Monday, June 11, 2012

Hun Sen-The Strongman of Cambodia

THE prime minister has no shortage of critics hoping for his demise. Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based NGO, recently compared Hun Sen with the series of notorious autocrats recently ousted from power in the Arab world. Ben Ali, Mubarak, Qaddafi: men who ruled by threat and force.

His sentiments were backed loudly by one of Cambodia’s long-serving opposition leaders, Sam Rainsy. He insists from self-imposed exile that his country is primed for an Arab spring and reckons he’s the man to lead it. (The Cambodian government regards him as a fugitive, having convicted him on charges of spreading false information.)

Their problem is that Hun Sen, who according to Mr Adams’s calculations is one of the world’s top-ten longest-serving political leaders, keeps on winning elections—as he did again, just this week. 

In regional terms Cambodia’s commune elections are a minor affair. The country has 1,633 communes, or clusters of villagers, which choose their local leaders once every five years. Their main value for outsiders is in offering rare insight into the prime minister’s popularity and that of his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The CPP already held an overwhelming majority of communes, which reflects the enormous support it enjoys among Cambodia’s predominantly rural voters. The ruling party went into the polls with control of 1,592 of the communes. It appears set to match that and also to increase its majorities within the communes. At last count it had won 11,459 seats, which is about 200 more than they took at the previous poll, five years ago.

Nine other parties contested the CPP in Sunday’s poll. More than 15,000 national and international observers were tasked with keeping watch for voter fraud, intimidation and other “irregularities”. 

The complaints the observers heard were not insignificant. They included charges that the government used the police and army to help it campaign; that the opposition’s access to the media was limited; and that radio stations were instructed by the information ministry not to carry certain stories. Influential CPP officials were seen at polling booths, where they are alleged to have tried intimidating voters into supporting their candidates. 

But even this hardly compared with the spate of election-related murders and bullying that plagued voting in the 1990s and early 2000s At least 20 deaths were blamed on the violence that marked the first commune polls, in 2002.

An independent watchdog organisation, Comfrel, said this election marked an improvement on previous polls. There were, at least, fewer instances of violence, intimidation and the rest.

The biggest change in this poll was a sharp drop in the rate of participation. It may have been low as 54%, compared with the 87% rate recorded 10 years ago, or the 84% seen at the general elections of 1993—when 380 people were killed in the attendant violence.

Critics contend that fewer people voted because there is widespread disenchantment with the incumbent as well as a sense of inevitability about the outcome. That may be, but it’s worth noting that only the opposition parties suffered a fall in votes.

The most obvious outcome was that the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) lost ground in their traditional strongholds, like Phnom Penh, the capital, after failing to capitalise on the perennial issues that plague Cambodia.

Corruption, a culture of impunity among the politically connected and violent land-grabs have sullied the government’s reputation. This was underscored by the recent killing of a prominent environmentalist, Chhut Vuthy, and the jailing of 13 women who had become visible for their protests against land-grabs in the capital.

What many of Hun Sen’s critics fail to understand, particularly those who would hope to inspire an Arab-spring-like uprising, is that Cambodians remember very well what a dreadful business civil war can be. In 1998 Hun Sen achieved where UN promises had failed and ended 30 years of a conflict that had left millions dead.

For that reason many Cambodians are still prepared to overlook the bloody indiscretions and brutal tactics of the ruling party—and willing to carry Hun Sen to repeated victories. The chances of fermenting a Khmer spring are remote, and might seem plausible only to a self-imposed exile abroad. The Economist

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