Sam the man?

November 20, 2015

Phnom Penh has been in a febrile condition for a couple of weeks now, as Prime Minister Hun Sen starts to move into election mode, a full three years before the elections are slated to take place. A few weeks ago, Hun Sen was on a state visit to France, when he was heckled and abused by a crowd. Incensed, he threatened retaliation, and the next day two opposition lawmakers here in Phnom Penh were dragged from their cars and savagely beaten by ruling party sympathisers. Later that week, opposition politician Kem Sokha, the First Vice President of the National Assembly, was ousted from his post by the ruling party.

This rather upset the opposition, and their leader, Sam Rainsy, speaking in Japan, called Hun Sen a fascist. This did not go down well, and a couple of days later a warrant was issued for his arrest for a conviction of defamation in 2011, despite him being pardoned by the king in 2013.

Sam Rainsy was still out of the country, but vowed to come back on Monday night and face the music. However, at the last minute, he changed his mind, and is currently holed up in South Korea. In the battle of wills between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy, it seems that Sam blinked first.

Of course, there were good reasons for him doing so. Thousands of demonstrators were wandering the capital, and most of them had planned to go to the airport to make sure Sam wasn’t arrested. Knowing the Cambodian security forces as we do, this probably wouldn’t have been the finest idea ever conceived by man. Large numbers of armed police are still patrolling the capital; both Britain and the USA have issued warnings and travel advisories. The US said “the pattern of actions against the opposition suggests a return to the harsh political practices and tactics … that the Cambodian people have made clear they no longer want.” Seeing as this includes shooting protestors dead, it was understandable that lots of people here have been very nervous recently.

Though some analysts considered Sam’s decision ‘responsible’ in avoiding potential violence, others have suggested the move leaves him appearing weak. Sam recently drew parallels between the success of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy over Myanmar’s military junta in the recent elections in Burma, and the CNRP’s own hopes for 2018.

Political analyst Sebastian Strangio told a local newspaper that the events of the past few months had led to this test of wills in which Hun Sen now seemed to have a clear advantage. “This was the moment for Sam Rainsy to have his ‘Aung San Suu Kyi moment’, to stand up bravely and call Hun Sen’s bluff. Whatever the reason for [his] delayed return, it’s hard not to see it as yet another in a long line of capitulations to the prime minister’s bullying.”

The National Assembly’s permanent committee has stripped Sam of his lawmaker status, leaving him without parliamentary immunity, and formed a special commission to make sure he is arrested. The session where these decisions were made was boycotted by the CNRP.

Analyst Ou Virak said the special arrest commission and stripping of Sam’s MP status were “warning shots” to try keep him abroad. He also echoed Strangio’s comparisons to Suu Kyi. “That’s where they draw the line between a great leader and the rest, when you’re willing to take very, very tough decisions. I understand as a human being we all want to be safe, but that’s why we’re not all given the Nobel Peace Prize.”

The latest reports say that Sam is now in the Philippines, and is then going to Europe for a month.

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