Crackdown in Cambodia

The iron fist of Cambodia's long-ruling Communist Party has smashed into its political foes in the past few days, ending a confused and discordant state of affairs during which an opposition party seemed to write the agenda by calling on Prime Minister Hun Sein to resign or call a fresh election, after an allegedly flawed one last July.

Hun Sen, in power for 28 years and fresh from a visit in the last days of December to what many call his political mentors in neighboring Vietnam, late last week ordered violent action against political opponents and striking textile workers who had called on him to step down, and for a decent minimal wage to be paid.

His enforcers, military police and paratroops, shot and killed five demonstrating textile workers, who were asking for a pay raise on their US$2.80 a day pay, enough to buy a bowl of noodles and coconut dessert in the teeming Central Market. Why the troops could not have used non-lethal teargas or rubber bullets, which they have, instead of the automatic weapons developed by the recently late deceased Mikhail Kalashnikov is not apparent. They obviously wanted to kill.

Earlier, before he left for Vietnam – Hun Sen speaks the Vietnamese language fluently, having defected to the still-communist neighbors after abandoning the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s – he had said he would under no circumstances resign or call another election during his five-year tenure. But then he made a tactical error. "But one more thing," he added.

"Calling for me to step down – what have I done wrong?"

What an opening for the opposition who have been boycotting the national assembly! How about political assassinations of foes in the past, the sell-off of land to Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean investors on 99 year leases, pushing the little people off their their meager land – land-grabbing – kleptocracy and nepotism, sharing the spoils of the country to his extended family and cronies. Burning down or axing the forests, killing a large part of the once plentiful wildlife, and killing, too, those resisting the destruction.

"Ï was elected by the constitution, so I would only step down by the constitution," Hun Sen said the other day, while flaunting on his lapel the badge of his ruling Cambodian People's Party (CCP), the old communist party here, which has as its motif, these days a Buddhist apsara or angel.

The 61 year old premier took violent action by activating his bloodyminded soldiery and police, which led to the deaths of the five union protesters last Friday, and the smashing up in a kind of mini Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstration last Saturday, the encampment of opposition supporters at Freedom Park, effectively putting on hold all action against alleged fraudulent elections in July, in which the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), lost by a narrow margin of 55 seats to 68, out of the 123 seats in the National Assembly.

This correspondent visited several polling stations on polling day then and watched as ordinary Cambodians complained that their names had been excised from the rolls – all of them, coincidentally, opposition supporters.

By Saturday, the two opposition leaders from the CNRP, headed by Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, were in a “safe place,” which meant to many people in Phnom Penh the US embassy in downtown, beneath the sacred hill of Wat Phnom. They had gone to the Americans, presumably, to consult on their next moves, and may have been invited to stay.

It is unlikely to they could have found a safe haven anywhere else in Cambodia, given the CPP's iron grip on the rest of the country. Even where they were, they were unable to use their telephones.

That was the end of three weeks of large-scale demonstrations against the government in the capital, protests that sent up to 30,000 demonstrators marching through the streets under banners, causing major traffic snarls.

These demonstrations were rough on both sides. The soldiers and police had their lethal weapons, including electric batons they rattled against their protective shields and murderous iron pipes, while some of the demonstrators had cleavers and machetes.

The latter shouted epithets like ''despicable yuon” (an impolite word for “Vietnamese") or “dogs.'' There's speculation that Sam Rainsy may fly to Bangkok, ironically another Asian capital city under threat of violence, and, in Thailand's case, the menace of a military coup. But to seek sanctuary abroad would be folly, allowing the CPP bigwigs to block his return.

Sam Rainsy has already spent years in voluntary exile, under what he believed was a threat to throw him in jail should be return. However, when he did return in the middle of last year, he was allowed to take part in the July election in which he scored what many thought to be a psychological victory, even though most of the Khmer press and the all the television stations were– and remain – under tight CPP control.

He and Kem Sokha, originally the head of a small human rights party but a brilliant orator, have managed to get across to most Cambodians how their country is now in hock to foreign business. This once exotically beautiful country is a pale shadow of its former self, without the forests, and the once beautiful Phnom Penh now a shabby, rubbish-strewn capital.

Now the ”little people“ understand what has happened to their country. One heard one say in Freedom Park to the other before the crackdown: '"You know, all the trees are gone – there are none left." An exaggeration, but only just.

The situation is such that no-one is sure what the future holds, through the regime is expected on tomorrow to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the “liberation”{of Cambodia after almost four years of rule by the murderous Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot, under whom an estimated 1.7 Cambodians died.

Two of the former Khmer Rouge leaders are still under trial at a Khmer Rouge tribunal on the edge of Phnom Penh, while other former Khmer Rouge in the current regime tool around Phnom Penh in their massive SUVs.

The three leaders of the present CPP regime, including the uncouth and ruthless Hun Sen, remain the unchallenged rulers of Cambodia, though the current rules against demonstrations may be eased in future, if you believe what the CPP says. Two of them, Heng Samrin, a former battalion commander, and Chea Sim, a ruthless local leader, remain dyed in the wool Khmer Rouge.

However, the Council of Ministers spokesperson, Phay Siphan, has said that the country's leaders “have a job to protect the nation.” He added about the recent unrest: "This is not a demonstration. This is a rebellion."

The strike of 600,000 textile workers, who joined the pro-democracy protesters in their demonstrations, is a separate issue that has thrown the two groups together. The garment workers are striking to demand an increase in their minimum wage from US$80 to $160 a month, for popular "ínternational' brands.

Whatever happens the political impasse is likely to last for months, if not years, with no likelihood, as things stand, of a really free election at the end of it.

(James Pringle is a veteran correspondent who has long covered Asia and other regions for a variety of publications including Reuters, Newsweek and others. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel)