CAMBODIA: Prime Minister Hun Sen Was A Successful Wartime Leader But Certainly Not One In Peacetime Cambodia

An article, titled “Prime Minister Hun Sen Was A Successful Wartime Leader But Certainly Not One In Peacetime Cambodia” by Mr Ou Ritthy, forwarded by the Asian Human Rights Commission

By Ou Ritthy

Cambodia’s historic “July 22, 2014” ended disputing political parties’ electoral political deadlock and violence. It unleashed a “culture of dialogue” between Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and Sam Rainsy’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) that prevailed at party, personal and family level. But the dialogue and the honeymoon lasted not even a year.

Threatened to kill off the “culture of dialogue”, Hun Sen accused Sam Rainsy and deputy Kem Sokha of playing “good cop-bad cop”. The dialogue was a drama: Sam Rainsy wanted Hun Sen’s peaceful power transfer after a presumed 2018 CNRP victory; Hun Sen saw in the dialogue a tool to silence dissenting voices, and alienate Sam Rainsy from Kem Sokha and CNRP supporters.

Hun Sen was acutely aware of Cambodian voting behavior. A political party’s popularity decline is less likely to be restored: Funcinpec’s 1993 national assembly seats dropped from 58 to zero in 2013; and CPP’s seats, from 90 to 68. With a goal to stay in power, Hun Sen warned that a war would break out should the CPP lose the elections. Since 2013, I observed Hun Sen has utilized political strategies both deceptively and legally.

Maneuvering gerrymandering

After 2013, in its strategy to gerrymander votes for the 2018 elections, the CPP broke up the CNRP stronghold constituency in Kampong Cham province, and used CPP-majority areas to make a new Province of Tboung Khmum. Similarly, nine new communes were created as six CNRP communes in Phnom Penh were chopped up. Executive Director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) Koul Panha told the Phnom Penh Post that the government was redrawing boundaries for its political gain. 
Another maneuver was the 2015 new election law allowing voters to register where workers work thereby losing the CNRP of votes: Some 600,000 Cambodian garment and construction workers lived in Phnom Penh and in big populous cities. The Phnom Penh constituency of 12 seats remained 12 since 1998 despite massive population increase.

Divide-and-Conquer, Manipulation, Stoking Fear 

Hun Sen’s practical leadership is strongly influenced by Chinese “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and Niccolò Machiavelli’s “The Prince”. He applied their political and military strategies in his “win-win policy” to end the Cambodian civil war and reintegrate the Khmer Rouge. Machiavellian tactics are used to seize and maintain power through spy network, divide-and-conquer, manipulation and stoking fear strategies.

Hun Sen had admitted to breaking up the coalition government’s ruling Funcinpec in April 1997 into 11 fragmented groups. A series of political and legal arrangements led Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh to resign as national assembly chairman in March 2006, his ouster as Funcinpec President in October 2006, and a year later, while in exile in Malaysia, was charged with adultery for having a mistress. Sentenced in absentia to 18 months in jail for leasing Funcinpec headquarters, the Prince’s political eclipse was forever.

Similarly, the current lawsuits and charges against CNRP leaders, human rights defenders, analysts, journalists, salacious audio clips, leaked personal phone conversations and messages, among others, are aimed at discrediting CNRP leaders and restricting critics and dissenting voices. The newly adopted politically motivated law on political party led self-exiled Sam Rainsy to resign as CNRP president and member “for the sake of the party”. But, the political game is far from over. Hun Sen ordered the CNRP to remove its slogan “Change the commune chiefs who serve the party and replace them with commune chiefs who serve the people.” Additionally, the Ministry of Interior refused to recognize the CNRP congress’s selection of its three vice presidents. These are CPP’s continued attempts to dilute its strong opponent. Nonetheless, the CNRP is seen to be more accommodating to the demands of Hun Sen, the government and local authorities as it is hoping to win in smooth election processes in June 2017 and July 2018.

Having skillfully applied ancient Chinese military strategies and Machiavellian political tactics, Hun Sen is perceived as a cunning, unfair, and scary leader who cannot lead Cambodia toward a healthy rule of law and democracy. As such, informed voters sympathize more with opposition CNRP leaders. 

Threats of Civil War

Despite declining popularity, Hun Sen never lets go of his goal to stay in power. He repeated his warnings to Cambodian people of a civil war if his CPP loses the elections. 
The dramatic decrease of national assembly seats in the 2013 elections worries Hun Sen. Plus, he is kept awake at night worrying about the forthcoming elections results. In late February 2017, Hun Sen warned of war and bloodshed should there be a leadership change. He asked if the people remember the killings resulted from leadership change from Norodom Sihanouk to Lon Nol that ended with the rule of the deadliest Pol Pot regime.

Again, on April 20, Hun Sen warned of a civil war should there be a regime change and his CPP is out of power. Two days later, a plan was issued to deploy 50,000 members of the armed forces to provide security in the June commune elections. In contradictory terms, during the April 14 Khmer New Year, he expressed deep concerns over hostilities in the Middle East and worsening crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Thus, while Hun Sen appealed for global peace, he threatened a civil war in Cambodia.

