Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday pledged to remain in power 10 more years to “maintain stability” in Cambodia, going on to blame the fatal crackdown on wage protests in 2014 on a “conspiracy” orchestrated by the beleaguered opposition.
An additional decade at the helm would bring the strongman to a total of 42 years in power, equalling the tenure of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
“Earlier, I hesitated, when should I leave office? But after seeing the tragic event of the treasonous acts of a Khmer, who was arrested – and there might be some more [arrests] – I decided to continue my work 10 years more,” Hun Sen said in a speech to some 10,000 garment workers, referring to the widely condemned midnight arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha on charges of treason earlier this week.
Observers have said the arrest jeopardises the very legitimacy of upcoming national elections, which were expected to see a tight race between Hun Sen’s long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party and Sokha’s Cambodia National Rescue Party, its only credible competitor.
In 2007, Hun Sen said he planned to lead the country until the age of 90. In 2015, he revised, offering a more modest estimate of 74. Now aged 65, 10 more years would be roughly in line with his previous pledge.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the CPP was prepared to deal with Hun Sen’s eventual retirement, but will continue to rely on his expertise. “The CPP has good mechanisms to choose their new prime minister candidate,” he said. “It is a professional democratic political organisation.”
Hun Sen, meanwhile, speaking just steps from the site of the bloody Veng Sreng Boulevard crackdown, also used his speech to blame the CNRP, and Sokha specifically, for the violence in 2014.
“Do not put your hope in those who do nothing but demand protests. Now it is discovered and the mastermind was arrested,” Hun Sen said.
“The opposition party leader and others have been like gangsters, violating others’ rights . . . They should not have forced people to launch the protest . . . This is the destruction that needs to be compensated through court.”
The opposition has long denied instigating the January clash, which was the culmination of nationwide strikes prompted by widespread disappointment over a new minimum wage. Protests on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard ultimately turned violent, and security forces opened fire on the crowd, killing at least five.
The strikes had coincided with a long-running opposition sit-in at the capital’s former Freedom Park over the disputed results of the 2013 election. The day after the Veng Sreng crackdown, the nonviolent occupation was brutally dispersed.
No one was ever investigated for the deadly use of force at Veng Sreng, and one of the victims was “disappeared” – last seen with a bleeding gunshot wound to the chest – with the whereabouts of his remains still unknown.
Yesterday, opposition Deputy President Mu Sochua said the main issue should be the authorities’ abuse of force.
“The use of force by armed forces with deadly weapons is what caused those deaths,” Sochua said, accusing the authorities of violating international human rights standards.
But despite Hun Sen’s taunts, Sochua has maintained that CNRP supporters will not protest Sokha’s arrest, out of fear of further violence.
“We don’t want any more bloodshed. Not even one drop of blood from our people should be wasted,” she said.
Analysts were united in saying that protest simply wasn’t a safe option in the current political atmosphere, with some suggesting they may even be what the ruling party wants.
“With the Prime Minister in such a mood, and his bodyguard [unit] making ominous noises, taking to the street would be fraught with risk,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, via email on Tuesday night.
“In this context, the only real choice the party has is to stick with its president and bunker down to wait out the storm . . . Unfortunately, I don’t see an easy way out for the party.”
Ear Sophal, Associate Professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College, said the CNRP must now consider boycotting the election.
Sophal said choosing not to protest could legitimise Sokha’s arrest in the eyes of the public, but is necessary for the time being.
“Not protesting makes it appear that you accept what has happened to you . . . Demotivation is definitely a worry, but survival is job 1 right now,” he said, also speaking via email on Tuesday. “Looks like check-mate to me, unless you flip the chessboard upside down and say I’m not playing this game anymore: boycott time.”
While Sochua declined to use the word “boycott” specifically, by refusing to select a new party president, the CNRP could be dissolved and barred from participating in crucial upcoming national elections if Sokha is found guilty of treason.
Cambodian analyst Meas Ny said it was clear from the way the government handled Sokha’s arrest that they have a “long term plan”, and may be counting on opposition protests.
“Any organised demonstration in a large scale would result in a large clash. The government would take this as a motive to control them, to claim the country is in a state of emergency and declare martial law,” Ny said.
“I can’t say if this is what the government wants, but it would certainly be good timing for them.”