Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during a ground breaking ceremony for the construction of a bridge across the Bassac river in Phnom Penh, October 26, 2020. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

The pressure seems to be getting to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as economic, diplomatic and political crises mount for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has ruled as a de facto one-party state since 2018.

Using vulgar and intimidating language rarely heard by the long-time leader in recent times, Hun Sen, 68, seemingly threatened the safety of the family of a former lawmaker of a now-banned opposition party who, he says, organized a protest outside the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh on October 23, which was violently quashed by the authorities.

“You should stop, Vann. Your wife and children are in Phnom Penh,” Hun Sen threatened Ho Vann, who is now in exile in the United States. “You are crazy. Be careful – your wife and children cannot sleep well, and must be frightened.”

The tough-talking leader also described peaceful protesters as “rebels” and admitted that the authorities had been surveilling calls made between members of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on the video chat platform Zoom, the way he apparently discerned the identity of the protest’s organizer.

Hun Sen, whose 35-year reign makes him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, is often portrayed as a wily, almost instinctual politician who can anticipate problems before others and outsmart any possible threat to his power since he took the top spot aged just 33.

But the Machiavelli on the Mekong, as he is sometimes known, appears to be losing his deft touch, with his house of cards wobbling under self-inflicted hits and seemingly few avenues left to solve current and deep crises.

Months-long pro-democracy protests in neighboring Thailand have made Phnom Penh particularly anxious about whether they will inspire similar demonstrations in Cambodia. In recent weeks, authorities have left nothing to chance by cracking down even harder on known activists.

At the same, many ordinary Cambodians who have acquiesced to Hun Sen’s dictatorial ways in exchange for economic progress and improved living standards now face an increasingly uncertain future.

People buy fruit at an early morning produce market in Phnom Penh on June 12, 2020. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

The coronavirus health crisis will cause Cambodia’s economy to contract for the first time in decades this year while independent forecasts suggest a less than rapid recovery in 2021.

Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians have lost their jobs or been forced to collect very limited bailouts from the government, with the crisis hitting, in particular, the vital tourism and manufacturing sectors, key employers of younger migrants from the countryside.

As many as 1.3 million Cambodians – or 8% of the population – could be thrown back into poverty due to the economic crisis, the Asian Development Bank asserted in August.

Cambodia has also been hit over the past two months by deadly flooding, killing at least 40 and adversely affecting 130,000 families across much of the country, according to the latest figures.

Estimates of the flood’s economic costs have not been published, although reports suggest dozens of factories have been forced to close, preventing untold thousands of workers from traveling to their jobs. The cost of repairing damaged machinery and buildings, observers say, could be immense.

Major flooding in 2011 cost Cambodia’s economy US$451 million in damages and $173 million in losses, or about 5% of gross domestic product (GDP) that year, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Hun Sen has sought to deflect personal blame for the economic crisis and flooding, although critics point out that floods have become worse in recent years, especially in the capital Phnom Penh, because authorities have allowed many of the country’s lakes and waterways to be filled in to make way for real estate developments.  

His government was also at fault after the European Union (EU) partially removed Cambodia’s trade privileges in August, in punitive response to a deterioration in democratic conditions since 2017. Tariffs will now be imposed on a fifth of Cambodia’s exports to the EU, its main destination for manufactured goods including garments.

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

Brussels gave the Cambodian government two years to reinstate the CNRP, which was dissolved by the Supreme Court on spurious charges of plotting a US-backed coup, and make political reforms. Yet Hun Sen said throughout 2018 and 2019 that he didn’t care if the EU cut Cambodia’s privileges.

Perhaps the biggest headache for Hun Sen is the ongoing tug-of-war between the US and China for influence in Cambodia. Since 2017, Phnom Penh has fundamentally shifted its allegiances to Beijing, much to the displeasure of Washington, which considers Cambodia strategically important in the Indo-Pacific region.

There are rising indications that Washington is losing its patience with Phnom Penh, which hasn’t responded as expected to America’s overtures after the Trump administration sought rapprochement when it installed W Patrick Murphy as ambassador to Cambodia in late 2019.

The rivalry is being driven by rumors that Phnom Penh may have agreed to allow Chinese troops to eventually station on Cambodian soil or at a Cambodian naval base, allegations the Pentagon and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised again this month.

