Cambodia's strongman is back. Or at least he wants to remind everyone why he still deserves the title.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s hourlong speech on Tuesday – a return to form after months of relative quiet – was at times threatening, at times conciliatory and at all times entertaining. But it was also intended to remind the populace that only one man calls the shots in the Kingdom, analysts said yesterday.
“From the context [of the speech] it seems that he was not really happy with rumours that spread around that he was suffering from a stroke. And he is angry that some people wished him dead [and] there was no expression of sympathy. He was frustrated and angry, and he went out and let out that anger,” veteran political commentator Lao Mong Hay said.
“He was also posturing himself as the boss [by trying to say] I am in charge and I make concessions so you should be thankful to me.… I grant you all these things.”
During Tuesday’s speech, the prime minister appeared to be granting opposition demands – such as a TV licence and constitutional status for the NEC – on a whim, almost as if they were friendly favours, not items that have been on the negotiating table for months.
And despite his apparent munificence, he threatened opposition leaders from the Cambodia National Rescue Party – which continues to boycott parliament – with arrest, while reminding Cambodians that if he really did die, all hell would break loose.
According to Mong Hay, given the recent conciliatory gestures such as the suspended sentences given to 23 workers and activists arrested during protests in January, Hun Sen may be worried that people think he has “mellowed”.
“Let’s put it this way: he has gone a bit soft. But at the same time he is [trying] to put up the image of being strong and in charge.”
Political manoeuvring, horse-trading or outright deadlock has occurred after every national election since 1993, and Hun Sen has a tried and true strategy for eventually bringing political parties together, analysts say.
“I think this is consistent with the way Hun Sen has approached similar political deadlock in the past. He will lay out an assortment of carrots and sticks,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of the forthcoming book Hun Sen’s Cambodia and a former reporter at the Post. “There have always been threats and inducements. It’s very much a hallmark of the way Hun Sen operates.”
In 1998 and in 2003, the post-election deadlock ended after Funcinpec was lured into a coalition with the CPP through a host of government positions.
Although this time it may seem like the premier is offering more significant concessions to the opposition, he is again pursuing a calculated agenda, analyst Kem Ley said.
“The CPP has its own goals [and will] reform for controlling, for winning, the next election. Even if he allows them to have some concessions … nothing has been agreed in details, so in operation he can move in a flexible way.”
But the whole carrot-and-stick strategy is flawed, said Human Rights Party president Son Soubert, as it represents a political leader taking the law into his own hands.
“The offer of the TV licence and so on, it [should be] the right of any political party and individual who has freedom of speech under the constitution,” he said.
“It’s not, ‘Now I can give it to you, and if you are nice I can continue, and if not, I will find some reason to [take it away].’”