Part 1 ‘Kill a Chicken to Scare the Monkeys’
Around my regular haunts in Phnom Penh are daily reminders of Cambodia’s enduring capacity for political violence: in Kabko market my favourite street restaurant was the scene where political adviser Om Radsady was shot dead in 2003; in a similarly blatant daylight execution, trade union leader Chea Vichea was gunned down in 2004 among the news stands at the end of my street where I buy the Cambodia Daily each morning; and now whenever my tuktuk driver pulls in to the Caltex station on the corner of Mao Tsetung Boulevard, I suppose I’ll be forever reminded of Dr. Kem Ley’s body sprawled dead on the floor of the Caltex convenience store.
Dr. Kem Ley is the latest critic and political figure to be shot dead apparently by a nobody. The gunman this time – a former soldier – offered his name as ‘Mr. Meet Kill’ (‘Chuop Samlap’) and a far-fetched claim that Kem Ley owed him $3000 though his wife and friends were adamant he has never owned such a sum to lend.
As with other blatant political executions in the past, nobody expects we’ll ever learn who were pulling strings behind the assassins.
“This is no country for decent and outspoken men” writes Sebastian Strangio in his analysis of the July 10 killing (‘Mekong Review’ August 2016) ‘Kem Ley was outspoken, and it’s obvious that someone in power feared his example.’
Kem Ley’s use of fables and earthy communication skills had earned him a lively following on Facebook and radio. He pulled no punches in criticizing the opposition as well as the Hun Sen government.
Just a few days before his life was ended Dr. Ley spoke on the Radio Free Asia highlighting the latest Global Witness report that reveals at least some measure of the accumulated wealth and financial power of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family. This might well have been the last straw for the Hun family and the ruling CPP (Cambodian Peoples Party).
But within the Hun Sen regime – and across the border in Vietnam – there was also growing sensitivity to the anti-Vietnamese rhetoric dispensed by ‘Khmer for Khmer’, the grassroots democracy party founded by Kem Ley.
The extent and depth of ill feeling and paranoia towards Vietnamese is almost impossible to overstate. Even my most rational and otherwise fair-minded Khmer friends don’t hesitate to regale me with the most unlikely conspiracies being hatched by the dreaded ‘Youn’.
Unsurprising then that shouts of ‘Youn’ were heard directed against both Mr.‘Meet Kill’ and the police who arrested him!
A recent essay by Sydney University PhD candidate Tim Freer http://thediplomat.com/2016/09/cambodias-anti-vietnam-obsession/ made a refreshing break from the taboo against even raising the topic of Khmer animus towards the Vietnamese, an obsession that generally stymies any reasoned debate on the issue.
Of course it can also be true that the collective paranoia is not without cause.
The main opposition, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) which scared the wits out of Prime Minister Hun Sen by nearly beating the CPP in the 2013 national elections, will never let the Strongman forget that he was originally installed in power by the Vietnamese invaders after they had ousted the heinous Pol Pot regime.
Objectively the Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen has more than proved himself by far the most able and the most driven political leader of this post-Pol Pot era. Yet as Sebastian Strangio points out in his seminal study of ‘Hun Sen’s Cambodia’ (Yale Uni Press, 2014) the boast of leading a multi-party democracy is a ‘mirage’. After more than 30 years on top, it is clear he will never relinquish power even if the pro-Western, anti-Communist opposition should manage to prevail against the manipulations and intimidations stacked against them in the commune elections next year or the national elections looming in 2018.
It is not only Samdech Techo Hun Sen and the ruling party that has too much to lose, the Vietnamese next door are equally determined to ensure that the opposition CNRP should never take power.
Despite their denials to the contrary, both CNRP leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha are seen as dangerously anti-Vietnamese. And should they win power they’re unlikely to prevent – or be able to prevent – whole communities of despised Vietnamese settlers from being driven out of Cambodia to the cheers of their rabid supporters and also indeed to the quiet satisfaction of a silent majority of Khmers.
Vietnam cannot be seen to be interfering but Hanoi is certainly not prepared to sit idly by as the CNRP opposition poses more and more of a threat to the Hun Sen regime’s dominance.
Under their ‘forward defence’ policy the VN military have a unit on standby near the border opposite Takeo in the southeast and within easy reach of Phnom Penh should it ever be necessary to extract leaders of the Hun Sen regime in the event of chaos that would almost certainly follow in the wake of an opposition victory.
Part 2 ‘Hun Sen’s Red Brotherhood’ will be published tomorrow (28 September 2016).
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.