A Khmer doctoral student in Budapest e-mailed me earlier this month: “[Cambodia’s] situation is not good. Hun Sen is determined to imprison [opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party deputy leader] Kem Sokha” and the “CNRP will mobilize people to protest.” “I hope they can work something out or the country will never be in peace.”


Masked Troops Patrol Area Around Cambodia National Rescue Party Headquarters 2016-08-31

Increasing numbers of fearless and vocal Khmers are demanding change. Hun Sen – who was installed as prime minister in 1985 by Vietnam’s invading forces and has ruled Cambodia since – remains intransigent and determined to stay in power.  Bloodshed seems inevitable.

A friend who is a former U.S. foreign service officer sees in popular “dissatisfaction” with the country’s conditions and “a yearning for change [continuing] to build within the society.” He views the situation as “potentially explosive,” and concludes: “Eventually something will have to give.”

Several of my recent published articles dealt with concerns about violence connected with the looming elections as those demanding change and those refusing remain at loggerheads. I chose to believe that Hun Sen knows in his heart that he cannot remain indefinitely in power and would be amenable to exiting in a face-saving, honorable manner. I thought that with intervention from the King, pressure from an active world community, and far-sighted leadership from the opposition CNRP and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, a peaceful transfer of power could occur.

But the Khmer land of gentle smiles, little Buddhas, love and compassion is no more. Many Khmers want Hun Sen behind bars. Others who abhor the CPP also distrust the CNRP; some busy themselves with creating new small political parties. Hun Sen, who says he will not go anywhere – a fatal mistake – has intensified his strategy of intimidation, draconian judicial ruling, and divide and conquer. The political Ramvong or circle dance leaves all the players in the same relative positions.

Now we are entering an era of “Chul Trei Krem,” or fish fighting game. Siamese (Beta) fishes in a bowl become agitated and exhibit bright colors – red, blue, orange, yellow… They flare their gills, let their long fins flow, twist their bodies, tighten their abdomen, assume attack and defense positions. The fight begins. Spectators watch, and cheer as their selected fish attacks and rips out the weaker fish’s gills, causing pain. The fight continues until the weaker fish submits, swims away, or dies.

Phnom Penh Post  Monday, 5 Sept 2016

CNRP leader Sam Rainsy is known for his brave, ready-to-die rhetoric. Spectators love it. His repeated flights from the field for safety abroad, though, have created problems of trust among supporters and activists. One tactical withdrawal is not a bad thing as it allows the combatant opportunity to fight again another day. A dead hero ends his/her service for the nation. Now, Rainsy promises to be in Cambodia for the elections. Hun Sen welcomes Rainsy to return to be imprisoned and swears he would cut off his own hand if he were to sign a new pardon for Rainsy. The Khmer political Ramvong continues.

The CPP’s removal of CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha’s parliamentary immunity has forced Sokha to hide out in the party headquarters in Phnom Penh for almost four months to avoid arrest.

One day before Cambodia’s voter registration began, masked armed soldiers on foot, navy boats with machine guns, military helicopters, and armed soldiers on trucks patrolled the streets around the CNRP building for 10 hours on Aug. 31. Masked men return night after night. The show of force is meant to warn against getting out of line.

To protect himself, Hun Sen has created a personal private army of bodyguards 3,000-strong, equipped with armored personnel carriers, tanks, rocket and missile propellers and Chinese-made machine guns. On Sep. 4, at the celebration of the 8th anniversary of Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard command, armed soldiers marched in the streets with their faces masked, supported by military helicopters flying above, in Takhmau, where Hun Sen lives.

At the ceremony, Armed Forces Chief Gen. Pol Saroeun declared it the forces’ duty “to protect Samdech Decho Hun Sen and the first lady . . . and to absolutely prevent a color revolution in Cambodia.” Other high-ranking officers declared their readiness to crush any rally.

Alarmed, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concerns over the government’s strong show of force, and the escalating rhetoric by “high-level army officials, who have vowed to defend the ruling party against political opposition.”

Of the several e-mails that landed in my box, one in particular caught my attention, from a European expat in Cambodia who has kept up with my published articles for more than a decade. He described Hun Sen’s “bodyguards disguising themselves at their celebration party here in Takhmau, wearing masks, no visible source of identity. As they are only deployed internally to assist in ‘law and order,’ that too is a breach of international norms. If that is not evidence of a deliberate policy of impunity, what is?” He didn’t know of “the pow wow” in Takhmau until he “saw a lot of customers in the usual quiet restaurants.” “There is absolutely no pretense at all of [armed forces’] neutrality, and once again the international community is staying quiet.”

I was not surprised at this expat’s view that Cambodia’s planned elections “should be called off.” He wrote: “I say this as someone who has seen every election, all flawed and marred, but this time we have a worse pre-election period than at any time since 1997-98.” The opposition CNRP, civil society and donors must “be brave to take a stand – no more brave than boycotting election results!”

“If the CNRP is not brave enough to take a stand now, then it needs to accept that if it goes in to these elections knowing they are not fair, free and credible, then they must accept the outcome.”

“I wonder how many more people will die between now and when the new National Assembly sits in 2018, 2019 . . . whenever?” he asked.

On Sep. 9, the Premier’s court sentenced CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha to five months in prison and fined him 800,000 riels for refusing to appear for questioning.  Rights groups have rightly called the action “politically motivated” and intended to weaken the CNRP before the 2017 communal and 2018 general elections. CNRP activists warn of massive protests should Sokha be arrested.

On Sep. 11 Sokha called on supporters and activists to join forces against Cambodia’s courts. From Paris and via videolink, Sam Rainsy addressed youth activists gathering at the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh: “If you consider that it is right, we must arrange mass demonstrations like 2013 and early 2014.” He asked them if they are prepared to join a mass demonstration to demand justice for the Khmer people: “Do you agree?” The youth activists responded, “Yes!”

A day later, the CNRP permanent committee announced a “mass and non-violent demonstration in the near future . . . to demand the return of a normal political environment in order to ensure free and fair elections.” “We cannot lie down, let them tie our hands and legs, close our nose and mouth until we die. Even animals would fight,” Sokha said.

Premier Hun Sen snapped back: “The Royal Government wishes to warn anyone who made a mistake, please do not continue the mistake. If not, it will bring a bad result for you.” CPP spokesman Sok Eysan made it clear: No demonstrations, “small, big or medium.” Period.

Premier Hun Sen’s iron-fisted rule has not gone unnoticed.  On Sep. 13, the United States House of Representatives passed a bipartisan resolution, “Supporting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Cambodia.”  A day later, in Geneva, 39 governments adopted a statement urging Premier Hun Sen to respect human rights, “including the freedoms of expression, association and assembly.”

But Premier Hun Sen and his government shrugged off the “resolution” and the “statement,” as they have done before. And “business as usual” with the international community followed. Cambodia’s Ambassador to the UN, Ney Sam Ol, was blunt: “[W]e do not welcome interference in our political situation.” The UN OHCHR’s representative to Cambodia replied, “Our relationship with the government must be based on mutual respect both for national sovereignty and for our human rights mandate.” And national sovereignty trumps human rights at every turn.

Cambodian-American Professor Sophal Ear sees the US House of Representatives resolution as lacking teeth: “There’s no bite.” Another bill being considered by the US House of Representatives (allowing the freezing of foreigners’ assets and elimination of visas for those associated with gross violations of human rights) may be more effective and “a real game-changer,” he said. I cannot agree more.


Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam where he taught political science for 13 years. He now lives in the U.S. mainland and can be reached at peangmeth@gmail.com.

September 18, 2016