Hun Sen

Source: The Cambodia Herald

Watching one of Hun Sen’s daily tirades against the opposition party, one instinctively moves to wipe the spittle off one’s face that emanates from each angry, impassioned outburst. Long and energetic speeches have become a hallmark of Hun Sen’s career, where he uses his almost daily routine of inaugurations, inspections and royal attendances to address the nation. In the run up to next month’s election, the P.M has been particularly ambitious with the length and frequency of his speeches and even promised to re-broadcast his record breaking 5 hour and twenty minute speech given to the National Assembly last year. The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) which he is the leader of is a complicated piece of machinery that goes well beyond electoral politics – around it is organised an entire social order that few flows of capital or labour can escape.

Since the annihilation of all other competing militaristic and ideological threats in the early 1990s, it has turned inwards and focused its attention on colonising the social – from karaoke production, to comedic production[i] to the all-important Buddhist Sangha[ii]. Even the poor, sick and destitute are unable to escape its vampire like movements where legitimacy is sucked out of them during long winded gift giving ceremonies conducted by the first lady in her role as head of the Cambodian Red Cross. At the symbolic apex of this machinery, the imagery of Hun Sen has a powerful currency. Not only is his image reverberated around the country on a daily basis through his T.V and radio stations and newspapers, but the poor and disgruntled organise their contentions around his image – frequently making trips to his Phnom Penh mansion to deliver their grievances to him personally. In 2009, when a Kompong Speu community expelled police from their commune over a land dispute with CPP senator Ly Yong Pat, they literally went at military police with images of Hun Sen attached to poles.

But in recent months there have been signs of stress on the CPP machinery – some more subtle than others. The upcoming election will no doubt intensify these. The CPP has become increasingly confident in its dealings with western donors – cancelling World Bank projects, semi-rejecting UNDP’s forest carbon program, staging student protests against UN human rights Rapporteur Surya Subedi, and accusing the U.S of colonialism. No doubt this stems from strengthened relations with China, and Cambodia’s position as head of ASEAN. The CPP has always played a double game; pandering in English to the ever obscure demands of western donors, while simultaneously using Khmer as the medium for maintaining an authoritarian grip on the internal populace. Yet over the last year, the internal authoritarian apparatus has started to unravel. Unlike other post-socialist countries, the contemporary Cambodian ‘democratic’ government has only partially inherited a surveillance apparatus from its socialist days and has always clumsily dealt with dissent.

Yet decentralisation reforms have facilitated the emergence of novel forms of village level control which combine hierarchical security and disciplinary apparatuses with judicial methods of control. Recently, the general trend of the elite using courts and the legal apparatus (particularly defamation suits), rather than overt violence to deal with dissent has come under immense strain. Not only has there been an explosion in the number of incarcerated (which is closely linked to the proliferation of land contestations), which prison building has been unable to keep up with, but there have been widespread difficulties in dealing with increasingly assertive and well organised protest movements across the country. Activists coming out of mass urban evictions from Dey Grahom, and especially Boeung Kak, epitomise this. A small group of female activists have utilised an array of techniques to garner public attention – from naked sit- ins, to colourful marches to mock parliament burning ceremonies. Violent repression of these events (such as last week’s incident with water cannons), has only made the Cambodian public more aware of the neglect and brutality with which Phnom Penh officials deal with grievances. In the past few days Youtube clips of last week’s events have been trending the Facebook pages of the Cambodian middle class.

The CPP has also struggled to deal with emerging popular critics of the regime. Its muscle flexing in Snoul last year against a supposed uprising (which resulted in the fatal shooting of a teenage girl) seemed to incite an empathy for the victims more than a fear of authority. Mam Sonando who was arrested and in custody for nine months in connection to the case, went from being a low profile critic, to a national hero where almost a thousand supporters came to witness his release from prison. The shooting of environmental activist Chut Vuthy last year has similarly immortalised him as a national hero with the likes of slain I.L.O leader Chea Vichea, and brought increasing attention to the land struggles of the Prey Long network. Tech savvy activist monk Loun Savath has also been receiving increasing attention after draconian pseudo-Buddhist limits were placed on his movements. All three feature predominantly in the widely listed to radio broadcasts of RFA and VOA, as well as being important figures discussed on social media. Importantly, these figures are gaining popularity which goes beyond the fetishes of liberal and conservation minded expats and the romanticism of Cambodian exiles and hardliner opposition members.

