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Hun Sen and the Democracy that Never Was

Cambodia’s ‘democratic’ elections have delivered the expected result and Hun Sen has been crowned again. His Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) said it had won all 125 seats in parliament with 77.5% of the vote. It was no surprise. Although Hun Sen used to allow some measure of political opposition to his CPP party,  recently he has made sure there was none.

Last month in Cambodia hoardings everywhere promoted Hun Sen, who has run Cambodia for 32 years. No realistic opposition remained. Once Cambodia’s changing demographics threatened to tip the balance from those old enough to thank Hun Sen (a former Khmer Rouge man who defected to Vietnam) for ending the horrors of the ‘KR’ time, to something new and – well – democratic – it became clear that he does not intend to go.

No hoardings mentioned the opposition CNRP, which had been gaining political ground.  They could not – it was made illegal, dissolved by the courts last November, accused of ‘destabilising the elected government’, and its 55 seats distributed to those supporting Hun Sen’s CPP. Its leader, Kem Sokha was charged with treason and banned from political office. He remains in jail in a remote part of the country, with (unsurprisingly) deteriorating health (Cambodia’s prison conditions are dire, characterised by beatings, lack of clean water and allegations of torture)

Sokha may have been lucky. Hun Sen has said publicly that he is prepared to ‘eliminate’ hundreds to protect ‘national security’, and has suggested opposition members ‘prepare their coffins.’ In November, referring to 2014 protests when thousands took to the streets and five were shot, he said he regretted not massacring protesters then.

The media is crushed. Of Cambodia’s last two independent newspapers, the Cambodia Daily was shut down last September by an unexpected $6.3 million tax bill, its final front page shouting, ‘Descent Into Outright Dictatorship.’ The Phnom Penh Post received a similar bill in May, forcing its sale to Sivakumar Ganapathy, a Malaysian ally of Hun Sen who immediately censored its content and fired the editor. More than 19 radio stations broadcasting Voice of America and Radio Free Asia were silenced. RFA closed its Cambodian operation, but this did not prevent Uon Chhin (its former cameraman) and Yeang Sothearin (its former news editor) being charged with espionage. They too remain in jail awaiting trial. Justice is not expected.

Hun Sen may have less worthy motives than his Maoist credentials suggest. Power has brought surprisingly bourgeois benefits. His family wealth is estimated at $1billion, in everything from energy to helicopters and, particularly, land. Land in central Phnom Penh, its value inflated by Chinese capital, is currently being grabbed for his family and friends, stripping the poor of their claims to title with impunity.

But Mao is not so far away, and as the EU and the US threaten sanctions in protest at democracy’s trashing, they risk forgetting this was never really a democracy. One might think, given that the megatons of ordnance Nixon dropped on Cambodia germinated both the KR cataclysm and Hun Sen’s subsequent ascendancy, America would have learned something about the risks of trying to impose democracy in SE Asia, but Cambodia is being pushed into the arms of an increasingly totalitarian China, to whom it owes over $4 billion. As the Chinese-funded high rises go up in Phnom Penh it seems worryingly clear who will be left holding the aces, and democracy seems the least likely outcome. Plus ca change, as the older taxi drivers say in Phnom Penh, plus c’est la meme chose.

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