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The politics of fear: what's next?

The politics of fear: what's next?

S ECOND Prime Minister Hun Sen's worried about getting assassinated, Prince Norodom

Sirivudh's been stripped of his Parliamentary immunity and arrested for allegedly

plotting to

kill Hun Sen, the tanks are back in their barracks (for now), and the streets of

Phnom Penh are as busy and bustling as ever.

Those are the bare facts. But the key questions everyone's wondering about are: who's

really doing what to whom, and what happens next? The question are important ones

and have been the talk of the town in many circles over the last two weeks.

Equally important, and as an indication of the level of tension that surrounds current

Cambodian politics, is the fact that people from all walks of life, and from whatever

political stripe or organizational affiliation - be it domestic or international

- are extremely frightened to talk about politics, especially to journalists. Conversations

are held in hushed tones with furtive glances over the shoulder, mobile phones are

shut off or, in the case of embassies, confiscated before you enter the premises,

and suggestions are often made to take a walk outside for fear of hidden bugs in

people's homes or offices.

In short, with the latest political chess moves by Hun Sen, students, NGO workers,

intellectuals, human rights activists, diplomats, journalists, political party members

from both the old alliances and the new ones, civil servants, and even cyclo drivers

are afraid.

People aren't afraid to walk around town because security, at least in Phnom Penh,

is not the problem. But they're afraid to say what they think - especially in public

among people they don't know.

At the very least, it's clear that the "Phnom Penh Spring" of 1993 - with

the exuberant flush of successful elections and the advent of noble ideals enshrined

in a new constitution - has now devolved in just over two years to a level of anxiety

and abuse of power that has innocent people running scared.

Much of this is not new. In fact, the trend line since early 1994 has been both obvious

and ominous. Editors killed in broad daylight, MPs pressured to vote the way they're

told to, and grenade attacks against political party or newspaper offices have become

the staple of political life since UNTAC's departure.

Moreover, death threats and the fear of receiving one, it seems, have become as ubiquitous

as New Year's greeting cards. The fear of receiving one is even more widespread.

Equally disturbing are the regularly proffered commitments of full investigations

into criminal acts which somehow never conclude with convictions of the culprits

involved. Do we know yet who killed Noun Chan or Tou Chom Mongkol, who threw the

grenade at Son Sann's office, and why villagers - who were easily identifiable and

are probably still boasting openly about the attack - were allowed to thrash the

office of Sereipheap Thmei?

The alleged plot to kill Hun Sen has brought much debate on these subjects to the

fore, especially since the Premier's fear of being assassinated caused him to call

out the tanks which rumbled up Norodom Boulevard on the night of Nov 17 and then

fanned out around the Independence Monument.

But the larger questions which have everyone speculating - albeit nervously - and

which have the rumor mills working around the clock are whether or not the threat

is real; if so, who's behind it; and if not, what is Hun Sen up to.

In a broad, informal survey of opinion from current and former CPP officials, human

rights and NGO workers, MPs, diplomats, Cambodia watchers and the general public,

the consensus is that Hun Sen does indeed have reason to fear for his life, that

he has enemies both inside and outside his own party and that there are several if

not numerous precedents for his fears of a plot against him.

But there is wide disagreement on what the nature is of the current move, if any,

against him. One observer said that Hun Sen had definite information "of a movement

against him within the CPP" which caused him to call out the tanks and move

against Sirivudh, using the Prince as a pretext to deliver a show of force to multiple

potential threats.

Added one official: "Hun Sen comes from a history where if someone says they

are going to kill you, he believes it."

A former CPP official speculated that "CPP party members are concerned about

Hun Sen's clumsiness in dealing with power. The Sirivudh case could force a split

within the CPP. Up until now mistakes and disagreements have been overlooked and/or

forgotten but now things could change... [Hun Sen's] methods are archaic."

Whether or not the Chea Sim/Sar Kheng side of the CPP is at the breaking point with

Hun Sen is only a matter of vague speculation. However, several sources say that

Hun Sen was recently infuriated with Sar Kheng because of the latter's refusal to

prevent the opening of Sam Rainsy's new political party on Nov 9, and that Sar Kheng's

latest rebuff to a Hun Sen order was one of many serious disagreements between the

two senior CPP officials.

Others deny that any party split would ever happen, arguing that the CPP, inspite

of any differences, would hold together at any price. Said one diplomat: "We

don't have to exaggerate the struggle within the CPP. It's not at the same level

[as that] within Funcinpec. With their communist training, [the CPP] will preserve

as long as possible the unity in their party."

Many sources said that Prince Sirivudh was only a pawn in a larger game, that Hun

Sen was taking an opportunity to move against one of his opposition critics and that

the move would further damage the unity of Funcinpec.

Overall, Sirivudh is generally regarded as a principled individual who resigned his

post as foreign minister on the basis of his own deeply-felt values and who retained

his position within Funcinpec because of his desire to work within the party for


However, it was said by several sources that Sirivudh had been joking privately about

"killing Hun Sen" but that, as one diplomat said: "There are profiles

of killers. I don't think [Sirivudh] fits the profile of a killer. But what we should

ask ourselves is whether [Hun Sen] is using this joke to finish Sirivudh off, or

does Hun Sen really believe that he wants to kill him."

Said another diplomat: "Sirivudh was completely tricked... He's playing with

politics without realizing it's very serious. Hun Sen is not playing."

If there is one point on which most observers agree it's that Hun Sen is a consummate

political tactician who spends most of his time keeping three steps ahead of both

his allies and his opponents. One source said that Hun Sen has repeatedly outsmarted

even his own critics within the CPP. Because of his charisma as a public speaker,

because of his foresight in thwarting moves against him, and because of his skill

as a political manipulator, the premier had managed to rise to the top and stay there.

"There is no secret," said one diplomat, "the one who runs the country

is the one who works for it. Hun Sen is in charge, because he's working day and night."

A party member within the current coalition added cynically, "What does Hun

Sen want? Money or power? I ask you. He has money, so it must be power. You saw what

he did to the BLDP, so now it's Funcinpec."

Sadly, international donors bemoan the fact that so much time is spent by senior

government officials on sorting out the power-related squabbles between political

factions and individuals that the work of government is not getting done.

"What's this doing to the development process?" asked one official referring

to the political infighting in recent months. "Nothing ever seems to get done

that's home grown," he added, noting that most efforts to help the rural poor

were being driven by foreign NGOs and that government bureaucracies were not making

much progress in acquiring the capabilities to plan for and implement development

schemes on their own that would benefit the nation.

As far as the question "What's next?" fears are widespread that it can

only get worse. For Sam Rainsy and his Khmer Nation Party, the fear is that even

if the government ever officially recognizes the party, when the KNP tries to organize

outside of Phnom Penh, party workers will be intimidated if not killed outright.

One KNP worker is already dead, more are likely to follow.

Said one Cambodian intellectual: "There are elements [within the government]

that could lead somebody to conclude that we are embarking on the road to fascism:

the gangsters, the vigilante justice against whomever is against somebody in particular.

Cambodians have gradually been subdued."

Added one diplomat: "We appear to be back at square one [with democracy]. Hun

Sen is finally coming home to roost. It's only a question of how far they will go.

Some foreigners get angry and say the government is going the Malaysian or Singaporean

way. I say, 'Go that way'. If the alternative is Nigeria, is Saddam Hussein... there's

worse, you know."


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