Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday welcomed the use of his photograph by demonstrators, a common practice among those who gather seeking the resolution of myriad problems, including landlessness.
“Whoever wants to protest, they always hold my photo or the photo of my wife,” he said in a public speech. “They never hold the opposition leader’s photo.”
Rights groups and opposition party officials, however, say the practice rarely meets with success and is an indictment of a failed court system and a government where the power is concentrated into the hands of the premier.
“Because they know that he is powerful,” said Ou Virak, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “Regarding everything, even including fishing lots, his decision must be respected by the courts, and then people won’t go to the courts but to him.”
“It demonstrates clearly that in Cambodia, power is mostly in the hands of an individual, rather than under a state institution,” said Pol Ham, a spokesman for the minority opposition Human Rights Party.
The rights group Adhoc reported more than 500 protests in 2011, with 186 of them dispersed by security forces. Some of these demonstrations have led to violent clashes, whether protestors were carrying photos of Hun Sen or not.
“I was beaten and his photo was thrown away,” said Chum Gnan, a resident of the Phnom Penh neighborhood of Borei Keila who was forcibly evicted from her home in January and later joined a protest. “Another person holding his wife’s photo was beaten on the head.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan conceded that some violence was the fault of the authorities, but he said all of the concerns of protesters are brought to the attention of Hun Sen.
Nevertheless, and photos or no, Ou Virak said continued demonstrations could become a source of instability for the country.