Hun Sen Has a Choice: Reform or Face Radicalization

By Gaffar Peang-Meth

Gautama Buddha (563 to 483 B.C): “What we think, we become.”

Confucius (551 to 479 B.C.): “If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of 10 years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.”

Aristotle (384 to 322 B.C.): “The passion for equality is at the root of revolution.”

John F. Kennedy (1917 to 1963): “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”

The quotations I’ve introduced today support the need to advocate for reform of Cambodia’s current education system. Teaching in Cambodian schools has not advanced from the rote methods that were in vogue generations ago. The curriculum does not promote innovative thinking, questioning “what is” in order to arrive at a panorama of alternatives from which to choose. Some assert that once a country’s education system is reformed, “everything else will follow,” i.e., thinking individuals cannot be easily exploited, and “certainly not by an infantile kleptomaniac regime” that operates under the guise of democracy.

Sitting Prime Minister Hun Sen sees his iron-fisted rule of 29 years threatened. The July 28, 2013 national election reduced by 22 the number of National Assembly seats held by his Cambodian People’s Party and almost doubled the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party seats, in spite of alleged election irregularities and fraud by the government. Ever since, Cambodians in the country and Cambodian expatriates the world over have expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo and have demanded change.

Adding to Hun Sen and CPP strategists’ tactics of threats, arrests, and brute force against opponents and protesters, last Monday authorities were instructed to look into the “illegal” use of government license plates by elected CNRP representatives to the National Assembly; announced the government’s consideration of a nationality law to ban Cambodians with dual citizenship (read Sam Rainsy) from serving as prime minister; and although Hun Sen lifted the ban on peaceful assembly last month, last week authorities declared Freedom Park off-limits to protesters.

I admit to being elated with Radio Free Asia’s February 13 headline, “Cambodia Parties Voice Optimism on Breaking Deadlock.” It quoted CNRP leader Sam Rainsy: “The political deadlock will be resolved soon in order to allow Cambodia to have national unity.” Great!

But three rounds of “talks” later, came China’s Xinhua’s March 11 news headline “Cambodia’s ruling, opposition parties pin blame on each other for failing to reach agreement.”

The CNRP demanded members of the National Election Committee be approved by a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly; the CPP rejected the demand. So, the Ramvong circle dance continues: As the drum beats, the politicians do their chakk’bach movements, circling and circling, seeking to outperform one another.

In a March 11 “Note to the Diplomatic Community on the Current Political Situation in Cambodia,” Sam Rainsy charges: “The CPP’s tactics seem to only buy time and to cling on to power.” On March 13, he told supporters the CNRP will not join the talks planned for March 17 unless the CPP agrees to the CNRP’s demand. And he warned of a “next demonstration of” at least 2 million people. So, people, please be ready to hold a historic demonstration with 2 million people. Is there any doubt that the CPP has used political talks to keep Hun Sen and the CPP in power, and the CNRP hopes the outcome will ease Hun Sen from power? So what are they “negotiating?”

Then the Voice of America announced on March 14, now the CPP and CNRP agree to rejoin the March 17 talks. For real?

Potential Bloodshed

Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak’s recent article, “Will Cambodia see a ‘spring’,?” posited “all the necessary ingredients are present” but “A Cambodian ‘spring’ now is not only unlikely but also undesirable.”

I am reminded of King Father Sihanouk’s grandfather, King Norodom, whose adage was reported by a scholar as follows: “A Cambodian is like a water buffalo, placid but capable of becoming terrible in his rage.” I have heard Chief of State Sihanouk speak of this too. Therein lies the problem.

Cambodians are angry. It should not take much to whip an angry population into an ungovernable emotional rage against a leader blamed for their misery. Hun Sen, a figure many “love to hate,” is a perfect target for Cambodians’ rage, which, if unleashed is likely to know no boundary in its destructive capacities. However, Hun Sen does not have to subject himself to such rage.