Yet, in the name of stability and peace, Hun Sen warns of war and against change in Cambodia. His message seems to convey that he is not willing to accept defeat if his CPP will lose the July 2018 elections.

Even Hun Sen Can Change

Hun Sen is a rare and talented political strategist and leader. He proved himself very successful in a wartime Cambodia, but certainly not in a peacetime Cambodia despite his capacity to become hero by putting his political talents into good use to build Cambodia in a transparent and right way. 

David Chandler, the foremost author on Cambodian history, told VOA in Khmer in May 2016 that Hun Sen worries about being overthrown in the upcoming elections but that he will not let that happen. David Chandler is not optimistic about Hun Sen changing his ways of governing. However, I am Cambodian, I am young, and I am optimistic.

Just as everything changes in life, I believe Hun Sen can change. And I insist he should change. It’s neither impossible nor ever too late for him to change. He is very smart, far-sighted and a fast learner.

Before 2013 when his opponent Sam Rainsy was very popular on Facebook, Hun Sen said he didn’t care and had no time for Facebook. Soon he learned, Facebook was a catalyst that caused his party’s loss of 22 seats. Quickly, he initiated needed change: He actively and efficiently resorted to Facebook and other instant messaging applications like WhatsApp, Line, Viber and Telegram to promote his policies. He now has seven-and-a-half million Facebook page likes, making him one the world’s most tech-savvy leaders. Regarding Facebook interactions (likes, comments and shared), Hun Sen is ranked second with 58 million interactions in 2016, after the leader of the world’s second largest populous country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India.

Hun Sen should change and must not bring Cambodia back into war. Many Cambodian people don’t believe that war will recur because the opposition parties and the people are completely weaponless. Only Hun Sen’s government, his sons, his in-laws, and CPP leaders are well-equipped with modern weapons. If there is a war it is they who initiate it.

Hun Sen’s warning of war is ineffective with Cambodia’s post-Khmer Rouge baby-boom generation of 65.3% of the total population and under 30 years of age. They are not traumatized by the civil war. To the contrary, it’s Hun Sen’s and his tycoons’ generation that is traumatized by the decade-long civil war and bloodshed. Today, Hun Sen’s family members and his party affiliated tycoons control most of the country’s important businesses. The poor Cambodian people who were evicted from their lands, and whose livelihoods are destroyed, have nothing to lose. They are heavily indebted by Microfinance Institutions. Their children have to migrate abroad to seek for a better future.

As such, it’s Hun Sen who should be more fearful of war than Cambodians in general. Presently, Hun Sen enjoys using social media to communicate with his supporters, and his supporters also enjoy sending him comments and inbox messages. Enjoying his grandchildren and his golf and chess, why should he want to return to the jungle for a war that will hurt him most?

Peace is priceless. Cambodian people acknowledge that Hun Sen was a key to Cambodia’s peace and national reconciliation. Cambodia is now one of Asia’s fastest growing economies, with an average economic growth of 7% since 2011. She is well integrated regionally and in the world.

Today’s young Cambodians are active and committed to political participation to safeguard Cambodia’s environment, natural resources, human rights protection, border monitoring, and business startups. They work hard and want to see Cambodia stronger and more prosperous. Obviously, through his daily Facebook interactions, Hun Sen is well aware that Cambodian youth are better informed. They want justice, better living standard, and dignity as citizens, not war. Hun Sen should be very proud of the Cambodian people under his leadership.

In the post-2013 political deadlock, Hun Sen and CNRP leaders agreed the EU and Japan should help reform the controversial National Election Committee (NEC) which had been perceived as his tool to maneuver the elections.

Without an independent and neutral NEC, half or more eligible voters in the 2018 elections is certain to reject Hun Sen’s elections victory results, thus making his government illegitimate and mass demonstration is inevitable. Should Hun Sen’s party lose the elections but Hun Sen rejects the defeat, the majority of the people would definitely fearlessly oppose him.

The CPP’s real challenge is not the CNRP but the corruption, social injustice, culture of impunity, economic exclusion, and political interferences in state institutions, the armed forces, the courts, and the parliament. Voters didn’t fully understand the CNRP’s 2013 policies but voted for it because they saw the CPP government as the region’s most corrupt that failed to address the people’s daily lives. 

Hun Sen needs genuine reforms within his CPP and government to restore his party’s popularity in the short run, and to build lasting future political careers for his and other CPP leaders’ children in the long run. Warning people of war, using cunning, divide-and-conquer tactics, and threatening political analysts, human rights defenders, journalists and activists don’t contribute to CPP’s success. The CPP needs substantive reforms to address issues of the poor.

Cambodian society is full of mistrust and suspicion. Regardless of which party wins, Cambodia needs a credible, peaceful power transfer mechanism to avoid major conflicts during the transition. The Cambodian King, parliament, key political leaders, and the international community can play a key role to ratify this power transfer mechanism. Among other pragmatic solutions, perhaps, the amnesty law for former leaders and their families is the best option.

Ou Ritthy, a Cambodian political blogger, is recipient of Open Society Foundation’s Civil Society Leadership Awards (CSLA) for MSc. Public Policy and Human Development at United Nations University in Maastricht (UNU-MERIT), The Netherlands. Twitter: @ritthyou