LESS than three weeks before voters decide whether he will retain his seat, Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday made his first public appearance of the campaign period. After more than a week of restricting his movements to official duties in Phnom Penh, the premier made his way down to Preah Sihanouk province, stopping on the way to greet workers and villagers.
By his side, for the duration of a two-day trip that concludes today, stood a pair of unlikely compatriots: King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath.
“The King and Queen Mother, accompanied by Prime Minister Hun Sen, visited a new rice mill machine in Kandal, then they visited the palm oil farm of Oknha Mong Reththy and looked at some of the products of the company and met workers,” said Kem Gunnawadh, director general of TVK, one of only two media outlets – both government-aligned television stations – permitted to cover the trip.
“In the afternoon of the same day, they visited the port and met about 1,200 port workers.”
Today, the trio is set to plant trees to mark Arbor Day – an annual ceremony presided over by the King but rarely – if ever – attended by Hun Sen.
“The tree planting day is being held in Preah Sihanouk, which is far, so the King has to stay overnight and the prime minister has to accompany him,” explained Gunnawadh. “It is not strange.”
A number of analysts interviewed yesterday respectfully disagreed.
For one, such a trip is all but unprecedented. In January of last year, the premier and King set off on their first joint journey – a two-day bus tour around Mondulkiri province to meet villagers and observe rural development. The Queen Mother and Hun Sen, meanwhile, have never undertaken such travels.
And though there was scant overt campaigning in the course of the day, there could be little doubt that the mere appearance of Hun Sen implied as much, said political analyst Chea Vannath.
“This is happening during the election [campaign] time, so we can speculate that any politician or political party . . . [would] try to come up with significant and noticeable events.”
Following nearly two decades of rocky relations between the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk and Hun Sen, the premier has spent much of the last 15 years shoring up at least his perceived relationship with the monarchy. That came to a head upon Sihanouk’s death, after which Hun Sen accompanied the royal family to retrieve the body from Beijing, turned the funeral into a state affair, and even went so far as to make himself the main player in the cremation, claiming that only he had been able to light the funeral pyre thanks to a “miracle” bestowed by Sihanouk.
“This is a new strategy to increase his popularity,” explained political analyst Kem Ley. “[Hun Sen] supports the monarchy, with the understanding that the Cambodian people clearly support the King.”
Whether such a tactic will prove successful is less obvious.
Vannath predicted that the voting populace had grown savvier and “might think that the ruling party is trying to take advantage of their relationship with the King to come up with the best [campaign strategy] they can.”
“[An endorsement] is how the ruling party wants to make that look. But I do not think that the general public thinks that way,” she said.
That very same strategy of involving the monarchy backfired splendidly for the royalist Funcinpec party, pointed out Ley, which failed to “access more popularity”.
Son Soubert, Human Rights Party president and a personal adviser to the King, agreed that voters aren’t likely “to take into account this kind of thing”.
“I’m just sorry for the King and Queen Mother, that they are used by this political party.”
This morning, the trio along with countless other officials will set out to plant saplings. Almost certainly, as in prior years, they will don special Arbor Day hats and T-shirts. There is a new insignia this year featuring a hearty young tree. Above the sapling, sprinkling holy water onto its boughs, floats a familiar angel: the devada from the CPP logo.