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Cambodian Leader Faces Backlash From Unrelenting Crackdown

  • Luke Hunt
  • VOA News

FILE - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) summit in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Feb. 15, 2016.

FILE - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) summit in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Feb. 15, 2016.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is threatening to ratchet-up his crackdown on rising anti-government sentiment on the opposition, warning “anyone who made a mistake, please do not continue with the mistake. If not, it will bring a bad result for you.”

It was a vintage Hun Sen response to potential anti-government demonstrations, but analysts are warning this heavy handed approach is unlikely to help the prime minister where it matters most – at the ballot box.

Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) was returned to power at the 2013 polls, but with a substantially reduced majority after the opposition tapped a reservoir of resentment over corruption, a yawning wealth gap and land grabbing.

That anger does not appear to have subsided and the prime minister's pursuit of the opposition – backed by the flexing of military muscle – has dominated headlines and social media across the Kingdom and been condemned by a chorus of foreign governments and civil society groups.

It's a situation not helped by controversy surrounding Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) amid reports by the Financial Times of secret deals between Hun Sen's cronies and senior Chinese business figures with ties to Beijing, such as Fu Xianting, also known as Big Brother Fu.

Land grabbing and the July killing of independent analyst Kim Ley also have the attention of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, which is considering allegations that land grabbing by Cambodia’s 'ruling elite' amounted to crimes against humanity.

Chances the ICC will launch a formal investigation into those claims took a step forward last week when the court ruled company executives could be put on trial alongside war criminals and dictators for land grabbing and environmental destruction.

“I think the ICC, that it is very good, it should be implemented,” Vann Sopath, Land Reform Project Coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said. “If it fits and it corresponds with the facts that have happened in Cambodia, especially land grabbing, then it should be very useful.”

Highways to an election

Big Brother Fu, local businessmen like Ly Yong Phat and members of Hun Sen's family, -- whose assets were partially valued at a minimum $200 million in a Global Witness report in July -- have become enormously wealthy off the back of land deals.

But public irritation with their wealth and a potential ICC probe are just two political headaches confronting Hun Sen, Asia's longest serving leader with 31 years at the helm, in the lead-up to commune elections in June and general elections in mid-2018.

Perhaps the most important issues are the economy and changing demographics. At least 65 percent of the population is under the age of 30 and they rallied behind the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) en-masse three years ago.

Members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party raise joined hands for photographs at their party headquarters in Phnom Penh, May 27, 2016.

Members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party raise joined hands for photographs at their party headquarters in Phnom Penh, May 27, 2016.

The youth vote has little experience with war or the prime minister's mantra, that he ended three decades of conflict and that it was his authoritarian rule that guaranteed security, enabling an era of unparalleled economic growth.

“There was a time when election campaigning meant trips to remote villages accompanied by handouts that included bags of rice and cartons of cigarettes,” said one analyst, who declined to be named because of concerns of repercussions by the government.

“Everything has changed. Cambodian youth want smart phones, fashion accessories and jobs that can pay for life's luxuries and they're challenging the old guard because Hun Sen's warnings of a return to conflict, if he and the CPP lose, sounds tired and old – and good jobs are hard to find.”

Speculation about garment factory closures is mounting and the slowdown in China has sharply reduced the regional economic outlook and cast doubts over Beijing's ability to maintain its funding of Cambodia, estimated at around $15 billion over the last two decades.

Importantly, prices for agricultural products like rice have fallen sharply and the World Bank is forecasting economic growth of 6.9 percent in 2016, down from an average of around 8.0 percent in the previous decade, and barely enough to provide jobs for the nation's young and growing workforce.

“It's a perfect political storm,” the independent analyst said. “Hun Sen is being challenged by the youth, the economy and potentially by the international courts and he's lashing out and targeting those who want his job, the opposition.”

A winter of discontent beckons

William Conklin, country director for the U.S.-based labor rights group Solidarity Center, said the government would struggle to win back lost political ground with human rights looming as a major election issue.

“They're going to be major, especially when connected with land rights, labor rights -- other types of civil rights – that have been basically curtailed or undermined in the past, in the proceeding years. This is what people care about,” Conklin said.

Senior opposition sources said they expect the prime minister to continue his crackdown and say he would like to see convictions registered against CNRP leaders, as this could provide a legal premise to prevent Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha from contesting general elections.

VOA was unable to reach government officials for comment on this story.