Part 2 Hun Sen’s Red Brotherhood
Hanoi cannot be seen to be interfering in Cambodian affairs but the Vietnamese military has cemented close ties with the Hun Sen regime – none closer than with the Prime Minister’s personal Bodyguard Unit (BHQ), their go-to-man being the Deputy Commander Dieng Sarun. General Sarun’s shadowy Senaneak Youth League (read pro-CPP thugs) mounted the street protest that led to the brutal beating of two opposition MPs by several of his BHQ soldiers outside the National Assembly in October last year.
For its part China is surely anxious to ensure there is no disruption to its very fruitful relations with the Hun Sen government. Besides China’s massive investments and loans, it was Hun Sen, after all, who stepped out of line with both Cambodia’s ASEAN partners and with his original patron, the Vietnamese, to back China’s claims to the South China Sea. This was no small gesture in defiance of his presumed obligations to the Vietnamese – and proof to Beijing of Hun Sen’s extraordinarily deft political manoeuvring.
Despite the continuing tensions between China and Vietnam, both Communist countries share an interest in holding tight to what they see as a younger ‘red brother’ heading a regime who can be relied upon to act decisively, even brutally, and do whatever it takes to hold power rather than cave in to Western – read non-Asian – notions of liberal democracy.
The prospect of an opposition CNRP ‘Rescue Party’ winning the elections in 2018 would be a setback for China, anathema to the Vietnamese and utterly intolerable for Samdech Techo Hun Sen himself.
Samdech Techo Hun Sen and his strongest generals are not sitting on their hands. Supreme Commander, Pol Saroeun, set the tone in a landmark speech on 5 July declaring that all military forces ‘must eliminate and dispose of any and all individuals with a mentality to destroy peace and foment social turmoil in Cambodia’. The emphasis is on preempting any possible threat to stability. That dastardly, subversive game of wearing black on ‘Black Mondays’, for example, is outlawed. In the name of crushing a ‘colour revolution’, dozens have been arrested.
For disciples of Mao’s axiom, power still grows from the barrel of a gun. In Cambodia all the guns are on one side, none at all with the opposition. In the event of an opposition victory, the question would be whether all Cambodia’s military, gendarmerie and police forces will serve the newly elected government of the day or obstruct the transfer of power from the losing CPP?
In an ominous show of strength to demonstrate just how ready they are to use the military for political purposes, the CNRP headquarters have been buzzed by helicopters, and temporarily besieged by naval and military forces and a detachment from the PM’s personal bodyguard unit. Inside the CNRP, Deputy President Kem Sokha has been holed up for several months to avoid arrest on a legal absurdity that has been used to override his parliamentary immunity. Leaving aside his entitlement to immunity, this was a matter of enforcing of a court order that might normally be carried out by police rather than calling in the army, navy, air force and the PM’s personal bodyguards.
Meanwhile CNRP President Sam Rainsy remains living in exile for yet another year unwilling to return to his homeland where he faces the prospect of ludicrously long gaol sentences.
Resort to political killings and bloodshed was more frightening in the 1990s and 2000s. Since then legal intimidation has proved every bit as effective especially when the ruling party can rely on a judiciary stacked with CPP loyalists who owe their jobs and future security to the regime. But now the blatant daylight assassination of Dr. Kem Ley raises fears of a return to more of the targeted strategic killings of the past.
‘Kill a chicken to scare the monkeys’ is the Chinese idiom my wife quotes to spell out a timely warning that politics here is not for the faint-hearted.
It certainly worked in the heady days of protest following Samdech Hun Sen’s ‘near death’ experience in the 2013 elections.
The euphoric carnival of Freedom Park rallies and street marches that followed was initially tolerated but by January 2014 it ended in tears. A march by garment workers was smashed by armed soldiers opening fire and killing 5 protesters.
That’s all it took: 5 dead and the carnival of protest was over.
The late Princess Norodom Vachara dared to speak her mind when Hun Sen demanded that she apologize following the 2003 assassination of Om Radsady, her dear friend and devoutly Buddhist, political adviser to the Royalist FUNCINPEC party
‘He wants me to apologize, OK, I do.’
‘But please, no more killing,’ Vachara pleads
Question: ‘So in that sense he wins?’
Vachara shrugs then speaks, ‘Hun Sen wins all the time because nobody dare to be against him’
Kem Ley dared . . and paid the price he had foretold and fully expected to pay.
In mid October ceremonies and a procession are planned to mark 100 days since the tragic loss one of Cambodia’s brave and outspoken democrats.
The CNRP opposition has promised to call out its followers for peaceful street protests – perhaps around the same time – in response to which the government has promised to crackdown with more arrests and Pythonesque legal absurdities. But the harder the crackdown the more likely it will fail to stem the rising tide of popular resentment and anger.
James Gerrand is an Australian-based documentary filmmaker focusing on Southeast Asia and Cambodia’s contemporary history in particular.
His major studies include ‘Khmer! Khmer! Cambodia in Conflict’ (1971), ‘Cambodia the Prince & the Prophecy’ (1986) ‘Cambodia Kampuchea’ (1987) and ‘The Last God King’ (1996)
He is currently working on a long term study of the Hun Sen era.