By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
After the seeming demise of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and the subsequent reinstatement of a fragile (albeit highly stilted) democracy in 1993, most international observers felt that the nightmare of human suffering in Cambodia was finally at an end.
They were wrong.
Hun Sen, who has served as the Southeast Asian country’s sole (and essentially uncontested) leader since its second United Nations-mandated national election in 1998, nullified any semblance of democracy in Cambodia last May when he announced his latest crackdown on media just weeks before the June 4 local elections and blatantly declared that he was prepared to “eliminate 100 or 200 people” in order to preserve his party’s hold on power during the national election in 2018.
The ominous announcement rang loud and clear for Cambodian voters, who showed up in record numbers (a whopping 90 percent turnout) to show their unflinching loyalty to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which walked away with 71 percent of the seats (although the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party did win 482 seats).
This is not the first time that Hun Sen has resorted to intimidation and the threat of violence to hold on to power.
Hun Sen – a former Khmer Rouge battalion commander who maneuvered his way into the position of deputy prime minister and foreign minister under the Vietnamese-installed People’s Republic of Kampuchea in 1979, and then became its de facto leader after the mysterious death of Cambodia’s first elected prime minster, Chan Sy, in 1984 – has repeatedly warned that he would stage a civil war should he lose an election.
Those threats hit home for a population that still has fresh in its mind the horror of the purging of 1.7 million lives under the Khmer Rouge.
And in 2011, when the first signs of political opposition began to take hold, Hun Sen was even more direct in his threats, saying he would kill anyone who resisted his rule.
The fact that the CPP did not sweep the June elections entirely apparently perturbed the autocrat, who next decided to guarantee his wannabe lifelong premiership by rounding up his enemies and political critics and tossing them into prison.
Earlier this year, he shut down one of the country’s most-respected and few remaining semi-independent newspapers, the Cambodia Daily, on trumped up charges of not paying a fictitious $6.3 million in back taxes.
The English-language newspaper – which has in its entire 24-year history never even registered profits of that magnitude – went out with a beau gest bang and a banner headline declaring “Descent into Outright Dictatorship” in its final edition.
Since then, other national and international media outlets have felt the pinch of enforced censorship, including the U.S.-funded broadcasters Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, which closed their Phnom Penh bureaus and ceased in-country operations, stating Cambodia’s new restrictions on press freedom “made it impossible to continue in the country.”
At least 15 national radio broadcasters have since had their licenses revoked.
Hun Sen is out to silence anyone who stands in his authoritarian way.
In August, CNPR leader Kem Sokha was arrested and jailed on a charge of treason.
The charges are founded on a flimsy allegation that Kem Sokha had dared to speak to a U.S. observer on ways to broaden his party’s political movement.
If he is found guilty, Kem Sokha could face up to 30 years in prison.
And Hun Sen’s political bulldozing went even further.
The former Khmer Rouge official then ordered all CNRP members to withdraw their support of Kem Sokha or else…
And just in case anyone in Cambodia was still considering the possibility that democracy would somehow prevail, Hun Sen has now announced that he will rule for another 10 years.
Make no mistake: Hun Sen is not going to back down unless the international community takes a solid stand against his abuses.
Despite the threat of imprisonment or worse, the Cambodian people are taking to the streets and demanding that democracy and respect for human rights be reinstated.
But, so far, the world has turned its back on the Cambodians and their plight.
Hun Sen still brags about his stint in the Khmer Rouge army.
Left to his own devices, he is perfectly willing and able to create another massive Killing Fields.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.