Contributors: Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth

Prime Minister Hun Sen swore before the body of the late King Father that he remains a loyal defender of the monarchy.

But during the period of national mourning for the late King Father, Hun Sen let a golden opportunity slide by, failing to implement the King Father’s last wish – for Cambodians to find unity and harmony with one another.

The Prime Minister could have pardoned independent Beehive radio station owner Mam Sonando, 71, sentenced to 20 years in jail for “secessionism,” which Amnesty International identified as a “prisoner of conscience.”  And Hun Sen also could have allowed self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy, 65, president of the Cambodian National Rescue Party, accused of crimes Cambodian and foreign observers have dubbed as politically motivated, to return to Cambodia from Europe without fear of imprisonment.

Enabling Mam Sonando and Sam Rainsy to participate in Cambodia’s July 28 national election, less than five months away, would earn Hun Sen praise and gratitude.

Despite urging from visiting US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner that Mam Sonando and Sam Rainsy be permitted to participate in the election process, Hun Sen has rigidly held to his view that both are convicted criminals who cannot be pardoned without undermining Cambodia’s system of justice.

But as Yogi Berra, one of the greatest catchers in baseball history, famously said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Hun Sen, who is a master of the political version of Cambodia’s traditional circle dance, the Ramvong, keeps his countrymen and foreign observers off balance. The political manipulations related to Mam Sonando and Sam Rainsy likely have not played out. I have no crystal ball to tell how and when the circle dance will end, but I’m confident “it ain’t over.”

Recall my article in this space on February 1; I quoted the hapless and optimistic hotel manager Patel in the film, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, who insists: “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.”

Hun Sen is worried

Prime Minister Hun Sen is neither foolish nor cowardly. He is shrewd and calculating. He is 60 and wants to stay in power until he’s 90. He is busy building a dynasty of family members, friends and cronies.

Hun Sen wants a pliant Mam Sonando and a less combative Sam Rainsy in Cambodia to compete in the July election, which Hun Sen will make sure they cannot win, to legitimize his victory – a victory he will obtain by hook or by crook.

Early this month, Hun Sen’s circle dance took a new turn: Government prosecutors dropped the two serious charges against Mam Sonando – insurrection and incitement to take up arms against the state – but kept the two less serious ones – obstruction of public officials and interference in the discharge of public duties. Strangely, the government added a third charge: Illegal logging under Cambodia’s 2002 Forestry Law.

A Cambodian correspondent in Phnom Penh says he thinks Hun Sen knows the release of Mam Sonando before the election would project a “good image” for the ruling CPP, except the principled Mam Snando is a “fearless hero” for many Cambodians, hence, his release before the election may allow this vote-getter to “collect votes” for the CNRP.

About Sam Rainsy, my correspondent friend, a devout democrat, is blunt: “Whether Sam Rainsy is out (of Cambodia) or in (Cambodia), the CPP (will) win the election. But Sam Rainsy’s presence in Cambodia would be an important pawn for the CPP to legitimize the (unfair) election.”  My friend says Hun Sen needs Sam Rainsy in Cambodia to legitimize his rule, but he needs a Sam Rainsy who serves CPP interests.

I recently observed that Cambodian opposition activists appear to be gaining momentum and grass-roots folks are happy that democrats have moved away from old grievances to a strategy that addresses their everyday concerns.

Hun Sen and the CPP were surprised before by election victory of the royalists in the 1993 UN-supervised free and fair election. This time they worry what a free and fair would bring.

The necessary implementation of “free and fair elections” is stipulated in Article 12, and in Annex 3 of the Agreement on a Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict, signed in October 1991 in Paris in the presence of the Secretary-General of the UN, by Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, Canada, People’s China, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, the Soviet Union, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States, Vietnam, and Yugoslavia.

The signatories declared in their October 23, 1991 Final Act, to “commit themselves to promote and encourage respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia, as embodied in the relevant international instruments to which they are a party.”

The world spent some three billion dollars to end the Khmer tragedy and ensure that the Cambodian people have “the same rights, freedoms and opportunities to take part in the electoral process.”

Hun Sen Ayai

Early this month, Hun Sen introduced a different popular Khmer tradition into the political dialogue: Ayai Chhlawng Chhleuy, conversational wordplay by singers using witty comments in song to denigrate one another. Cambodia’s election campaign does not begin until June 27 through July 26. But at the March groundbreaking ceremony of a Chinese-funded road-widening project in Kompong Cham, Hun Sen warned the audience of about 4,000: “When the election comes, if the people don’t vote for (the CPP), we will be disheartened . . . All projects will be eliminated . . . Even a project like pumping water to dry farms.” He would destroy buildings bearing his name, and warned Buddhist monks “there will not be a (Bonn) Kathen anymore” – referring to a Buddhist religious festival known as Monk’s Robes Festival in October-November.

