Residents of Phnom Penh on Sunday reacted with resignation and weariness to Prime Minster Hun Sen’s latest post-election speech, in which he prophesied chaos on the streets of Phnom Penh should opposition supporters protest the National Election Committee’s official election result, widely expected to be in favor of the CPP.
Mr. Hun Sen’s initial response to his party’s disappointing performance in the July 28 election was uncharacteristically conciliatory.
When he eventually appeared in Phnom Penh three days after the surprise election result, his tone confounded his critics as he referred to opposition leader Sam Rainsy using the “Excellency” title, and invited an investigation into allegations of voter irregularities for the sake of “free and fair elections.”
But two days later, during a visit to Kandal province on Friday, Mr. Hun Sen returned with a more defiant and familiar tone.
Promising that he will press ahead with forming a new government, the prime minister in his two-hour long address warned that, by his legal interpretation, the CNRP’s hard-fought National Assembly seats could be ceded to his party should they refuse to take them. He also referred to the looting chaos of the 1997 factional fighting in Phnom Penh in light of the possibility of demonstrations by supporters of the CNRP, and gave short shrift to calls by some in the U.S. to cut aid to Cambodia, daring those to do so if they wished.
“His attitude is really strange now as he waits for the official result of the election,” said a 47-year-old monk inside Ounalom Pagoda, who declined to give his name for fears for his personal security.
“He appeared calm delivering the first speech since his father’s recent death, but the second speech he returned to normal,” the monk said.
The National Election Committee (NEC) said last week that it would release the final election results no later than September 8, but since the NEC is under the influence of the CPP, it is sure to deliver the ruling party back to power, the monk said.
“Nobody can do anything against his leadership, he will never step down unless it is to retire, because this government has done a lot of bad things to people in the past and they fear that they would be treated badly by the new government,” he added.
A 23-year-old media studies student at Pannasastra University, who declined to give his name because “Cambodia is still under the rule of Hun Sen,” suggested that the differing messages of the prime minister’s two speeches were likely due to how they were prepared.
“He was very polite during his first speech [on Wednesday] after the election because his political advisers told him how to act to best convince the people that he can control his mood, but he may have forgotten himself during the long speech [on Friday],” the student said.
During that second speech, Mr. Hun Sen challenged those in the U.S. government who had called for a cut in Washington’s aid to Cambodia—should the election not be ruled credible—saying that such a cut in funds would not duly affect his government as most of the U.S.’ $50 million annual donation goes to NGOs.
A 51-year-old tuk-tuk driver, who was reading a newspaper on Street 228 in Daun Penh district and gave his name as Mr. Chhar, said that it was inappropriate of Mr. Hun Sen to announce that Cambodia could do without U.S. aid when so many of its citizens continue to live in poverty.
“It is not right for him to say that because our country mainly depends on international aid. The prime minister can survive with his own group and family, but people will die because that aid is how they live and breathe,” he said.
Mr. Chhar said that the popularity of the CPP has been affected by its inability to help those most in need, especially in rural areas, which is why change was needed.
“I want change, but there will be no change. Mr. Hun Sen will never step down because he loves power more than his people,” Mr. Chhar said.
For the older generation, Mr. Hun Sen’s threats of civil war and social chaos, in his speeches before and after the election, still resonate.
Vouch Leng, 60, who owns a money-exchange shop on Street 13 in Daun Penh district, said she had lived through the Khmer Rouge era and did not want to see a return to social unrest.
“I am a business person, so I don’t care who leads the country, I just don’t want to see civil war again.”
Yet the CPP’s discourse of threats and warnings has contributed to Mr. Hun Sen’s falling support among the young generation who spearheaded the CNRP’s electoral surge, said 34-year-old Phon Samnang, who runs a small mobile phone repair shop on Street 144.
“Most people have lost trust in Mr. Hun Sen because his speeches always come up with threats and are offensive in manner,” he said, adding that he knows dozens of people who felt the prime minister’s second speech on Friday was meant to be intimidating.
“If you listen to Mr. Rainsy’s speeches, you will see the differences—Mr. Rainsy knows how to speak in a proper manner and thinks of other people’s interests.”
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