It’s customary for Prime Minister Hun Sen to wait until King Norodom Sihamoni is out of the country to engage in a premeditated attack on a political opponent. It’s well known that the King isn’t best pleased with having to serve as the monarch, certainly on the occasions that he’s publicly accused of not intervening to prevent the government’s authoritarian tactics, and Hun Sen would prefer to keep the royal family onside. Often, it’s more convenient for him to jet off to Beijing for a “health checkup” to escape the noise and so that he isn’t (as head of state) required to sign anything controversial.
Alas, on February 12 the King and his mother flew to Beijing for a routine medical checkup. The very same day, as Hun Sen returned from his own trip to Beijing, the prime minister ordered the closure of one of the country’s last independent news outlets, Voice of Democracy (VOD). The closure took effect the following day, in the King’s absence, and to international outcry.
Rumors on the Phnom Penh grapevine suggest that the opportunistic prime minister has been waiting quite some time to close down VOD, one of the most outspoken media organizations in the country. In recent months it has published a series of rather damning articles on official corruption and allegations of human trafficking. These must have upset well-connected people. Perhaps Hun Sen, who’s desperate that nothing impacts his succession plans, felt a show of strength was needed to defend his son and anointed heir. And maybe he felt emboldened after his visit to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, a trip that coincided with the VOD affair. Equally likely, he felt fortified by the wave of new affection from the West after Hun Sen used his tenure as ASEAN chair last year to rebuild some trust among previously hostile governments. After all, he was welcomed by French President Emmanuel Macron to the Élysée Palace just two months ago, and he welcomed Joe Biden, the US president, to Phnom Penh in November.
Ministers and government spokespeople have made it known in recent months that they’re willing to crack down on anything they consider false reporting and call it out publicly. Government-aligned newspapers have launched bizarre personal attacks on journalists (including on your columnist). Earlier in February, the foreign ministry publicly lashed out at Voice of America for an article that, the ministry said, was “written with its facts wrong intentionally.” Countless ministers and Hun Sen himself now repeatedly claim that certain newspapers are intentionally lying or slandering them. In December, he lectured a local journalist association that reporters “should strengthen their ethics and professionalism and go against opportunists who hide behind the guise of being journalists if they want to maintain the value and dignity of media institutions.” The following month, he instructed the information ministry to “call all online journalists to get [an] education.”
Hun Sen’s excuse for closing down VOD was paper-thin. In an article published on February 9, VOD quoted a government spokesperson as saying that it was not wrong for Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s eldest son and nominated successor, “to play his father’s role in providing aid to Turkey.” (I’m told this is a line the spokesperson has taken for some time.) VOD then appeared to allege that Manet had signed off a decision to send aid to Turkey, which would be a major constitutional issue as Manet holds no government office, has never been elected, and is deputy commander-in-chief of the military, which is supposed to be separate from government or party politics (though of course, it isn’t.)
The spokesperson claimed to have been misrepresented, although the allegations aren’t miles away from the truth as Manet regularly gives his views on government policy and fills in for his father at events that are ordinarily government issues, not those of the military. Manet and Hun Sen denied VOD’s accusations, and Hun père demanded an apology. VOD’s parent organization offered a correction but Hun Sen on Sunday deemed that insufficient and gave an order for its license to be revoked.
This is typical stuff in Cambodia just before a general election (the next one takes place in July). It also coincides with numerous “lawfare” attacks on the Candlelight Party, the main opposition party, which has been repeatedly told by Hun Sen that it could be dissolved just as the former opposition giant, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was in 2017.
Although he’s always been thin-skinned, it does seem, however, that Hun Sen is now pricklier than ever. My sources say that Hun Sen is consumed with fear, almost paranoia, that his long-planned succession to his eldest son could go awry, even though there appears no major obstacle in the road. “Everyone now must be on their best behavior,” one source told me. I’ve heard from businesspeople that they’re concerned about having to fall into line, to be made to publicly show their fealty to the Hun family. All sections of society are now being scrutinized for their loyalty to the dynastic handover, and anyone who could potentially affect it (including muckraking journalists) is in line for the chop. Cambodia is now moving from what analysts called “competitive authoritarianism,” where a sliver of dissent and opposition is allowed, to a full-fledged authoritarian state.
The optics are important. On the one hand, Hun Sen must have known that closing down VOD would earn his government a great deal of flak, especially coming after its numerous legal attacks on its main political opponent and just months ahead of July’s general election, which will be controversial at best. Almost all international newspapers have reported on VOD’s closure. Most foreign embassies have said they are “deeply troubled” about it. And several of Cambodia’s ministries haven’t helped the situation by claiming the foreign embassies’ statements amount to interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs. But one line of thinking is that the timing was sweet for Hun Sen’s government; it came just enough time after Cambodia’s tenure of ASEAN ended and just enough time before July’s general election, meaning most foreign governments will likely have forgotten about it in a few months.
There has been criticism of the response of Western democracies. The consistent line they took was to say they are “deeply troubled” by VOD’s forced closure. Perhaps they needed to offer something stronger. But what would that look like? Speaking recently to some diplomats, some now appear fatalistic about their inability to affect change in Cambodia. They now think it’s impossible to pull Cambodia back from Beijing’s orbit or to stymie Hun Sen’s instinctual lurch toward tyranny given his obsession with his succession plans.
For some, the response has been to double down on trade with Cambodia, part of their remit as diplomats, and wait until the handover of power happens, hoping that Manet will be a more open-minded (and perhaps more pliable) leader. Others contend they’re waiting until the general election in July to reassess what they can do. Whichever way one looks at it, there has been a systemic failure by the international community to stop the rot of authoritarianism in Phnom Penh, and history suggests foreign governments have few answers moving forward.