As Prime Minister Hun Sen quietly brokers partnerships and adroitly maneuvers through Cambodian politics, in neighboring Thailand, fellow strongman Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has taken more drastic measures.
After three weeks of demonstrations, culminating in a massive protest on Sunday when tens of thousands of Thais gathered in Bangkok to call for Thaksin’s ouster, he dissolved the Thai parliament and called a “snap” mid-term election for April 2.
Hun Sen and Thaksin have long been compared for their forceful leadership styles, their tight grips on power, their occasional application of military force and their recent use of defamation laws to pursue critics.
But analysts and officials said Cambodia is far removed from the situation in Thailand, and methods like Thaksin’s are extremely unlikely to be seen here, given Cambodia’s less mature democracy and the language of its Constitution.
“It is impossible to have [this kind of] conflict in Cambodia—impossible. Political party members cannot go beyond the political party line, and that line is decided by the prime minister,” said Koul Panha, director of Committee for Free and Fair Elections.
“Thaksin cannot control all the state institutions like in Cambodia, where the government controls many state institutions—even the legislature, even the courts. In our government, our prime minister is very powerful,” he said.
Thaksin, whose Thai Rak Thai, or Thai Love Thai, party holds three-quarters of the seats in parliament, expects to win the snap election and thereby reaffirm his mandate, with the support of villagers who have benefited from his populist reforms, according to news reports.
But for a prime minister to dissolve parliament would be illegal in Cambodia according to the Constitution, Cambodian Defenders Project Executive Director Sok Sam Oeun said.
“The parliament creates the government. The Constitution says that parliament can dissolve the government, but the government cannot dissolve the parliament,” Sok Sam Oeun said.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith agreed, noting that the parliament would be dissolved before the end of its term only if it had defeated the government twice within 12 months.
“The prime minister does not have the right to call for re-election. The law in Cambodia is much stricter,” he said.
Regardless of constitutional issues, observers said, Cambodia is also much farther from staging the kind of mass demonstrations that have forced Thaksin’s hand, as many Cambodians are more focused on day-to-day survival than on radical political change.
But Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay said he hoped Cambodians would work toward an atmosphere in which the public could call government corruption into question.
“In Cambodia, we have a long way to go to do this kind of thing. It is important for Cambodian people to be educated. We should work harder to create this kind of environment,” Son Chhay said.
“It is important that the prime minister must think and do the work for the interests of the people and his nation. If they are not doing that, then they should be punished,” he said.
Events in Thailand escalated after the public learned of the $1.9 billion tax-free sale of Thaksin’s family’s majority shares in Shin Corp to a Singaporean firm.
Center for Social Development President Chea Vannath noted that social problems in Cambodia currently make paying attention to such issues difficult. “It is the principle of human needs. When you are poor, you look first for food. Then, if you have food, you look for shelter,” she said.
“Here, people do not need political parties, they need food, shelter, education for their children and medicine when they get sick. We still do not have critical mass to have a demonstration of 100,000 people.”
And Koul Panha noted that the last such large-scale demonstration in Cambodia, a 1998 rally to contest the election results, ended in violent confrontations, 16 deaths and many disappearances.
“Cambodian people power is still high-risk,” Koul Panha said.
“In Thailand there is a low level of risk and people can exercise this kind of freedom,” he said. “In Cambodia, people are afraid. It is very dangerous…. Cambodians will have to take some time to have people power like in Thailand or the Philippines.”