Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Hun Sen, Cambodia's agent provocateur?

Hun Sen: ‘‘I am the leader of Cambodia who was elected by the will of the people, not by robbing power.’’

Published: 7/10/2009
(Post by CAAI News Media)

I was caught in the abhorrent situation wherein some 1,000 protesters, mostly students, torched the Royal Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh on the night of January 29, 2003. Elsewhere in the capital, the protests grew more aggravated. So-called Cambodian patriots ransacked Thai-owned establishments, including the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel and the office of Thai Airways International.

A few days earlier, Thai actress Suvanand Kongying had been wrongly accused of claiming that Angkor Wat was Thailand's property.

That misquote immediately stirred up a sense of nationalism inside Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen angrily responded: "Suvanand is not even worth a blade of grass at Angkor." Former premier Thaksin Shinawatra reportedly tried for two hours to reach Hun Sen by phone, and it was obvious the Cambodian leader was avoiding a conversation.

Was Hun Sun's anger really about protecting the dignity of the Cambodian nation? The circumstances surrounding the outburst was that a Cambodian general election was around the corner, so a conflict with Thailand could have been used to favour his political allies and undermine his opponents.

If the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) is a master manipulator of Thai nationalism, can Hun Sen be an "agent provocateur" who exploits nationalistic rhetoric to gain political points at home?

Since the flare-up in the Preah Vihear dispute, Hun Sen has never minced his words about the failure of Thai leadership. He has even provoked armed conflict with Thailand.

In referring to the Democrat government, Hun Sen once proudly declared: "I am the leader of Cambodia who was elected by the will of the people, not by robbing power." Recently, he intensified bilateral tensions by ordering his troops to shoot any Thai crossing the border illegally. His encouragement not only served to fulfil a nationalistic need in Cambodia, but also worked in turn to legitimise the PAD's activities.

Over the past years, Hun Sen has been able to strengthen his popularity thanks to the lingering dispute over the Preah Vihear temple. As Southeast Asia's longest serving leader apart from the Sultan of Brunei, Hun Sen has successfully ridden the wave of Cambodian nationalism to further solidify his rule.

At the height of Thailand's domestic crisis last year, Hun Sen suggested that Thailand give up its Asean chairmanship. In so doing, he seemed to declare himself the chief defender of Asean.

When Thailand planned to host the Asean meeting in Hua Hin in March this year, Hun Sen sarcastically said that it would be too costly and difficult for him to attend the gathering. Obviously, he later changed his mind.

Hun Sen has on numerous occasions warned Thai troops to stop trespassing on Cambodian land, calling the contested territory a "life-and-death battle zone".

The PAD has continued to play into Hun Sen's hands by inflating the incident and calling for the Thai military to push back Cambodian "intruders".

As much as the temple issue has been held hostage by Thai politics, it has also been used to preserve the legitimacy of the Cambodian leadership. The successful inscription of the temple on the list of Unesco's World Heritage sites was much publicised to voters as a result of Hun Sen's charismatic leadership. (Cambodia's general election was held on July 27, 2008).

Scenting an ideal electoral opportunity, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party pushed the hot issues of corruption and inflation into the background while promoting a nationalistic election theme. The party announced that Hun Sen and his close allies were strong but peaceful leaders who were solely responsible for uniting Cambodians against Thai aggression.

After a series of armed clashes, Cambodia had no plans to make peace but demanded Thailand pay compensation for damages resulting from the confrontation on the border. In its diplomatic note, Cambodia stated: "The attack with heavy weapons by Thai troops on Cambodian territory caused much damage and set a Cambodian market ablaze. The material losses to 319 families, who had lost their livelihoods when the fire destroyed their market stalls, amounted to more than US$2.1 million."

The attempt here is not to paint a gloomy picture of the Cambodian leadership, but rather to highlight that the temple issue and the rise of nationalism have their roots deep in the power politics within Thailand and Cambodia. While it is convenient for Hun Sen to condemn the arbitrary use of Thai nationalism, he himself has taken advantage from Cambodian nationalism.

In an interview, Sam Rainsy, a French-educated former finance minister who leads Cambodia's prominent opposition party, described Hun Sen as a politician who succeeds very well in one thing: "Survival at the helm of the Cambodian state." His ability, Mr Rainsy said, is clinging on to power through political intrigues which he then resolves with an iron fist. This has lasted for almost 30 years now. "When you have only this ambition - clinging to power for the impunity it provides - it is catastrophic for the country," Mr Rainsy said.

Professor Chanvit Kasetsiri rightly noted that among the neighbouring countries of Southeast Asia, none seems more similar to Thailand than Cambodia. Both nations share similar customs, traditions, beliefs and ways of life. This is especially true of royal customs, language, writing systems, vocabulary, literature, and the dramatic arts. In light of these similarities, it seems surprising, therefore, that relations between Thailand and Cambodia should be characterised by deep-seated "ignorance, misunderstanding and prejudice". Indeed, the two countries have what can be termed a "love-hate relationship".

Today, this love-hate relationship is being firmly sustained by the incessant use of nationalism, which may offer some political benefits in the short-term but will surely create a long-lasting negative impact on the bilateral relationship.

Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

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