Prime Minister Hun Sen heralded a Khmer New Year bonus for civil servants on Thursday, one that he hinted was designed to distract them from the political vacuum left after the main opposition party was forcibly dissolved – a move one observer said smacked of “insecurity”.
Speaking at the inauguration of a $4 million temple in Kampong Cham province, Hun Sen lauded the 50,000 riel (about $12.50) annual Khmer New Year bonus for the Kingdom’s roughly 200,000 public employees.
“You will enjoy your New Year,” he said, referring to the bonus. “Please be happy with this. Do not worry about the one who is in jail or not in jail.”
He appeared to be referring to the former leaders of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party – the only legitimate challenger to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party – which was forcibly disbanded just months prior to national elections scheduled for July.
CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested in a midnight raid on September 4 and remains in a remote prison near the Vietnamese border awaiting trial on widely decried charges of “treason”, which he denies. His predecessor, Sam Rainsy, has been in self-imposed exile since late 2015 to avoid a bevy of politically tinged court convictions.
The Khmer New Year handout will cost the government an estimated $2.5 million.
Despite the strongman’s vow in December to “stop talking” about the CNRP, he has since repeatedly raised the topic, again launching into a lengthy monologue about his political rivals, saying the opposition were like “hungry ghosts” – an insult implying the opposition remained ravenous even after they were dead and buried.
“I am different from others; if you want me to leave, I will stay. You called on Hun Sen to step down. I won the election. [You call for] Hun Sen to step down and shout like a hungry ghost begging for rice,” Hun Sen said.
“In Cambodia, you do not dare to shout and [instead] you shout abroad,” he continued, apparently referring to opposition members who fled the country and have since lobbied for a greater international response to the CNRP’s dissolution. “You can shout freely until you hurt your throat.”
His comments come in the wake of a widespread crackdown on dissent that has seen the imprisonment of politicians, journalists, environmental activists and human rights defenders.
The premier went on to say that the CNRP’s policy was “fighting” when the country needed “unity”.
“But patience has its own limit. If they eliminate us, what will we have? It is like when I sometimes watch Chinese movies, the actor says that if you tolerate your enemy, you are cruel to yourself. I used to experience this – I forgave them, but they attacked me. Now it will not be like that anymore,” he said.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said Hun Sen’s claim that “the opposition has a policy of violence does not seem to be borne out in reality”.
“Actually, they are the victims of violent crackdowns by security forces. The CPP’s national unity policy seems to have a different connotation, that is: ‘Surrender to [us] and agree with it’,” he said.
While Hun Sen said he was leading Cambodia – as he has for 33 years – “confidently”, political commentator Ou Virak suggested his recent moves revealed he was anything but confident.
While the country’s largest opposition party has officially been done away with, support for their cause remains, and Hun Sen is beginning to realise that securing a political victory would be “a lot harder than he imagined”, Virak said.
“It seems Sam Rainsy’s and Kem Sokha’s shadows are still pretty significant,” he said.
“Dissolving the opposition indicates insecurity. If he was completely confident, there would be no need to dissolve the opposition.”
Virak said the forcible shutdown of the opposition was a step too far in the premier’s normally savvy political game.
“He’d been playing and balancing it right before the crackdown, by letting the opposition compete in some way,” Virak said. “It’s his trademark . . . It’s quite clever, keeping the strings tight but not too tight.”
In recent months, Hun Sen has touted more and more populist pledges and handouts, particularly to garment workers, who form a significant voting bloc.
“Hun Sen is behaving more and more as an irresponsible demagogue and a narrow-minded tyrant who has lost touch with reality,” said opposition figure Sam Rainsy, in exile.
“His tricks will not work because the Cambodian people are more intelligent than what he thinks of them.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan, however, said ordinary Cambodians were not fazed by the lack of opposition, because they were financially comfortable due to a growing GDP and decent agriculture prices – not to mention the premier’s recent cash injections.
“The economy is good, so the lower class do not pay much attention to politics,” he said. “Farmers are in their comfort zone, they do not want to disturb their way of life.”
“The prime minister is not panicked at all . . . It is all under control.”