It’s customary for Prime Minister Hun Sen to wait until King Norodom Sihamoni is out of the country to engage in a premeditated attack on a political opponent. It’s well known that the King isn’t best pleased with having to serve as the monarch, certainly on the occasions that he’s publicly accused of not intervening to prevent the government’s authoritarian tactics, and Hun Sen would prefer to keep the royal family onside. Often, it’s more convenient for him to jet off to Beijing for a “health checkup” to escape the noise and so that he isn’t (as head of state) required to sign anything controversial.
Alas, on February 12 the King and his mother flew to Beijing for a routine medical checkup. The very same day, as Hun Sen returned from his own trip to Beijing, the prime minister ordered the closure of one of the country’s last independent news outlets, Voice of Democracy (VOD). The closure took effect the following day, in the King’s absence, and to international outcry.
Rumors on the Phnom Penh grapevine suggest that the opportunistic prime minister has been waiting quite some time to close down VOD, one of the most outspoken media organizations in the country. In recent months it has published a series of rather damning articles on official corruption and allegations of human trafficking. These must have upset well-connected people. Perhaps Hun Sen, who’s desperate that nothing impacts his succession plans, felt a show of strength was needed to defend his son and anointed heir. And maybe he felt emboldened after his visit to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, a trip that coincided with the VOD affair. Equally likely, he felt fortified by the wave of new affection from the West after Hun Sen used his tenure as ASEAN chair last year to rebuild some trust among previously hostile governments. After all, he was welcomed by French President Emmanuel Macron to the Élysée Palace just two months ago, and he welcomed Joe Biden, the US president, to Phnom Penh in November.