The ousting of long-serving Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe has prompted comparisons between his rule and that of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, parallels that seemed to resonate with everyday Cambodians yesterday despite the ruling party’s rejection of them.
Self-exiled former opposition leader Sam Rainsy was quick to draw links between the two, taking to Facebook on Wednesday to predict Hun Sen would meet a similar fate as Mugabe, who was removed from power by the military following the dismissal of his long-time Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. The coup was believed to have also been spurred by concerns Mugabe was moving to name his wife as successor.
Both leaders have been characterised as strongmen and accused of numerous human rights violations over decades of rule.
“Today the population in Zimbabwe joyfully celebrates the fall of dictator Robert Mugabe who had been in power for more than 30 years. In 2018, the Cambodian people will similarly celebrate the fall of dictator Hun Sen who has also been in power for more than 30 years,” Rainsy wrote.
Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan, meanwhile, took to government mouthpiece Fresh News to rebuff the parallel yesterday.
In an interview later yesterday, Eysan said the age difference between the 93-year-old Mugabe and 65-year-old Hun Sen made the comparison impossible, adding that Hun Sen is still active.
“Samdech Hun Sen gets power based on the people’s will; if the people keep voting for him, he continues to be the prime minister,” Eysan added.
Hun Sen’s CPP narrowly won the 2013 elections over the newly founded Cambodia National Rescue Party, which went on to win nearly 500 of the country’s more than 1,600 communes in this year’s local elections – an unprecedented amount for any opposition party.
After years pressuring the party, the government this month moved to dissolve the CNRP entirely after accusing it of plotting a “revolution”, a move that has been almost universally condemned.
Despite Eysan’s protestations, Phnom Penh residents yesterday had no trouble spotting the similarities between the situation in Zimbabwe and that in Cambodia.
A security guard near Phsar Kabko market said he supported removing Mugabe, and said he didn’t understand why the same couldn’t be done in Cambodia.
“The people dare not to express their opinion or change, because if one stands up, that one will be jailed. If two stand up, two will be jailed,” he said, predicting people would be similarly happy to see Hun Sen removed from power.
“Cambodian people will be happy because they want to change, but they do not know how to,” he said.
A nearby fried banana vendor agreed, saying that Hun Sen has been in power too long.
“I wonder as well, their leader can step down from power, why can’t our leader step down from power?” she said, referring to Mugabe’s recent resignation. However, she added, “I do not dare to express a lot of opinions.”
Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said the parallels between Hun Sen and Mugabe are readily apparent.
“Both . . . were key transitional figures for their countries, each in fact coming to lead and dominate socialist regimes, bringing political change and temporary stability,” he said of the way both leaders amassed power early on.
“Like Mugabe did, Hun Sen is manipulating the constitution and judiciary to benefit his political party and engaging the military to use brute force against potential opponents,” Chambers said via email, adding that Cambodia appears headed down a similar track as Zimbabwe.
“Such a future will bring enhanced human rights violations, personalist dictatorship and economic corruption as well as malaise to Cambodia. And, once Hun Sen is gone [as with Mugabe], there would be a huge political vacuum that the military will likely fill,” he added.