Why Asia’s longest-serving leader is warning about a coup

- By Philip J. Heijmans |

ON his path to becoming Asia’s longest-serving leader, Hun Sen has mastered the art of fighting for power.

When he first took charge of Cambodia as a 33-year-old in 1985, he battled remnants of the Khmer Rouge for control of the Southeast Asian nation. After losing the first election following a United Nations-brokered peace in 1993, he threatened to secede unless he was made co-prime minister. Four years later, a de facto coup put him solely in charge, a position he’s kept to this day.

Now 67, Hun Sen is suddenly worried that a group of exiled dissidents might overthrow him by force—a claim that looks hysterical on its face given many of his main political opponents have been locked up or abroad since he

won all of the country’s parliament­ary seats during a boycotted election last year.

But he has lots of reason to worry.

Discontent is building among the country’s 16 million people— most of whom have never been alive under another leader—over skyrocketi­ng household debt, resentment at an influx of Chinese investment and a lack of jobs. The European Union is threatenin­g to pull preferenti­al tariffs that could upend the garment sector, the economy’s most important industry. And questions over succession are spurring rumors of internal rifts in his ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

“There could easily be a popular uprising,” said Ou Virak, director of Phnom Penh-based thinktank Future Forum and former chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

‘Peaceful uprising’

HUN SEN’S opponents see an opportunit­y to pounce. Long-time opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has spent the past four years in Paris, has vowed to return to Cambodia to fight for democracy along with others who fled abroad. Hun Sen’s government said the efforts amounted to a coup attempt, and he moved the military to the border while warning he’d use “weapons of all kinds” to stop them.

After arriving in Malaysia, Sam Rainsy told reporters this week he and his colleagues would head to Cambodia “when there is a material, physical possibilit­y to do so.” He said the whole word wanted democracy in Cambodia except for China, and called for a “peaceful uprising” among the masses.

“Ihave called on the Cambodian army not to shoot at the people, not to shoot at the civilians, not to shoot at innocent people. And Mr. Hun Sen is very afraid because he is not sure of the loyalty of the army. The army will stand with the people. The army will not stand with dictators.”—Sam Rainsy

“I have called on the Cambodian army not to shoot at the people, not to shoot at the civilians, not to shoot at innocent people,” Sam Rainsy said. “And Mr. Hun Sen is very afraid because he is not sure of the loyalty of the army. The army will stand with the people. The army will not stand with dictators.”

Phay Siphan, a Cambodian government spokesman, dismissed talk of an uprising, a mutiny in the army or any internal dissent within the ruling party.

“Everything is under control,” he said by phone, while also ruling out talks with the opposition. “The government will in no shape or form negotiate with Sam Rainsy.”

On Wednesday evening, the government issued a statement appealing to opposition supporters to “stop listening to Sam Rainsy” adding it had fully restored public order after defeating the exiled leader’s attempted coup, the AP reported. Sam Rainsy on Tuesday said he could still return to the country “at any time.”

Still, Hun Sen has taken at least one step to ease tensions. On Sunday, the government released Kem Sokha, the founder and co-leader of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), after for more than two years. Another 85 political prisoners are still in custody, according to the UN.

One reason for Kem Sokha’s release may be the EU’s looming decision on whether to pull Cambodia’s access to a preferenti­al trading scheme due to its deteriorat­ing human rights record. Such a move could decimate its $5-billion garment industry and threaten the jobs of about 750,000 Cambodians, some of whom stood with Sam Rainsy during mass rallies in 2013 calling for the prime minister’s resignatio­n.

We “expect the Cambodian authoritie­s to reinstate the political rights of all opposition members banned from political life and to fully release all opposition members, supporters and activists recently put under detention,” the EU wrote in a news statement on Monday.

China factor

HUN SEN’S move to curtail political and media freedoms over the years has coincided with closer ties with China. As President Xi Jinping’s biggest ally in Southeast Asia, the Cambodian government has garnered $7.9 billion in Chinese investment from 2016 to August 2019, representi­ng more than a third of all foreign investment, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

The slew of Chinese property projects and tourists has led to a growing backlash both in the capital Phnom Penh and the once sleepy coastal resort town of Sihanoukvi­lle, where more than a dozen new casinos have driven up crime and prostituti­on. China’s stake in an investment zone encompassi­ng 20 percent of Cambodia’s coastline also raised fears in the US that it would become a Chinese naval base, something the government denied.

“Cambodians do not feel good about the Chinese influx and it created insecurity inside the country,” said Noan Sereiboth, an influentia­l political blogger and frequent contributo­r to the youth-centered media group Politikoff­ee.

Another headache for Hun Sen is growing discontent over mounting public and personal debt. With a median of $3,370 per loan, Cambodia now has the highest average for small loans in the world, according to a report published in August by local rights groups.

Mostly owed to just nine lenders, the total outstandin­g amount is equal to roughly a third of the country’s entire GDP for 2018, while seven largest microfinan­ce institutio­ns (MFI) made more than $130 million in profit in 2017. During last year’s election, Hun

Sen disavowed connection­s to microfinan­ce lenders.

Question of succession

CONFOUNDIN­G the problem is the question of succession as various factions jostle for power.

Hun Sen’s three sons are seen as competing for the top spot, with his eldest Hun Manet the odds-on favorite. Educated at West Point and commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, Hun Manet was elevated last year to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s Standing Committee, a key decision-making body.

Without specifical­ly addressing the opposition’s calls for an uprising, Hun Manet took to Facebook on Tuesday to implore citizens to enjoy annual water festival this week.

“What the people do not want is chaos, insecurity, instabilit­y and the loss of peace,” he wrote. “We must work together to fully protect the peace we have today.”

For all the noise, Sam Rainsy’s move is “desperate” and has little chance of success, according to Lee Morgenbess­er, author of the book Beyond the Façade: Elections Under Authoritar­ianism in Southeast Asia.

“A failure to try to re-enter Cambodia would raise significan­t questions about whether those exiled are the right leaders for Cambodia’s pro-democracy movement,” Morgenbess­er said.

Still, those outside the country see this as one of their final chances to act. Vanna Hay, a 33-year-old CNRP supporter living in Tokyo, plans to join other activists in returning to Cambodia.

“No matter whether Sam Rainsy was on Cambodian soil on November 9 or later, the people will rise and people power will bring Hun Sen down,” Vanna Hay said. “They will collapse soon by their own sin they made.”

 ?? AKIO KON/BLOOMBERG ?? HUN SEN, Cambodia’s prime minister, speaks at the Future of Asia conference in Tokyo, Japan, on May 30, 2019.
AKIO KON/BLOOMBERG HUN SEN, Cambodia’s prime minister, speaks at the Future of Asia conference in Tokyo, Japan, on May 30, 2019.

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