Japanese leverage is limited, especially given China’s readiness to step up. Nevertheless, Tokyo should use its position at the United Nations and its various organs, such as the Human Rights Council, to maintain pressure on Hun Sen. Tokyo should mobilize diplomacy to support the values that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe believes are so important. Working with like-minded nations like Australia, the European Union and the U.S., Japan must do all it can to prevent Cambodia’s slide into dictatorship.