The Chinese naval base allegations have been a constant source of frustration for Hun Sen’s government, which has denied them since they were first raised in late 2017.

Last week’s protests outside the Chinese Embassy were specifically about the naval base allegations, an indication that the banned opposition CNRP aims to use the issue to hit the government and call into question the nationalist credentials of the ruling CPP while inflaming anti-China sentiment that is now running rampant among sections of the populace.

This poses a political problem for Hun Sen. Cambodia will depend greatly on China for economic recovery and growth. Beijing is now the nation’s largest investor, creditor and trading partner. But many Cambodians view this as Hun Sen’s government accepting Chinese suzerainty.

“Where is the evidence? If you have, show it… a confidential agreement between Cambodia and China to use Ream Naval Base exclusively for 30 years, release it,” Hun Sen lashed out over the weekend, referring to allegations made last year by the Wall Street Journal that his government signed a secret pact to allow Chinese troops to be stationed at Cambodia’s largest naval base.

A Cambodian naval officer salutes at the Ream Naval Base in a file photo. Image: Twiiter

Phnom Penh is also thought to be incensed by a recent speech made by Bilahari Kausikan, a retired Singaporean diplomat and former Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which he said that Cambodia and Laos may be booted from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc if they continued to “act as proxies” for other powers, meaning China.

Hun Sen isn’t apparently getting his political way, either. Sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity say that any movement towards a possible dynastic succession by one of Hun Sen’s sons, a constant source of speculation, has effectively stopped for now. One source claimed it’s now likely that Hun Sen will try to remain in power until he can no longer physically continue.  

In August, sources told Asia Times that the ruling CPP’s Permanent Committee, its elite decision-making body, was split 60-40% against Hun Sen’s eldest son and his likely first choice, Hun Manet, to take over as prime minister in the coming years.

Hun Manet became the de facto military chief in late 2018, around the same time he was appointed to the CPP’s Permanent Committee. Earlier this year, he was made chief of the CPP’s youth-wing, a position that has allowed him to form a network of younger party members and business leaders.

To be sure, Hun Sen has weathered many crises over the decades. In 1997, he launched a bloody coup against his then power-sharing partners but remained in office after a brief period of Western anger.

Seven years later, after another election, he survived a possible removal when the two main opposition parties appeared ready to cooperate to outmaneuver his CPP in parliament. In that instance, Hun Sen led a caretaker administration and managed to sow divisions between the two rivals to remain in power.

Yet on those occasions, his rule was imperiled by political instability and there were obvious ways out of the impasse. This time, his rule is under threat from too much stability – after his fashioning of a de facto one-party state – while there appears no easy solution to his various problems.

The pandemic-induced economic crisis is largely out of his hands. He may have allied too closely with Beijing, and now cannot disentangle Cambodia from the US-China rivalry and the mounting suspicion of officials in Washington.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) with his son, Lieutenant General Hun Manet, a senior commander in the armed forces, during an inspection of troops in Phnom Penh. Photo: AFP

His own party appears opposed to his dynastic succession, which he cannot force through unless he wants to first launch internal purges within the CPP, which may or may not be successful.  

By dissolving the opposition CNRP and arresting its leader Kem Sokha on treason charges in late 2017, it will make it extremely difficult to “rehabilitate” the opposition group into a pliant, non-threatening entity in the same way he did with the royalist Funcinpec party between the late 1990s and 2000s, which went from being the most popular party at the 1993 general election to something of a joke at a ballot 20 years later.

Many analysts believe that Hun Sen wants to remold opposition leader Kem Sokha into a figurehead of a weak opposition, which would provide the veneer of democracy and quiet complaints by CNRP supporters and Western governments while not threatening his rule.

Kem Sokha, who is technically still on bail as his trial has again been delayed by the pandemic, is either being given more freedom of movement in recent months by Hun Sen, who he met briefly for talks in May, or is seeing how far he can push the prime minister’s limits.

Many now wonder whether Kem Sokha would accept a royal pardon from Hun Sen to spare a lengthy jail term if it came with the condition that he has to play a subservient political role.

With few paths open, Hun Sen may simply try to revert to his time-tested ways; his angry, emotionally-charged rhetoric over the past week would suggest he sees violence and threats as the best way to weather the political, economic and diplomatic storms he now faces.