It was unexpected enough that the leading opposition political party had been dissolved in Cambodia. But where were the bachelor king of Cambodia, and the gracious queen mother, at the dazzling two-day event at the Angkor Wat temple this past weekend?
It was prime minister Hun Sen, aged 65, and wobbling slightly at the knees, and first lady Bun Rany, who presided over the prayer ceremony at Angkor Wat, with 5,000 Buddhist monks in attendance, a few unable to beat back a yawn on the early Sunday morning. Yet, since the ninth century, it has been Cambodian royalty who presided over such events, definitely not politicians.
With his wife at his side, and the stolid government ministers and wives with dyed black hair around them, Hun Sen watched slow motion dancers from the Royal Ballet performing for the crowd, so soon after the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on 15th November by the prime minister.
The apsara girls, their fingers almost impossibly bent back, showed just what they could do. But tourists were given short shrift and were shown another entry into the fabulous buildings of Angkor Wat by the police. And school girls in quickly pressed uniforms confessed they didn’t know what it was all about – they hadn’t been told.
When the premier announced the event on Nov. 22, just six days after the shocking dissolution of the CNRP, Hun Sen talked of it as an example of ‘peace, independence and political stability.’
But what kind of “stability ‘ when the principal opposition had been dumped?
“This shows that Cambodia is not in anarchy or a country at war,” Hun Sen said, insisting everything was running normally.
It was in the reign of Jayavarman ll that the first self-proclaimed god-king of the Angkor Empire, arose.
“The current King Sihamoni used to conduct this ceremony,” said Mde Phoeung Sackona, the minister of culture and fine arts in Hun Sen’s government. “The ceremony is held because we are in peace and happiness, and we have to remind ourselves who has passed down our ancestors heritage.”
And, of course, it was the late unforgotten and irrepressible King Norodom Sihanouk before that who died five years ago – and is still lamented.
There was also Hun Sen’s son, Hun Many, who was involved in the organization of the event. But where was King Sihamoni? Where were his peace and happiness?
Tourism Minister Thong Kong shrugged off any suggestions that the country was in political turmoil, despite the dumping of the Rescue party. “We have no crisis, but there are politicians who are having a crisis themselves,” said the minister in an apparent reference to members of the now-disbanded main opposition, more than half have fled, fearing arrest.
As the Cambodian-US politician Mu Sochua declared from exile in Australia: “The demise of the opposition sounds like the death knell for democracy in Cambodia.”
As day appeared over the magnificent buildings of Angkor Wat this past Sunday, Hun Sen joined prayers with 5,000 Buddhist monks in a ceremony touted as celebrating peace and stability at the heart of Khmer power.
Commenting from overseas, former CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrath said that an event for peace, while welcome, would ring hollow so long as political repression continues.
“To pray is superstition,” Ou Chanrath said. “In reality. The political problem needs to be settled. Using a ceremony is simply another way to silence dissent by manipulating the population’s emotions and spiritual beliefs.”
Yes, we know that Hun Sen wants to stay at least for another 10 years or so. That would be roughly until 42 years in power – it would possibly be a world record. However, it’s unlikely that the current ruler would last that long. And senior people in the ruling circles of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) would not accept one of Hun Sen’s sons at the helm of benighted Cambodia.
It might be one of their own in the CPP which who would be forcibly accepted by a weary population. Would there be no end to it.
The author is a longtime resident of Cambodia who prefers to remain nameless out of fear for his personal safety.