Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has been around for a while. Photo: AFP / Ly Lay

On Sunday, as he spoke at the offices of a local anti-human-trafficking NGO, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen raised the prospect of a national referendum on whether the death penalty should be reintroduced to punish people who rape children. Specifically, he seemed to be suggesting executions of people who rape family members.

Despite capital punishment being made illegal in Cambodia in 1989 (making it something of an anomaly in Southeast Asia, where state-enforced murder is widely sanctioned)  local media reported that his idea was certainly popular among social media users. Yet the proposed constitutional change was criticized on Monday by some analysts and legal experts who asserted the country’s judicial system is not developed enough to cope with the death penalty, and the potentially high number of mistrials of justice, and that improved law enforcement is a far better solution to the problem. Others, though not quoted in the government-friendly media, claimed that giving an already repressive, de facto one-party state more powers over life and death isn’t a sensible idea in itself.

Then on Tuesday, two days after he first brought up the issue, Hun Sen said he realized that there was no need to reintroduce capital punishment. His volte-face, according to reports, had come about after listening to the views of analysts and experts.

While this whole affair has the appearance of banality, of the prime minister simply thinking out aloud and then coming to his senses, it is actually rather edifying. Rarely has Hun Sen, in power since 1985, offered up a thought about a subject in public and then so quickly retracted it because, he claims, of the ideas of experts. Seldom, also, has he raised the prospect of a referendum, unheard of in recent Cambodian history. (The last time he even mentioned the possibility of one, as far as I can tell, was back in 2002 and over the issue of whether bones of Khmer Rouge victims displayed in stupas around the country should be removed and cremations held for them, as was the request of the late King Norodom Sihanouk. No plebiscite was held, however.)

While this whole affair has the appearance of banality, of the prime minister simply thinking out aloud and then coming to his senses, it is actually rather edifying

And then, the affair indicates something of the way Hun Sen acts politically: considering such a massive constitutional change without any input from ministers or officials, and then retracting the possible change again without any input from government ministers, if his later explanation is to be believed.

The most generous reading of events is that Hun Sen’s initial exploration for capital punishment arose because of the emotional setting he was in; speaking to dozens of rape victims at the Afesip Centre, a non-governmental organization. One newspaper has it: “He and his wife Bun Rany were visibly moved, wiping tears from their eyes as they listened to the narratives of girls who had been raped by neighbors, fathers and grandfathers – or who had been sold off by their poor families.”

It is clear that he was being emotive in his language. “I ask myself, what percentage of a human can be made up of a ‘beast’? Whatever the percentage, ‘beast beings’ should not be forgiven,” he said during the event. He also stated that his wife thought that sentencing rapists “to life in prison is enough.” Indeed, Hun Sen said during his speech that his consideration of the death penalty and the referendum “is just my thought.”

Back in 2016, he had summarily rejected the reintroduction of capital punishment when the prospect was raised as a punishment of murderers and drug traffickers. “Life imprisonment is enough for someone who committed serious crimes,” was his opinion back then.

Maybe he was simply thinking out loud, but what is clear is that Hun Sen lost nothing from this whole affair. His initial idea for reintroducing the death penalty was certainly popular with swaths of the public, and will possibly become yet another topic for dispute on social media. His idea of deciding it in a referendum made him appear democratic, despite the fact that every other constitutional change in recent years, including some of great political significance, has been made by the government without any input from the public – and often to the detriment of public opinion.

Hun Sen “wants to give an opportunity for the public to decide their country’s fate, even if it will garner criticism,” government spokesman Phay Siphan said on Monday. “So let the people decide the country’s fate…. Whether or not they will approve of the death penalty, it is up to them because their voices matter in a democratic society.”

Hun Sen’s eventual U-turn made it appear that he listens to the views of political analysts, though just days before he had launched an angry tirade at two specific commentators who, he said, were constantly critical of his government. But how their criticism of capital punishment changed his mind is questionable. The commentators quoted in the newspapers said hardly anything original, nor ideas that could be summed in by someone of modest intellect after five minutes’ thought.

Moreover, it was yet another indication of Hun Sen’s focus on supporting the most vulnerable women in society – or, cynically, at gaining the support of women. Among other policies, in February he said he would contribute US$500,000 of his own funds to pay for 50 lawyers, part of the so-called Samdech Hun Sen Legal Team, who can provide free legal advice to female garment-factory workers (a questionable gesture, since for years he has repeatedly said his only earnings are his government salary of $1,150 per month).

On International Women’s Day last week, he urged the Women’s Affairs and Justice Ministries to direct a newly formed legal team to provide legal advice to poor women in pretrial detention, and to speed up the pace of judicial reviews of all female inmates (of whom there are around 2,500) in Cambodian prisons. A month earlier he raised the idea of pardoning increasing numbers of female prisoners.

Aside from that, he has also spent considerable effort over the last two years wooing workers in the garment sector – one dominated by female employees – with higher wages, better severance pay, government bailouts and public defense. It also happens that the garment workers were the base of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, the only real challenger of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

Yet it is difficult to overlook is how the entire affair was conducted. Is this how other laws are made? How often does Hun Sen find himself in an emotive situation, clasp the easiest solution, consider atypical means (such as a referendum and constitutional change) and not bother to speak with his ministers and colleagues about such policies before airing them publicly?

Maybe this was a unique situation. Maybe not. The lack of almost any transparency in decision-making means it’s impossible to know. But Hun Sen was clear that all of this was “just my thought,” as he said on Sunday, yet by the following day the government spokesman was talking as if a plebiscite had become a real possibility. The prime minister’s subsequent retraction of the idea on Tuesday, moreover, appears also to have been just his thought, perhaps an indication that the government really does run on the whims of Hun Sen.

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