There were good times and bad times for Hun Sen during his overseas trip. Right, with Jacques Chirac in Paris.
Why would the opposition leader's enemies agitate against him just as he was fading from the public eye?
PLANS are always afoot in Phnom Penh, the most politically vibrant capital in Indochina. The latest is the promise of a major protest rally against opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has been in self-imposed exile for the past seven months.
Casual observers of Cambodian politics may wonder whether this latest development is some sort of a knee-jerk reaction or a strategically planned operation. Some may further question what significant political gains there are for the dominant Cambodian People's Party (CPP) in this renewed focus on Rainsy, at a time when his stock and that of his Sam Rainsy Party are running low. He is also beginning to lose his iron grip on the party as a result of his long absence, and there are telling, though muted, calls for his wife, Tioulong Saumura, to take over the leadership.
Even if it were not a CPP-inspired rally, the question still is why the CPP is allowing such an opportunity to be available for Rainsy to return to the domestic spotlight and for his party to close ranks and rally around him. CPP strategists have made some glaring miscalculations in their time, but these are rare and far between. By and large, they are extremely sophisticated political players.
This turn of events cannot, therefore, be dismissed as another demonstration of the intense dislike Prime Minister Hun Sen and Rainsy have for each other. What triggered these events can be traced to Hun Sen's successful visit to New York, where he addressed the United Nations General Assembly on September 13, and his official visit to France, where he was received by President Jacques Chirac a few days later.
Both were proud moments for Hun Sen and the Cambodian Government, especially the visit to France and the start of a "new era of French-Cambodian cooperation"as a French official declared. However, the visits also presented an opportunity for his detractors to embarrass him and the government on foreign soil.
Both in New York and Paris, there were demonstrations against Hun Sen. Voice of America reported that while he was addressing the UN, "about 30 Cambodian-Americans from different states gathered in front of the UN to protest against the prime minister's government."
In Paris, according to a widely distributed account by a protest participant, "the demonstration was collectively organized by the Cambodian opposition party and Cambodian communities" in France. The understanding apparently was for Sam Rainsy Party "leaders and members" to be present at the demonstration and to bring along eggs to throw at a large poster of Hun Sen.
"When the demonstration took place, no political leaders were there. Many normal Cambodians were disappointed. Why didn't they come?" asked the protest participant.
In themselves, the demonstrations were small and the residents of New York and Paris would not have been impressed. However, according to one commentator, it was the intent to belittle and embarrass Hun Sen in international eyes that was more hurtful to him and the Cambodian delegation.
What was probably worse was a lawsuit filed in a US court by Rainsy, Ron Abney of the International Republican Institute, and two others against Hun Sen for a variety of alleged human-rights abuses in Cambodia.
Such lawsuits are allowed under two United States statutes - the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victims Protection Act. These allow victims of torture and other major human-rights abuse to obtain compensation from their abusers in US courts - even though the alleged abuses were not committed in the US.
The plaintiffs cited in particular the March 30, 1997, grenade attack against a rally led by Sam Rainsy in Phnom Penh that resulted in 16 deaths. The court, as is required of it, has issued a summons requiring Hun Sen to respond to the complaint within 20 days. But Hun Sen can claim head-of-government immunity.
The foreign demonstrations and the court action are seen by even non-partisan Khmers as churlish and an unnecessary public airing of Cambodian linen. The incidents gained only minimal international media space and, at best, may have only scored some brownie points at home. Still, there will be some satisfaction in opposition circles at home that someone as powerful as Hun Sen could be, and was, belittled.
Which brings us back to the proposed rally, for which there is yet no set date. It will take place when or after Rainsy returns. Two academic groups belonging to the Cambodian Higher Education Association and the Royal University of Law and Economic Sciences have taken umbrage at the opposition party's actions in the US and are organizing the rally.
The earlier demonstrations in New York and Paris were small, but then, at the end of the day, it was not the numbers that mattered. However, it will be numbers that will give expression in Phnom Penh, to the hurt over the New York and Paris incidents. Should large numbers be attracted, the attendant security risks could be high.
The CPP may find it more advantageous to ignore the slight and go about the business of government, which would include ensuring that protest rallies are peaceful.
* Verghese Mathews, a former Singapore ambassador to Cambodia, is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.