Mask-clad students line up to disinfect their hands with an alcohol solution before entering class at a school in Phnom Penh on January 28, 2020. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Listen closely to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen for long enough and you get the sense that his 35 years in power has been not so much as a struggle for Cambodia but with it; that this country and its people are ungrateful for his sacrifices (especially when they dared to, and could, vote for opposition parties); that Cambodia isn’t fully deserving of his efforts.

As I wrote last year, Hun Sen’s entire political narrative is latent with Hobbesian undertones, in which, he insinuates, Cambodians are only prevented from engaging in the kind of brutality and barbarism reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge days because of his own draconian rule. It is, to spin a classic French saying, sans moi, le deluge.

Now, as the Covid-19 crisis worsens, we are hearing the same echoes of self-pity and self-importance. There are complaints from Hun Sen that Cambodians are not listening to his government’s advice, that they are too unruly to heed his government’s warnings of how to contain the epidemic.

The Khmer Times, a government-friendly English-language daily, spelled out in a recent editorial that new “state of emergency” powers will provide “an opportunity for Cambodian society to reform their social behavior by observing the law. Building a disciplined and rules-based society is fundamental to the rule of law and democratic governance.”

Ignore the assertion that draconian powers can actually improve democracy, or that rule of law currently exists in Cambodia, but focus on the insinuation that only through strict laws can Hun Sen reform a disobedient society. The narrative is being spun that this crisis is the people’s fault, not the government’s.

In my latest column for The Diplomat, published on April 2, I tried to explain how Hun Sen is now at his strongest in terms of political power, but weakest in popular authority. Getting my thoughts in early, I predicted that Hun Sen won’t fall as a result of this crisis – especially the looming economic crisis, the sort of which Cambodia hasn’t known for decades – but his political narrative as the person who brought peace and prosperity to Cambodia (and the only guarantor of this) will forever now be dashed. Until 2023 at least, the time of the next general election, Cambodia will be ruled as though it was in a permanent state of emergency.

It was somewhat possible to imagine late last year that after two years of increased repression, Hun Sen would have begun to relax his arbitrary power. The political opposition is now all but dead. Few within his ruling party have the authority to oppose him. And time was on his side to get on with his planned succession, likely to his eldest son, the military chief Hun Manet. From now on, however, Hun Sen will cling on to power through ever more arbitrary rule.

Case in point is the “state of emergency” legislation that will soon be passed, probably next week. Cambodia is already a de facto one-party state and Hun Sen has total supremacy over ruling-party matters, but clearly he reckons more power in needed.

Perhaps, though, it’s not just for now. The draft law of emergency powers allows the government to bring them out whenever there is “serious chaos to the nation and public order.” With this now in Hun Sen’s back pocket, emergency measures can be wielded any time he says there is a national crisis. Human Rights Watch called the new powers a “recipe for dictatorship.” In reality, it is the decorative garnish on top of an already cooked dish.

Hun Sen has a history of responding to weakness through force. After all, he moved to dissolve his only viable opponent, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, in late 2017 just months after it secured around 44% of the vote at a local election– proving that its popularity at the 2013 general election, when it won a similar percentage of the vote, wasn’t a fluke and that the party could have gone on to win the 2018 general election. Hun Sen sensed his own weakness and responded with a show of power by dissolving the CNRP and arresting its leader, Kem Sokha. 

Hun Sen must now beat the health crisis if he is to have any excuse about the impending economic crisis. The Asian Development Bank’s most recent forecast, released last Friday, contends that Cambodia’s gross domestic product will grow by 2.3% this year, before rebounding to 5.7% in 2021. The World Bank, meanwhile, says that a 2.5% growth rate is the best-case scenario for this year – the worst case is around 1%.

Whatever the numbers end up being, Cambodia hasn’t experienced such an economic crisis in decades. It will be chaos and destruction. But the worst won’t be observable for a few months. For a month or two, small businesses may have the funds to keep themselves afloat, and workers enough savings to pay for essentials. But come June or July, that’s when the real economic problems for ordinary people will become apparent.

Hun Sen cannot blame China for the crisis – he is, after all, Beijing’s most loyal ally. Nor can he really blame other foreigners. While there has been a narrative that the coronavirus is spread mainly because of Western tourists, this isn’t catching on. As such, he cannot resort to blame-an-outsider nationalism.  

Neither can he blame the political opposition. Since forcibly dissolving the CNRP in late 2017 on spurious charges of plotting a US-backed coup, Hun Sen leeched off that conspiracy theory to claim his government needs strict measures to prevent an imagined putsch. But even Hun Sen would struggle to pin the blame of the Covid-19 crisis on the CNRP, with most of its politicians either in exile or in jail.

In other words, there are no outside or internal hostile forces Hun Sen can blame. This is, then, something new for Hun Sen, who is well accustomed to blaming others for his own failings.

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno