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Challenging Cambodia's strongman Hun Sen

PM faces first real test of political strength in 16 years as opposition grows increasingly bold.

Last updated: 01 Jan 2014 13:47
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Security forces have acted with unusual restraint since daily protests began [Philip Heijmans/Al Jazeera]

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Belying his hard-earned reputation as his country's strongman, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said years ago that his prowess in overcoming adversaries did not lie in his strength, but in their weakness.

Hun Sen, 61, has ruled Cambodia for close to 30 years, but now he faces the first real test of his strength in a decade and a half. Hun Sen is face-to-face with a challenger of a very different kind - people power - and one that he crushed violently during his last encounter with mass street demonstrations in 1998.

Weeks of street rallies continue against his leadership, with a recent protest estimated to have drawn as many as 50,000 people representing all segments of Cambodian society, including garment factory workers and impoverished rural farmers. They marched on the streets of the capital Phnom Penh banging drums, blowing whistles and chanting the slogan "Hun Sen, get out".

Inside Story - Flagging change in Cambodia (Sept 2013)

The prime minister's feared security forces have kept a vigilant but low profile since the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) called for daily street rallies on December 15.

They were ready to mobilise: several hundred riot and military police, decked out in science-fiction-like body armour suits, helmets and riot shields, bided their time awaiting orders at the train station in Phnom Penh. Water cannon trucks were lined up alongside dozens of steel frames wrapped with razor wire to seal off streets.

A small fleet of police trucks have been modified with steel-mesh frames around the driver's cabin that offers protection from projectiles.

The forces allied on both sides are formidable: The CNRP's supporters have mounted daily rallies of up to 20,000 people calling for fresh elections following disputed polls in July, which were riddled with irregularities and returned a majority of votes for Hun Sen's long-ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).

Although accusing the CPP of stealing the election, the CNRP still won a substantial 55 parliamentary seats compared to the CPP's 68, which was a loss of 22 members of parliament for the ruling party.

'Resign'

More recently, the opposition party has also demanded that Hun Sen resign. "I would like Hun Sen to come out and face the people," shouted Kem Sokha, the CNRP's deputy president, over a loudspeaker as he led tens of thousands of people on a slow, noisy march recently through Phnom Penh. "We demand a re-election. We absolutely do not need Hun Sen to lead an illegitimate government in 2014."

Later, at the opposition's base camp at the public square known as Freedom Park, Kem Sokha had this message for the prime minister: "Don't think that we are afraid. We're not scared of dying, but of losing our nation."

Following Kem Sokha on the stage, CNRP President Sam Rainsy called on civil servants to break ranks with the ruling party and join the opposition. "Any official arrested for supporting the CNRP will be a hero," he said to wild cheers from the crowd.

Cambodia's opposition to widen protests (Oct 2013)

The opposition's street protests were given a huge boost last week when the country's garment factory workers rejected a government plan to increase their basic monthly salary by $15 to $95.

Demanding an immediate hike in their wages to $160 per month, tens of thousands of garment workers walked out of factories and many have found common cause with the CNRP's anti-Hun Sen message.

With some 400 factories employing about 600,000 workers, the garment sector is Cambodia's largest industry, earning $5bn annually and accounting for 80 percent of the country's exports.

Most of those factories are now closed, and hordes of strikers have besieged the Ministry of Labour and attempted on Monday to take their protest to the doorstep of government offices, the Council of Ministers, which was only averted due to the unfurling of razor wire and the deployment of hundreds of riot police.

'Suicidal politics'

While security forces have acted with uncharacteristic restraint since the daily protests began last month, there are signs that such patience is wearing thin. 

Ros Chantrabot, a personal adviser to Hun Sen and noted member of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said the opposition is "committing suicidal politics" in demanding the prime minister resign. 

"They are going too far," Chantrabot said. "They are creating one problem after another problem and they are becoming so entwined that they cannot be untied. They should come to the negotiating table to seek a solution to prevent any eventuality of violence. If they continue to stage demonstrations, it could result in dividing our nation."

In 1997, troops loyal to then-Second Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP fought fierce tank battles in Phnom Penh to defeat forces loyal to then-First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh, whose nominally royalist party had won the country's UN-organised election in 1993. That vote mostly ended more than two decades of civil war that had torn the country apart, including the bloody Pol Pot period of 1975-1979 when up to two million people died.

Calling for me to step down - what have I done wrong?

- Hun Sen, prime minister of Cambodia

The elimination of the royalist party as a political force set Hun Sen on a stunning power trajectory that was only checked when thousands of young people took to the streets ahead of last July's election, united under in their chant: "Change or no change? Change!"

Those young protesters, analysts said, were more willing than their elders to demand changes because they had few memories of the brutality meted out in the recent past to those who had challenged the ruling elite.

But slogans can only do so much. Hun Sen has the full power of the state at his disposal, owing to his ruling party's decades of control over everything from the military and police to the courts and civil service administration.

Hun Sen also has a highly trained and formidably equipped military force, known as the Prime Minister's Bodyguard Unit (PMBU), which is believed to number up to 10,000 men and whose first loyalty is to protect Hun Sen.

Armoured personnel carriers manned by the PMBU made a brief appearance on the outskirts of Phnom Penh following the July polls, but they were quickly removed as criticism mounted that the mobilisation was crass intimidation.

When asked earlier in December if he would heed the calls to resign, a humble-sounding Hun Sen said he was baffled as to why he should do so. "Calling for me to step down - what have I done wrong?" he said, according to a newspaper report.

Challenging Hun Sen's invincibility

Though the CPP has publicly vowed support for Hun Sen, there are rumours that blame for July's election losses have been laid on his shoulders by some in the ruling party.

Old friends, too, appear to be rethinking the new situation in Phnom Penh. The normally staid reporting of China's state news agency Xinhua has found new vigour in providing full details of Hun Sen's current travails. China is the biggest donor to Hun Sen's government, and Phnom Penh is a staunch ally of Beijing. On Sunday, a Xinhua news analysis  quoted sources proposing that the government hold a referendum to let the public decide on whether their should be a new election.

Local human rights group Adhoc also proposed a mid-term election in about two years, half-way through Hun Sen's current five-year mandate, to defuse the situation. 

"Few countries have endured the level of political violence as Cambodia, and both parties have a duty to ensure they act responsibly so that the country is not again scarred by conflict," the organisation said.

Hun Sen and his government, however, have rejected all calls for a new election, or even an investigation of the well-documented instances of improper voting in July.

For its part, the CNRP appeared focused on forcing the CPP into a compromise. 

In this tense face-off, it is imperative that cooler heads prevail to avert violence, said Sok Touch, a political analyst and dean of Khemarak University in Phnom Penh. "The people are empty-handed. All they have is rancour in their hearts," he said.

Additional reporting by Van Roeun.

Follow Kevin Doyle on Twitter: @doyle_kevin

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Al Jazeera
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