On the same day Cambodia’s highest court dissolved the main opposition party, Prime Minister Hun Sen was busy campaigning at several garment factories, urging some 10,000 workers to vote for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party and doling out cash to more than 700 pregnant women.
During his speech, he reminded workers that he planned to remain in power for at least 10 more years and repeated lavish promises of additional benefits for garment workers beginning in 2018, including free health care, a higher minimum wage and a $100 bonus to mothers for every newborn child.
The premier also warned workers not to let anybody incite them to protest, and told them not to bow their heads to foreigners – an apparent dig at the foreign powers the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was accused of colluding with to topple his government.
“Don’t fall for any incitement and break your rice pot,” he told the workers. “We will not allow big and small gangsters to do protests and threaten workers into not working and joining the protests.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said a politician holding a campaign-style rally, asking for votes and giving away money would be considered blatant vote-buying in most countries.
“But as usual in Cambodia, there’s apparently one set of rules for Hun Sen, and another set for everyone else,” he wrote in an email. “Hun Sen is asserting his impunity to do whatever he wants, and operating above the law like a dictator rather than an elected leader.”
Despite the gifts and additional benefits, Hun Sen is “not an advocate of the working poor, he’s only really concerned about remaining in power any way that he can”, Robertson added.
Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University in Thailand, said he found it interesting that Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe was ousted from power on Wednesday “at a time when Hun Sen is using the same tactics Mugabe utilised to also hang on to a decades long parliamentary dictatorship”.
“So the question is: In the process of trying to stay in power, will Hun Sen also run his country into the ground?” he asked in an email. “Will he move Cambodia in the direction of a Mugabe future?”