Hun Sen: the man who foiled the UN
You don’t get to be the world’s longest-serving prime minister by leaving your future up to voters. Instead Hun Sen, who has led Cambodia since 1985, relies on curtailing their options.
His government is petitioning the courts to dissolve the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the only opposition group that threatens his grip.
As it is, the leader of the CNRP, Kem Sokha, is in jail, on charges of treason. His predecessor, Sam Rainsy, has fled the country, as have about half of the party’s 55 MPs.
The head of the only other party bar Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party to win control of any local councils in commune elections this year is also behind bars. The evisceration of the opposition ensures that the CPP will romp home in next year’s parliamentary election. The Prime Minister recently said that he planned to remain in charge for another 10 years.
It is not just politicians who are in Hun Sen’s sights. His government has passed laws making it impossible for labour unions and other pressure groups to criticise it without risking closure. It has shut down an independent newspaper and several radio stations. Foreign NGOs have been expelled from the country. The army has threatened political protesters with violence, and has vowed to stand by the CPP “forever”.
This is not the outcome the UN had in mind 25 years ago when it undertook an ambitious mission to rescue Cambodia from decades of violence and misery.
Hun Sen was already Prime Minister then, but was locked in an inconclusive civil war with monarchist militias and their allies, the remnants of the bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge regime, which the CPP had overthrown in 1979. All these groups agreed to allow the UN to deploy a huge peacekeeping force, hold an election and help establish a new, democratic government.
It was the first time the UN had ever taken over the administration of a whole country. It was supposed to be a demonstration of the great things that the organisation could achieve in the new, post-Cold-War world. Sadly, it now looks like a cautionary tale.
Although Hun Sen professed to accept the UN’s agenda, in practice he worked to frustrate it.
He threatened to reignite the civil war unless he was allowed to stay on as “second prime minister”, even though he lost the election that the UN oversaw. He later launched a coup against the “first prime minister”.
Although he has continued to hold regular elections, every time an opposition party looks strong enough to challenge him, he finds a way to hobble it, not least by telling voters that the choice is him or war.
All this is a terrible waste — most obviously of money. The UN’s 20-month administration in 1992-93 cost $US1.6 billion — equivalent to $US2.5bn ($3.2bn) today and enough to give every Cambodian 66 per cent of the average income per person at the time. Western donors have since spent billions more to help strengthen Cambodia’s democracy. Hun Sen has left them little to show for it.
It is also a missed opportunity. Unlike Afghanistan, say, where international efforts at nationbuilding have foundered in part because the country is racked by insurgency, Cambodia is at peace.
It also has few ethnic or sectarian rifts to polarise national politics. And Cambodia, although poor, has booming garment and tourism industries, which have helped the economy to grow rapidly in recent years.
A functioning democracy does not seem like a pipe dream.
Western governments have found it harder to get Hun Sen’s attention since he struck up a close friendship with China, which is now both the biggest donor to Cambodia and its biggest source of investment.
But Western aid is still important to the government, as are the Western firms that buy much of the output of Cambodia’s garment factories and the Western tourists who visit its temples.
Hun Sen would be vulnerable, in other words, to a vigorous international campaign to induce him to restore democracy — he just does not expect one. That may be the most depressing development of all.