Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, Cambodia March 13, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has unilaterally excused students from having to sit final exams. Photo: Reuters / Samrang Pring

On June 1, 2016, the director of Cambodia’s Defense Ministry’s Military Intelligence Unit gave a rare interview to a pro-government newspaper in which he outlined a strategy to assure the ruling party’s victory at national elections in 2018.

Few took much notice of the senior figure’s words back in 2016, but his talk of cracking down on a so-called “color revolution” aimed at toppling the government foreshadowed the 2017 dissolution of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the detention of its leader.

With the country under de facto one-party authoritarian rule, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) faces virtually no opposition in the run-up to national elections scheduled for this July.

The man who outlined the suppressive strategy was none other than Hun Sen’s second son, Hun Manith. As a senior military intelligence figure, he is believed to have played a key role in ensuring the party his father leads retains power, notably amid speculation of an eventual dynastic succession to one of his three sons.

It didn’t have to be that way. The CPP was beset with panic and paranoia after the last national elections in 2013, when the CNRP won 44% of the vote. Significantly, about 70% of voters in the capital Phnom Penh cast their ballots in favor of the opposition CNRP.

Then, opposition supporters took to the streets chanting “we want change,” which was seen by many as Cambodians being more fed up with ruling, wealthy CPP elites than necessarily wanting opposition leader Sam Rainsy to take power.

Those popular calls, it appears, planted the seeds for the CPP’s “color revolution” narrative.

Hun Manith in a 2017 photo. Photo: Facebook

“In Cambodia, after the election in 2013, we have seen something similar to the Middle East and Eastern Europe countries where revolutions took place,” Hun Manith told the newspaper. “However, the government was able to keep the situation under control so we preserved the peace and stability within our country, which resulted in great economic growth.

“Unfortunately, the plan for a regime change against the legitimate government has never gone away. With the help and funding of foreign governments either directly or indirectly, the plan is still in effect up until now,” he said in the 2016 interview.

The first move initially flagged by Hun Manith happened on September 3, 2017, when an estimated 200 police went to opposition leader Kem Sokha’s house in Phnom Penh late at night, arrested him and charged him with treason. He remains in jail awaiting trial despite numerous requests for bail.

The second part of the long-planned strategy was enacted on November 16, when Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in a one-day trial overseen by a judge who was also a senior CPP figure.

The moves to ensure electoral victory were well underway, with the next step to convince the voting public and international community that the CPP had put a justified halt to a brewing “color revolution” – a term few in Cambodia understood.

A government-aligned agency produced a book to explain the term and justify the crackdown.

A Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) supporter shouts slogans in a rally on the last day of the commune election campaign in Phnom Penh, June 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

“When ‘color revolution’ requires 132 pages to explain and defend as the basis of anything, someone’s working overtime to turn it into an excuse or ploy to crack down on the opposition, NGOs, the media and government critics,” said Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “The metaphorical hammer is being used on their heads.”

There was also the matter of a June 2017 local level commune elections that had the potential to build electoral momentum for the CNRP ahead of the national polls. The CNRP gained a strong foothold in the countryside, winning 5,000 seats. However, those and national level seats won in 2013 were given to smaller parties after the CNRP’s dissolution.

Hun Manith saw the commune elections as a potential springboard for an opposition uprising. “As you might be aware, this kind of regime change took place near and after an election, and Cambodia will have a commune election in 2017. Is it a coincidence?” he said in the 2016 interview.

“In order to succeed in mobilizing the people for regime change, they need to create a negative perception about the government, for locals and also in the international arena. Once the perspective succeeds, all the means and tactics for regime change will be justified.”

The CPP’s propaganda apparatus, including most notably the pro-government Fresh News outlet, was later mobilized to convince a skeptical public and an even more skeptical international audience that its moves against the opposition were warranted.

The Phnom Penh Post reported in March that Fresh News released a 700-page collection of open letters, commentary and political analysis spinning Cambodia’s recent political crackdown into a successful prevention of a color revolution.

A protester adjusts a banner during a demonstration against Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, Sydney, Australia, March 16, 2018. Photo: Reuters/David Gray

Former Phnom Penh Post News Editor Sebastian Strangio, also the author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said Fresh News’ role was perhaps more important in shaping the news than it was in delivering it, saying “They don’t really do journalism.”

However, while the average Cambodian struggled to understand exactly what a color revolution was, Los Angeles-based academic and political analyst Sophal was under no illusions.

“The Cambodian people understand the term ‘color revolution’ insofar as it’s being used as a hammer swung on their friends’ heads, which is a whack-a-mole exercise that is more likely to result in their own heads being hit,” he told Asia Times.

“Some people are of course absorbing this and drinking the Kool Aid, but there’s also a sense that anything Fresh News and Khmer Times (newspaper) says is bad is actually good, and anything they say is good is actually bad.

“I never cease to be amazed at how smart Cambodians are at seeing through the fog. In a place where the Orwellian modus operandi that white is black and black is white prevails, Cambodians aren’t fooled for a second.”

While attempts to justify attacks on the CNRP continued and senior party members fled the country fearing arrest, the prime minister’s second son was promoted inside the military from Major General to Lieutenant General, recognition for his “good achievements”, including possibly his role in the successful suppression operation against the CNRP.

Supporters of Kem Sokha, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), stand outside the Appeal Court during a bail hearing, Phnom Penh, September 26, 2017. Reuters/Samrang Pring

That’s not, however, how the international community sees it. United Nations, European Union and United States pressure against the clampdown is building stronger as the election draws nearer.

On March 21, 43 countries condemned what they characterized as Cambodia’s escalating repression of the political opposition, civil society and media in a joint statement during a session at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“As we near the elections scheduled for July 29 this year, our previous optimism has been replaced by deep concern about the recent serious decline of civil and political rights in Cambodia,” the statement said.

China, on the other hand, continues to support Hun Sen’s lurch towards a one-party state. “China respects and supports the development path chosen by the Cambodian people, and believes Cambodia’s future election can, under all sides’ supervision, reflect its fairness and select a party and leader that satisfies the Cambodian people,” a Chinese official said in late 2017.

Few independent observers, however, believe July’s elections will be free or fair, which was arguably always part of Hun Manith’s suppressive plan. “There’s nothing fair or free about it, which only heightens not just the perception but the reality of an illegitimate process.” said academic Sophal. “Winning without risk is triumph without glory, as the French say.”

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