Appearing as the latest instalment in a long-running series of divide-and-conquer ploys, a 21-minute phone conversation, purportedly between Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Kem Sokha, leaked online last Saturday.
Seemingly an attempt to frame the Cambodia National Rescue Party president as Hun Sen’s man and damage his credibility, the dialogue, say analysts, also underscored a long-present and at times contradictory dynamic in the premier’s character, that between his tactics and temperament.
As the success of the former remains in doubt, with the opposition claiming they remain united and focused on the election, the implications of the latter are coming into sharper focus, said Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia.
“He’s always been known as somebody who’s had a very strong temper, but on the other hand, makes decisions with the precision of a military commander,” said Strangio.
“So far it hasn’t really tripped him up, but it is a contradiction, and I worry as he is getting older that this contradiction will become even greater.”
The conversation, which the premier claims is “100 percent” authentic but Sokha has not verified, purports to reveal Hun Sen pushing his rival to distance himself from former CNRP president Sam Rainsy as part of a deal to drop a case against him.
Ear Sophal, author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, called it “the usual coaxing with a side of bluster”, with both tactics and emotion on display.
But in his hostility directed at Rainsy and threats to face down any challenge no matter what, the conversation also highlights the premier’s deep resentment and emotion arising specifically from threats to his rule and insults to his family.
In public speeches, the premier has made little secret of his feelings towards Rainsy. In the recording he calls him “Ah Rainsy”, in Khmer, using a hostile modifier for the former opposition president.
“Kha, I can work with you but . . . in Sam Rainsy’s case, I will not make exception for insulting my wife and family,” he purportedly told Sokha.
Near the core of this frustration, says one well-connected observer, are two comments by Rainsy – one of which he has denied making.
Both are deeply personal but also touch upon fundamental issues of legitimacy, in both past and future terms.
The first, the premier has repeatedly raised in public: that Hun Sen’s eldest son Hun Manet was fathered by Vietnamese military general Le Duc Tho, one of the architects of the Indochinese communist movement and later of the Cambodian regime installed by the Vietnamese in 1979.
The outlandish accusation, which Rainsy says he never made, strikes a raw nerve both because of the impact on his family, and its connection to the long-raised questions about the birth of the premier’s own political career in a government installed by Vietnam, said Strangio.
“It taps into that deep reservoir of resentment about the way he was treated after 1979 and also the way that they have never been accepted as legitimate partners by the so-called international community,” he said.
“From Hun Sen’s perspective, this is a bitter pill to swallow and the history of that time, gnaws at him so this issue about Rainsy allegedly accusing Hun Sen’s eldest son of not being his own son, of being half Vietnamese, is clearly something that he sees as unforgivable.”
The bitterness over that first perceived slight – which attempts to tarnish Manet’s legitimacy with the same Vietnamese brush used to tar his father – also feeds into Hun Sen’s insecurities over the second slight: Rainsy’s remarks suggesting Manet might not be able to succeed his father.
The prime minister, said the well-connected source, took particular issue with Rainsy’s 2015 interview with French newspaper Libération in which he, while discussing the pair’s famous family dinner during a high point in their relationship, opined that Hun Sen, as he aged, realised his reign was ending and knew his children could not lead the country with an “iron fist” like him.
“Hun Sen is seeking democratic legitimacy for his children, who will thus be able to guarantee a part of his security as well,” he told the newspaper.
The subject of succession is a touchy, unresolved one for Hun Sen, not to mention the country. The rise of his sons into senior state positions has long raised questions of dynastic ambitions.
But, as Strangio points out, there are few independent institutions outside of Hun Sen. And the premier, it has been said, is in some ways as much a prisoner of the patronage networks that underpin the state and his power as he is their chief patron.
His children’s place in that loyalty-based hierarchy of the CPP, independent of their father, is unknowable.
Their fate, and Hun Sen’s own, should the CNRP win power is clearly the source of deep concern for the premier, said analyst Ou Virak, founder of the Future Forum think tank.
“As a fighter and survivor, I’m pretty sure keeping his family and himself secure, or feeling other people are going after him, is bound to occupy his primary thinking constantly,” Virak said, adding he felt coming elections are set apart from previous ballots for two key reasons.
“One, the rising popularity of the opposition or, more likely, the expectations of the young population to demand more is a threat to them holding on to power. The second is that the CPP has become Hun Sen and he’s now the sole man in control, so the stakes for him are significantly higher.”
Like a previous similar leaked recording in 2011, which purportedly featured Hun Sen telling Sokha to poach members from Sam Rainsy’s rival opposition party, the clip looks unlikely to cause serious damage.
Back then, the revelation temporarily stifled merger talks between Sokha’s Human Rights Party and the Sam Rainsy Party, but did little in the end to stop the parties from forming the CNRP, which came close to beating the ruling Cambodian People’s Party at the 2013 national election.
As the next ballot approaches, the premier has responded with increasingly harsh measures, warning that the stability of the country is at stake. More than 20 CNRP members and supporters are behind bars, along with a growing number of critics.
A legal amendment, allowing authorities to disband political parties for any crime or vague reasons of threatening national unity, was yesterday ratified by Senate President Say Chhum, who signed it as acting head of state while King Norodom Sihamoni is out of the country.
In an attempt to side-step that threat, Rainsy last month stepped down as president to avoid his many convictions, widely seen as politically motivated, from being used against the party.
With the former leader now drawing fire away from the party and the opposition claiming it’s united behind Sokha, the question many are asking is: How far will Hun Sen go?
It’s a question the premier, if he is to be believed, touched on in his conversation with his direct opponent.
“I am not afraid of anybody,” he said, addressing whether he would take on Rainsy and Sokha. “Even if the country wants to face civil war again, I’ll smash them with a plate to clean [them] up completely, frankly speaking, because I am already fed up with it.”