Yet the mainstay of CPP legitimacy – rural Cambodia, is more complicated. The rural electorate is faced with a very simple equation – vote for CPP or relinquish any realistic possibilities of basic infrastructure (and remain under the constant surveillance and pressure of local authorities). Although land contestations are widespread it remains unclear how confident the rural electorate are to shift their allegiance to non CPP parties. The vast majority of land disputes are still framed in terms of seeking intervention from Hun Sen and ground level CPP machinery remains an important institution for resolving various types of contestations. However, a combination of widespread farmer grievances over land contestation, logging of forests people are dependent on, dams which potentially devastate fish stocks, and increasing networking between activists, could potentially give farmers the confidence (or force them) to openly oppose the CPP.

One clear demographic that the CPP has little to extort from is the tens of thousands of garment workers who come from rural areas and face ridiculously low standards of living in factory complexes. Once again, garment workers face a simple equation – $60-$80 per month can barely cover the cost of living, let alone allow for remittances. Faced with delays in payment (or sometimes not being payed at all) and horrendously dangerous working conditions, garment workers have become increasingly militant and realised that the CPP has little to offer them. Rather, the CPP machinery has often been mobilised against them (for instance last year two garment workers were shot during a strike). A similar equation applies to migrant workers in a range of industries – from moto drivers to all those in the services industry in its different guises (beer hostesses for instance have also been militant over the last two years in their struggles for working conditions).

But what about the opposition parties? If the CPP is an example of the Deleuzian ‘despotic machine’ par excellence, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (it sounds a lot better in Khmer), formed through the union of the Sam Rainsy party and Kem Sohka’s Human rights party, represents liberal sensibilities articulated through an international human rights framework. Both leaders are seasoned politicians who have been at the centre of Cambodian politics over the last two decades. Rainsy as Finance Minister during the early 1990s unsuccessfully attempted to diss-entrench the economy from its patrimonial networks and put a liberal-rational economic system in its place. Since that time he has maintained a bizarre belief that the western world is one day going to realise the true autocracy of the CPP regime and install him as the new Cambodian leader. (When the Sam Rainsy party was first created, Rainsy was busy having meetings with French and American diplomats while Hun Sen was busy with the much more profitable task of building a rural patrimonial network).

While Hun Sen conducts his rural visits, clad in a traditional kroma and enthusiastically jumps in to have a go at rice harvesting (no doubt styling his leadership on the late, and equally autocratic King), Rainsy awkwardly strolls the streets of Phnom Penh is his French tailored suits (at least before he was exiled). The most bizarre thing about the opposition party is its obsession with the Vietnamese issue. Sam Rainsy incessantly uses the derogatory term Yuan to refer to Vietnamese, and instead of framing territorial sovereignty in terms of a problem with the Vietnamese government he constantly revives anti-Vietnamese sentiment by blaming Vietnamese people (including those who have spent their whole lives in Cambodia). peculiar accounts of history have been given by both leaders – none more so that Kem Sokha’s recent claim that the Khmer Rouge prison Tuol Sleng was an invention of the Vietnamese. (This was met was an equally strange staged ‘protest’ organised by the CPP). What’s particularly strange about this is why the opposition party would rattle on about the Vietnamese when there are so many more politically profitable issue to focus on. None the less, high profile support of the party, such as from Prince Thomico and legendary architect Van Molyvan will no doubt see the party rise in popularity.

It hard to tell how much pressure the CPP really feels it’s under. But Hun Sen’s own increasingly aggressive and bizarre threats are surely a symptom of his own stress. His repeated threat/statement that the country will fall into civil conflict if the opposition party wins, or that he will reverse all progress on land titling if the opposition party wins, that he will reign until his 70s, or that it’s illegal to compare him to dictators like Gaddafi, all show this. How much the new generation of CPP candidates (the sons of the CPP elite) can counter this is uncertain.

One can’t help but detect an air of impatience in the faces of the local authorities, school children and local residents who are assembled at various locations across the country to listen to Hun Sen’s long ranting speeches. Each time his performance draws to a close, it is met with subdued clapping from blank faces — surely the absurdity of such events cannot be maintained. The main opposition party faces huge barriers in the upcoming election – none more so than the fact that it is exactly that – an electoral opposition party, facing off against a deeply entrenched social order. But such supportive conditions for an opposition movement have probably not been in place since the early 1990s.

Tim Frewer is a graduate student at the University of Sydney

[ii] See Ledgerwood, Judy. 2008. Ritual in 1990 Cambodian Political Theatre; New Songs at the Edge of the Forest. In At the Edge of the Forest; Essays on Cambodia, History and Narrative in Honor of David Chandler J. Ledgerwood and A. Hansen, eds. Ithaca NY: Cornwell Southeast Asia Studies Program.