Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen arrives before a meeting with garment workers, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 8, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen arrives before a meeting with garment workers, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 8, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Two audio recordings reputedly of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen acknowledging his dominant ruling party’s political insecurities were leaked online last week, the latest twist in an increasingly bizarre turn of events that have set the country on edge.

The leaks came just a week after the Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the country’s largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), on the grounds it had colluded with foreign powers to overthrow Hun Sen’s government in a “color revolution.”

Analysts saw the CNRP’s dissolution as effectively handing the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) a no-contest victory at next July’s general election, a poll many thought the opposition party could have won. But that’s apparently not how the long-ruling prime minister sees it.

“It does not mean that because the opposition party is dissolved we can become careless or stop working, but this thing might become the danger for us,” Hun Sen purportedly said to party officials in one of the undated recordings. “It is not the opposition party that kills us, but we kill ourselves.”

Many of Hun Sen’s admissions were similar to the warnings of self-inflicted political wounds he made in a now famous six-hour speech to his Cabinet months after the 2013 general election the CPP narrowly won. The CNRP challenged the result’s validity and refused initially to join parliament.

In both speeches, Hun Sen stresses that the CPP government must end corruption, illegal logging and implement more reforms for ordinary Cambodians.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) irons clothes at a factory compound on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on August 30, 2017. Photo: AFP/Stringer

That includes the country’s hundreds of thousands of garment workers, a constituency he has promised to shower with new social programs in a bid to lure them away from the CNRP.

Hun Sen said as much in one of the recordings: “I am grabbing garment workers as a target…[because] the worker is a strong power of the opposition party,” he reputedly said. His security forces have previously cracked down hard on labor unrest.

Political analyst Ou Ritthy speculated in a tweet that the recordings might have been intentionally leaked by the government to “give false hope to the CNRP to go ahead with a new party.”

Shortly after the Supreme Court’s dissolution ruling last week, Hun Sen said that opposition members who were not banned could form a new party to contest next year’s polls. The court ruling banned 118 CNRP senior officials from political activities for five years.

Opinion is divided over why Hun Sen might allow another CNRP-influenced party to form. In another leaked recording released over the weekend, Hun Sun apparently claims that government’s effort to pressure CNRP officials to defect to his CPP is intended to “cut off the foot of the CNRP.”

Analysts agree that the CPP is trying to sully the CNRP’s public image ahead of polls. Mass defections to the CPP is one possible method; another may be to tempt inexperienced junior members to split from the CNRP’s core to create a new party that would likely stumble at the polls yet give the process a veneer of democratic legitimacy.

A Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) supporter attends a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, June 2, 2017. REUTERS/Samrang Pring 

Almost half of the CNRP’s lawmakers are thought to have fled the country, some of whom are now known to be lobbying foreign nations to impose punitive sanctions against Hun Sen’s government. None of them, analysts say, are likely to return anytime soon in the current repressive political climate.

A new CNRP splinter party would necessarily be devoid of its strongest political assets, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, both of whom will not be allowed to join any political party comprised of former CNRP members.

Sam Rainsy, who went into exile in late 2015, was forced to step down as CNRP president in February after changes to the political party law that could have dissolved the party for his past criminal convictions, mostly trumped up defamation charges.

Kem Sokha, his replacement, was arrested on treason charges in September and is currently in jail facing a potential 30-year sentence.

“If there is another opposition but it is not led by Sam Rainsy or Kem Sokha, I will not vote,” Voice of America, a US Congress-funded news outlet, quoted one rural CNRP supporter saying earlier this month.

Supporters of Kem Sokha outside the Appeal Court during a bail hearing for the jailed opposition leader in Phnom Penh, September 26, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

That sentiment is typical in a country where politics is personalized and defined by individual rather than policy appeal. Before its dissolution, the CNRP was criticized by analysts for relying on personality cults at the expense of well-formulated policies.

Another problem is that the CPP is now trying to secure the allegiance of CNRP members and potential opponents. The CNRP’s 55 seats in the 123-member National Assembly have already been redistributed to smaller political parties.

The royalist Funcinpec, which won just 4% of votes at the 2013 general election and failed to secure any parliament seats, has agreed to take 41 of CNRP’s seats, roughly a third of the seats in the lower house. Eleven seats are currently vacant after some minor parties refused to accept them.

Meanwhile, almost 5,500 elected local officials from the CNRP – including provincial and district representatives and the commune chiefs and councilors elected at June’s local election – will lose their positions unless they defect to the ruling CPP. Hun Sen said they had until Sunday to do so; it’s not clear yet they’ve been removed from their positions.

There is also a risk that any new CNRP-influenced party could just as easily be dissolved on spurious legal ground if it, too, grows too popular.

The Sam Rainsy Party, which joined Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party to form the CNRP in 2012, was rebranded this year as the Candlelight Party, after its logo. It still holds seats in the Senate and is expected to compete at next year’s election.

Opposition politician Sam Rainsy remains in self-exile. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

But the party’s president, Teav Vannol, told the Phnom Penh Post last week that he is concerned if the Candlelight Party becomes as popular as the CNRP, then it too might be dissolved.

A week after the CNRP’s dissolution there have been no mass demonstrations or protests. This is likely due to fear, considering the government’s promise to meet protests with a strong show of military force, and because CNRP activists, who have organized many of Cambodia’s largest protests are for now keeping a low profile.

Some CNRP supporters in Phnom Penh say they wanted to demonstrate but felt it was too dangerous. Instead, they say they will engage in other forms of peaceful protest, including a possible boycott of the 2018 election.

June’s commune election boasted the highest voter turnout of any Cambodian election since the 1990s, a sign that people are heavily engaged in politics. Some CNRP supporters say that if enough people boycott the election it will amount to a de facto vote against the CPP.

“What is the point of voting? It will be more important not to vote, to show my dissatisfaction,” said one young supporter, who requested anonymity. Another CNRP loyalist, a middle-aged tuk-tuk driver, said he has many friends who say they will also shun next year’s poll. “It is [all] I can do now,” he said.

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