Cambodia’s exiled acting opposition chief Sam Rainsy has called on the public to draw inspiration from a recent leadership change in Algeria and oust the country’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, saying he would throw his support behind a top-ranking ruling party official if he is willing to challenge the strongman.
Acting Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Sam Rainsy said in a Facebook post Wednesday that Cambodians should take to the streets to oust Hun Sen, just as Algerians did to end the regime of ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who earlier this week agreed to step down by April 28 after ruling the North African country for 20 years.
“The Cambodian people must force dictator Hun Sen to step down in 2019, as the Algerian people did to force dictator Bouteflika out just a few days ago,” wrote the CNRP leader, who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid a string of what he says are politically motivated convictions.
“The will of the people was achieved after the Algerian army stopped supporting the dictator and acted in the interest of the public,” he added, noting that both Bouteflika and Hun Sen had exploited their nations by benefiting from widespread corruption.
Sam Rainsy said that if Cambodia’s Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng were to stage a coup, the CNRP would throw its support behind him.
“Sar Kheng’s side and Hun Sen’s side can’t see eye to eye,” he wrote.
“We say that if [Sar Kheng’s followers] dare to topple Hun Sen, we will support them. They will not be isolated.”
Cambodian authorities arrested CNRP President Kem Sokha in September 2017 on charges of “treason” and the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP two months later, paving the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in a July 2018 general election that was widely seen as unfree and unfair.
Sam Rainsy, who left Cambodia in November 2015, was appointed acting head of the CNRP in January while Kem Sokha remains in pre-trial detention under house arrest and has vowed to return to Cambodia this year to lead the party’s supporters.
His call for popular revolt comes a week after he took to Facebook to urge members of Cambodia’s military to end their allegiance to Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for more than three decades, and use their weapons to “defend yourselves and the people.”
In last week’s post he warned that “people will be killed” if the military does not act, and said “self-defense is not a crime.”
On Thursday, government spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed Sam Rainsy’s suggestion that Hun Sen and Sar Kheng are at odds or that the CPP is dealing with an internal schism.
“This appeal is merely an attempt to impress people, but will have no impact,” he said, noting that Sam Rainsy had also called for a boycott of last year’s election, with minimal effect.
But analyst Kim Sok told RFA’s Khmer Service Thursday that many Cambodians both inside and outside of the country desire regime change, and that Sam Rainsy’s appeal to Sar Kheng to split from Hun Sen “could work.”
“This is Sam Rainsy’s test to survey the opinions of the people,” he said.
Challenge to rule
Brad Adams, Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, told RFA that a number of factors could lead to a challenge to Hun Sen’s rule—most notably unchecked graft.
“Corruption is a very, very big problem in Cambodia—people are very angry about it, and we’ve seen uprisings over corruption around the world,” he said.
“And economic shock—if there’s a problem in the regional or global economy and Cambodia’s economy starts sinking, [a revolt] could happen.”
Other possible situations that could see support for Hun Sen erode include a collapse in property prices, which have benefited his wealthier backers, and if the prime minister moves too fast to install his family members into leadership positions in the CPP, which Adams said could trigger a backlash within the ruling party.
But for now, according to Adams, Hun Sen’s power is fairly secure “because he controls the guns.”
“He’s now taken complete control of the army, the gendarmerie, and the police, so basically Hun Sen is in power because of his monopoly on weapons in the country,” he said.
“You could say Cambodia is a military police state because it’s not a democracy—it’s not a government through the will of the people—and Hun Sen is going unchallenged because he controls all the guns.”
Even a peaceful transfer of power from Hun Sen to someone else in the CPP is unlikely because “he won’t do that until he’s on his deathbed,” Adams said of the longest ruling leader in Asia.
“And if he won’t do that voluntarily, it will only happen because he’s forced to do it, in which case it won’t be the CPP keeping power,” he added.