Want big action? Phnom Penh, not Bangkok

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Roger Mitton

Roger Mitton

With more than 30 people injured in a bomb blast at an anti-government rally in Bangkok last Friday, this article’s headline may seem unwarranted.

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Eight have died since demonstrations by opponents of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra began last November, sometimes clashing with pro-government rallyists. Some ministry buildings have been temporarily paralyzed, though the PM has resisted demands for her resignation, calling for parliamentary polls instead.

Provided those polls, set for February 2, are not postponed—which appears quite possible according to many analysts—her party and its coalition partners are expected to be returned to power. Looking much shakier, on the other hand, is her counterpart in Phnom Penh.

Last July, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party narrowly won the fifth general election since the era of civil war and foreign occupation was ended by the 1991 Paris Peace Accords. The ruling party lost almost two dozen seats and saw its majority over the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party led by Sam Rainsy cut from 61 seats to only 11.

It was a brutal vote of no confidence in Hun Sen’s government, and in many other countries that would have led to a change in the party’s leadership. It has not yet happened in Phnom Penh, but the opposition has claimed that only vote rigging prevented it winning the election and forming a new government.

The 28-year itch
Its claims have struck a chord with a wide cross section of Cambodian society. Citizens have taken to the streets to demonstrate against the corruption and nepotism which have marked Hun Sen’s 28-year rule.

That longevity has been amazing. After all, his cohorts include dictators Park Chung Hee of South Korea, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Suharto of Indonesia, and Burma’s Ne Win, not to mention Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Deng Xiaoping. All are dead and gone like many others, while Hun Sen rules on and on.

And despite the protests he still cannot be counted out, although it is clear that if another election were held tomorrow, he would almost certainly lose. Already, staunch allies like China are hedging their bets, with Beijing’s state media suggesting a referendum on whether to hold new polls in Cambodia.

Also sensing the shift in public mood, several megarich business cronies or oknhas, all previously staunch CPP backers, have now donated to opposition leader Rainsy’s CNRP.

Hun Sen won’t go quietly
Hun Sen, of course, will not go quietly, and after displaying an unusual degree of patience towards the protesters, he is now cracking down hard.

Earlier this month, security forces fired on striking garment workers.

They want to double their $80 a month wages and have aligned themselves with Rainsy.

Deaths and beatings ensued, and the workers have returned to their jobs.

The protesters have shifted from the capital to the provinces before embarking on what they call a “final push” to oust Hun Sen. As with anti-government demonstrations in Thailand, it is hard to predict the outcome, except to say that it may be worse than what it replaced.

That is partly because, like the Thai agitator-in-chief Suthep Thaugsuban and Myanmar’s anti-Muslim fanatic U Wirathu, Cambodia’s Sam Rainsy is a xenophobic bigot.

His anti-Vietnamese vitriol recalls the persecution of ethnic Vietnamese during Lon Nol’s military regime in the 1970s, as well as Ne Win’s expulsion of ethnic Indians from Myanmar in the 1960s and Idi Amin’s brutal ejection of Uganda’s Asian community in 1972.

Playing the racist card
If Cambodian leaders, like those in Myanmar and Thailand, stoop to such racist populism, then social unrest and bloodshed will surely follow. It has already led to violent incidents in Phnom Penh, when cafés and shops owned by Vietnamese were trashed and looted by Rainsy-aligned mobs earlier this month in the capital’s Pursenchey district.

Rainsy routinely calls Vietnamese “yuon”—a Khmer perjorative, akin to other abusive terms like chinks, yids and niggers. His men claim that Hun Sen’s government is beholden to Hanoi and that Cambodians suffer because Vietnamese steal their jobs and land.

Refuting this charge, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said: “Using the Vietnamese as scapegoats for social and economic issues facing Cambodia not only distracts from constructive dialogue on reform, but potentially jeopardizes the safety of Vietnamese people in Cambodia.”

For displaying such courage, the center’s president, Ou Virak, received death threats, and the attacks on ethnic Vietnamese continue.
So we are torn between the bad and the ugly.

Check Asia’s rising ethnic frictions
The ideal answer would be for Hun Sen to step aside and allow the CPP to reform under a new leader, and for the opposition to do the same while sending Rainsy back into exile in France where he won’t do much harm.

But neither is likely to happen, which is why Cambodia, not Thailand, may witness worse unrest and bloodshed in the coming months. And why all Asia, starting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, should give serious attention and sustained action on nipping resurgent ethnic animosity and violence before it again roils the region.

(Roger Mitton is a Southeast Asia regional consultant and a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore).

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