CNRP leader Sam Rainsy’s exclusive interview with Suthichai Yoon, published in two parts on March 10 and March 11 in Thailand’s The Nation is very telling.

In part one of the interview, Yoon writes, Sam Rainsy “says he is determined to overthrow the entrenched ‘Hun Sen regime.’” Yoon reports Sam Rainsy’s claim to have “received signals, received some indication” that Hun Sen’s “prepared for some concessions,” that the CNRP-long demanded “election could be held …before the normal end of the term, which is July 2018, so it could be held before.” Sam Rainsy affirms: “Yes, we have to make some concessions also. Actually, we would like to have elections within six months, within this year, this would be excellent for us, but we couldn’t have everything we want. So we will be flexible, and hope that the CPP will also show some flexibility.”

“I think…we would be happy with an early election because we know that after the next election, if organized…properly, PM Hun Sen will go away,” Sam Rainsy tells Yoon. Rainsy’s comments seem to align with a Khmer saying, Tarmtoankomchoankaeng, or if you catch him don’t step on his heel. In a culture in which saving face is important, one should leave an opponent space to retreat honorably, if possible.

In part two of the interview, Sam Rainsy affirms he is aware of his “three possible fates: being killed, being jailed or being forced into exile.”

“If I thought about the possibility of getting killed, I wouldn’t be able to do anything,” the CNRP leader says.

Sam Rainsy tells Yoon that Hun Sen “realizes…he cannot remain in power forever. He needs to think about a smooth evolution, so he asked for an amnesty law that would protect three persons”—Chea Sim, president of the Senate and president of the CPP; Heng Samrin, president of the National Assembly and honorary president of the CPP; and himself, the prime minister.

It wasn’t surprising when two days later, on March 13, CPP spokesman Cheam Yeap denied Hun Sen ever asked for the amnesty law, that it was Sam Rainsy who brought it up. However, Sam Rainsy maintained to The Cambodia Daily it was Hun Sen who initiated the topic at the September post-election talks, and that Hun Sen allegedly stated that he would support an amnesty law “if the opposition made the proposal.”

Regardless of who said what and how, the idea of legal immunity was discussed. Yoon writes Sam Rainsy “is willing to cooperate with Hun Sen in building a new Cambodia and would offer the prime minister a pardon when he relinquishes his rule.” He quotes the CNRP leader as saying he is willing to compromise “for the sake of the country, for a smooth transition to avoid bloodshed.” “Hun Sen and I, we have to find a real and lasting solution for Cambodia,” says Sam Rainsy; “It is necessary, and what is necessary must be made possible.”

“I’m very confident,” Sam Rainsy tells Yoon, “there will be change. I hope to be alive , and not get killed before.” Sam Rainsy assures Yoon the CNRP is training many people to lead Cambodia, and that he has prepared a list of names—“We won’t reveal their names, otherwise they would get killed too.”

Sam Rainsy was measured and pragmatic in his interview—a side of him I had not encountered in previous interviews—and which needs to be exposed more often. It shows his ability to be statesman-like. I am reminded of Lord Buddha’s teaching, “Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.”

The Future?

Hun Sen has the capacity, if he chooses, to guide Cambodia away from potential bloodshed. Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy are both surrounded with some radical supporters who want the other’s blood. But there are many cool heads as well. I was impressed with Sam Rainsy’s remarks: “It is necessary” to find a “real and long lasting solution for Cambodia,” he and Hun Sen “must [make] possible” that which is “necessary.”

Hun Sen should acquiesce to this logic. The international community should take an active role to ensure that in the face of a Sam Rainsy who seems able, ready, and willing to cooperate for the country’s best interests, Hun Sen will find a way to participate in substantive negotiations. It takes two to make war, and it takes two to make peace. Members of the international community can assert their leverage to encourage a peaceful resolution that advances Cambodia toward the rule of law and a society in which civil liberties are respected.

Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth taught political science for 13 years at the University of Guam. He now lives in the mainland U.S. and can be reached at

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