The prime minister does not miss an opportunity to label opposition activists, and belittle the opposition party, as having done nothing for the people.

Opposition activists are not sitting still. As Hun Sen lashed out, the CNRP – the new coalition party – floated a seven-point program telling voters what a royal government led by the CNRP promises:

An individual 65 years of age and older would receive monthly assistance of 40,000 riels
A worker’s minimum monthly wage would be 600,000 riels
A functionary’s minimum monthly salary would be one million riels
A farmer would be guaranteed to receive at least 1,000 riels per kilogram of rice
Poor people would receive free medical care
Youths would receive equal education opportunity and proper employment
The prices of oil, fertilizer, electricity and the interest rate on loans would be reduced

Can these promises be fulfilled? From this distance I cannot say, but my sources who are in Phnom Penh believe all seven points are “doable.” One friend wrote in detail. The CNRP “platform” is “pragmatic and feasible; the money promised is not unreasonable. These are doable promises; they are necessary to help people survive in the current market, and Not (sic.) to make them rich.”

To my further inquiries, he cited “mechanisms” available to fund all seven points: revenue from a transparent tax policy; revenue from reducing corruption; revenue from tourism; revenue from Economic Land Concessions; revenue from transparent development of natural resources.  He thinks officials of the ruling CPP “might agree the CNRP program is feasible, too. This should make PM Hun Sen very concerned…”

A lesson to learn

A few days ago, Cambodia’s CEN News network – said to be a “CPP-affiliate” – grabbed Cambodians’ attention with an article in Khmer by Rattanak on March 10 entitled “His Royal Highness Samdech Krom Preah Nororodom Ranariddh Joins the Cambodian National Rescue Party?” citing “CNRP source(s)” alleging Ranariddh would be inducted as CNRP honorary president at its April 7 Congress.

A few hours later, CEN News published still another article by Rattanak, “FUNCINPEC Party Filed Lawsuit Against (Prince Ranariddh) for Theft and Sale of a Helicopter.” CEN News alleges the lawsuit involved Ranariddh’s corruption and theft of an MI-17 helicopter belonging to FUNCINPEC.

I inquired with my Cambodian and non-Cambodian acquaintances in Phnom Penh and abroad what all this meant. All responded within hours, starting with Sam Rainsy’s denial of Ranariddh joining the CNRP. A ranking royalist in Phnom Penh immediately denied the existence of any lawsuit; soon after he affirmed FUNCINPEC “threatened a lawsuit” as a warning to Ranariddh against joining the CNRP. A British friend sent me a Cambodia Herald article that cited Ranariddh’s spokesman Pen Sangha’s reaffirmation that Ranariddh has resigned from politics, hence, no, the prince is not joining the CNRP, and “no such case” of lawsuit concerning the reported selling of the helicopter.

It is clear to me, based on my confidence in the sources on whom I consulted, that Ranariddh is not joining the CNRP and there never was a lawsuit about a stolen helicopter. But what motivated CEN News to report those allegations? As a “CPP affiliate,” CEN News published articles with a purpose. Yet, could there be smoke without a fire? As my British contact says, could the Ranariddh story be a “stalking horse”?

Whereas CEN News maintains it obtained news of Ranariddh joining the CNRP from CNRP’s reporting over the weekend, a friend in Phnom Penh who listened to the Voice of CNRP heard no reporting on Ranariddh over the weekend. Meanwhile an Open Letter floated on the Internet objecting strongly if indeed the CNRP has accepted Ranariddh into its fold. The letter accused Ranariddh of “selling his head to Hun Sen.”

As we are a few months away from the election, we can expect more of the sensational and perhaps politically motivated news as above. I suggest we all be patient and not jump to conclusions.  The circle dance can go on and on; it ain’t over till it’s over.

I would like to end this article by repeating what I wrote in my last article: In Cambodia, the least expected happens; what you see is not necessarily what it seems. Cambodia’s autocratic regime will not last. Its end will come. Democrats must stay focused, civilized and determined. The fight against abuses will not end with the election.

The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.

About the Author:

Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be reached at

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-016-2013
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 01-02-2013