As fearless Khmer citizens are emboldened to call for regime change in Cambodia, they confront an intransigent Hun Sen, who employs tactics to divide opposition groups and threatens arrests. Civil disobedience may end in bloodshed.
Khmers say a candle shines brightly before it dies out. Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party is not monolithic. His power and influence in the leadership is waning. Many of his orders have been ignored. A high level Cambodian People’s Party figure reportedly told a meeting that absent a change in the status quo, a “revolution” (read internal dissatisfaction and outside popular disgust) seems inevitable.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy is in enforced exile abroad. On June 29, an angry Hun Sen threatened to imprison “forever” Rainsy’s deputy, Kem Sokha, for telling Reuters that Hun Sen is afraid he may lose in upcoming elections. Sen warned the diplomatic corps that friendly relations may be broken with countries that meddle in Cambodia’s internal affairs.
After 31 years as Cambodia’s ruler, Hun Sen must know that rampant corruption, abuse of power and popular dissatisfaction are threatening to sink his ship. Cambodia’s population is young and increasingly restive, demanding change through free and fair elections. Peaceful regime change could be negotiated to ensure the safety of Hun Sen and his family through the good offices of the king, leaders of the opposition and influential members of the international community. This would be in the best interest of Cambodia and her people.
A Feb. 11 letter to Hun Sen from seven U.S. senators “as friends of Cambodia,” was received and returned to the senders by Cambodian Embassy First Secretary in Washington, D.C. When he attended President Obama’s US-ASEAN summit in Rancho Mirage a few days later, Hun Sen gloated to several hundreds of his Khmer supporters in California: “I ordered that the letter be put back in the envelope and sent back to the original senders.” They cheered when he took a swipe at the U.S.: Clean your house before interfering in others’ problems. He told them he “doubted Cambodian politicians cheated their citizens as much as U.S. politicians cheat their citizens.”
Undeterred, in May, several members of the U.S. House of Representatives co-sponsored Resolution 728, calling for respect of human rights, press freedom and free elections in Cambodia.
Also in May, renowned historian David P. Chandler told the Voice of America-Khmer: “I’m never going to say on your program or anywhere else that Hun Sen should be overthrown by force, but he is not going to be overthrown any other way. … He’s worried about being overthrown in an election. … But he’s not going to allow that to happen.”
“I am not optimistic. If being optimistic means political change that would produce a more liberal government where the National Assembly has the power as it is supposed to have under the Constitution — I don’t see that happening as long as (Hun Sen’s) alive,” Chandler told VOA-Khmer.
But there is a peaceful way forward, even though at this time the path seems an unlikely one.
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 contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.