When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte opens his mouth, the press – local and international – hang off every word. His atrocious attitude to women, the long list of people he dislikes, and his encouragement of violence by the police have made him a darling of headline writers everywhere.
Not as much for Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia. His warnings of war, revolutions, closure of media outlets, jailing of journalists accused of spying, the dissolution of the opposition party ahead of elections, and incarceration of its members have recently been less scrutinized, in part perhaps because the growing list of words and actions have resulted in a “numbing effect” of sorts.
Hun Sen, in power for 32 years, has made a career out of threats to intimidate and cower anyone opposed to his agenda. There is nothing fresh about his latest crackdown, despite its unprecedented harshness, and media fatigue has set in.
That could change. Interest in Cambodian affairs tends to hinge on five-year election cycles, and the next national poll is just five months away, with Hun Sen anticipating a resounding victory after the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved by the courts and its popular leader jailed.
Media attention is expected to pick-up with the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Sydney on March 17-18. Hun Sen is already making headlines on that front by threatening to boycott the meeting.
Though Hun Sen’s words and actions tend to be interpreted as part of an anti-Western bent, there is a domestic political component to this as well. The Khmer diaspora have protested his Cambodian crackdown by the thousands in suburbs like Springvale in southeast Melbourne, demonstrations that went largely ignored by the mainstream media in Australia.
Hun Sen’s latest threat, however, won’t go unheeded.
Hun Sen has also threatened to “beat” demonstrators on Australian soil if they burn his image. Now that’s not the type of threat that people down under will take kindly to, particular when that message is coming from the world’s longest serving leader.
But the great potential embarrassment comes from the jailing of James Ricketson, an award-winning Australian filmmaker who has been incarcerated in Cambodia’s notorious Prey Sar prison for eight months after being accused of spying.
No evidence has been produced to substantiate the allegation, and the Australian media industry is hopping mad, lobbying Foreign Minister Julia Bishop to intervene and taking up a petition with more than 68,000 names, demanding that her government do more to ensure his release.
Should Hun Sen still make it to Australia, he will no doubt grab headlines. Phnom Penh’s highly controversial refugee deal with Canberra — resulting in asylum seekers detained in Nauru and Papua New Guinea being resettled in Cambodia – along with other developments such as the jailing of Ricketson and an angry diaspora, will make Hun Sen the focus of media attention.
It’s the type of recipe that could make taxpayers think twice about Australia’s generous annual aid packages for Cambodia. But that won’t matter. Cambodia has boasted there’s plenty of that coming from China, enough to satiate the appetite of local big business associates. But therein lies another problem: little of that money has trickled down to ordinary Khmers, who depend more on Western business than they do on Beijing-built skyscrapers.
Resentment against China is growing, prompting the embassy in Phnom Penh to issue an unprecedented statement pointing out that it was aware of issues concerning Chinese workers who dominate construction sites.
The tax department has also turned a corner. A once benign bureaucracy with no teeth has been overhauled and is pursuing Khmer and Western businesses, small and large, with great gusto.
That said, Hun Sen is still on target to win the next election. The overall vote at last year’s commune elections showed his Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) still had a handy lead, with the opposition failing to build on the substantial gains it made at the national poll in 2013.
From an electoral strategist and a policymaker’s perspective, however, Hun Sen’s political maneuvering within just months of an election amounts to nothing more than a series of unnecessary self-inflicted wounds.
Opinion polls are not allowed in Cambodia, and the elections will be a staged affair held in a climate of fear and growing repression. Thus, measuring Hun Sen and his CPP’s popularity remains difficult, and to the extent that such measurements are possible, it is not clear that they actually capture the true sentiments of the Cambodian people.
Importantly, Cambodians do have a well-earned reputation for turning out in droves when casting their ballots. Whether they are prepared to live up to that reputation for a foregone conclusion is another matter altogether and highly doubtful.
In the meantime, Cambodia’s next election holds more promise for headline writers than it does for a once fledgling democracy, which by any measure is now on the skids.
Alphonsus Pettit is an historian who writes occasionally about Southeast Asia.