He’s the undisputed king of Facebook. When he’s not online, he’s touring the country’s marketplaces, stopping to hug vendors or pose for group selfies that push a simple “man of the people” image.
The Vietnamese, he has warned in a series of stern online musings, must stay out of Cambodia’s affairs and stop acting like a bossy neighbor.
Meet the latest version of Prime Minister Hun Sen. He looks quite a bit like opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
Since Mr. Rainsy fled to Paris at the end of last year and his deputy, Kem Sokha, was forced into the CNRP’s headquarters on May 26 to avoid prison, Mr. Hun Sen has found a sudden interest in emulating the pair’s once frequent trips to the grassroots.
Having visited 18 of the country’s 24 provinces since his tour started last month, Mr. Hun Sen’s particular fondness for photo opportunities with vendors in the nation’s many markets, where Mr. Rainsy forged his political career in the 1990s, has not gone unnoticed.
“Hun Sen has locked the door, and is now dancing around by himself. He is trying to recover from his popularity loss and gain back the votes,” said But Buntenh, a dissident monk who heads the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice.
“He locked Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha inside, and he uses the threat of courts and military for others,” he said. “Hun Sen is playing a game of unequal political participation. He himself can do anything he likes, but the opposition do not get the chance or the space.”
With the June 2017 commune elections now less than a year away, the CNRP’s once-frequent provincial forums have faded into the background without its two leaders, while the premier has seemingly remembered where his base resides.
Mr. Hun Sen’s newfound proclivity for markets stands out in particular. During the tension following the 2013 election, the premier caustically mocked Mr. Rainsy for his reputation and political roots.
“They go to the markets and ask ‘How expensive is a kilo of milled rice?’” he said in a March 2014 speech, employing effeminate tones in an impression of Mr. Rainsy.
“They say ‘Euy! It’s too expensive, our elderly people will die!’” he continued—still in character—going on to mock what he said were false promises from the CNRP.
Mr. Hun Sen has also made fun of Mr. Rainsy for his campaigning on Facebook, which the premier spurned until last year—even as the opposition leader attributed much of the CNRP’s success in the July 2013 election to social media campaigning.
“You won by running alone, I do not even have any Facebook,” Mr. Hun Sen said in June 2013, after Mr. Rainsy boasted of having more “likes” on the site.
“I would like to send a message to all teenagers who participate in these Facebook forums, he [Mr. Rainsy] is cheating to get your likes,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “I have no Facebook to compete with anyone.”
Yet since announcing his Facebook page a year ago, Mr. Hun Sen has cultivated a page that now has its own news broadcasting team—and also offers live broadcasts of popular television shows. During his provincial tour, updates on his travels are posted multiple times a day.
The notion that Mr. Hun Sen may have found inspiration in the tactics of the exiled opposition leader, however, was not true, according to Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan.
“The CPP never copies Sam Rainsy or the CNRP. We have our own agenda,” Mr. Siphan said.
He explained that the prime minister, as a child of an ordinary rural family, was in fact better suited to market life than Mr. Rainsy, the son of a political family prominent before the Khmer Rouge.
“Hun Sen is very simple. He’s not like an elite family like Sam Rainsy,” Mr. Siphan said. “Hun Sen goes everywhere very simply. Sam Rainsy puts flowers around his neck, and he just goes and makes promises, but Hun Sen makes things happen according to the wishes of the vendors.”
Mr. Rainsy said in an email that the premier was effectively axing democracy by excluding his foes.
“Hun Sen does not show any fair play or sportsmanship. He is like a boxer who, at a competition, wants to box alone and to easily ‘win’ because there is no challenger facing him,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“Using the CPP-controlled army, police, court and prison, he prevents me—as his only real challenger—from entering the ring, meaning the electoral competition.”
The absence of its leaders could only weaken the CNRP so much, he added, arguing that Mr. Hun Sen’s campaigning was falling on deaf ears.
“Hun Sen and the CPP will soon realize that Facebook is actually working against them because people are more informed, more critical and more intelligent now, especially with the young generation.”
Yet it’s not only Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha who have been sidelined from campaigning, with an opposition lawmaker and a senator already behind bars, and a slew of others facing legal action—some in cases ordered by the prime minister.
CNRP lawmaker Keo Phirum said that many of the opposition’s 53 free lawmakers were now more cautious in criticizing the government, fearing that Mr. Hun Sen might crack the whip of the courts.
“In the back of our minds, we think that we have to be extra careful about what we are saying and what we are doing because of all the court cases, and with some of our MPs [members of parliament] in prison,” Mr. Phirum said.
“It raises concerns for all of us. Yet we are still going to the provinces. The everyday work is still the same, but we lose some effectiveness when the two leaders are not able to travel freely,” he said. “It puts us in a tough position to compete with the CPP.”
But Buntenh, however, said Mr. Hun Sen had only revealed that he was not confident in competing against Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha on even footing.
“If he opened up the space and gave equal space to the opposition…the CPP would close down,” the monk said. “I’m not saying lose votes. They will close down. So they lock the door, and roam around.”