Hun Sen’s Violent Rhetoric: Will Words Become Deeds in 2018?

Threats to “eliminate” hundreds in order to maintain stability, warnings to former opposition leader Sam Rainsy to “prepare your coffin,” and vows to bury the corpses of those who seek his demise—Prime Minister Hun Sen’s rhetoric this year has been increasingly violent.

—News Analysis—

Intimidating his political foes is nothing new, yet the premier’s recent warnings of deadly force illustrate a return to his firebrand rhetoric of the past, when threats of violence were more real.

Senate President Say Chhum, left, Interior Minister Sar Kheng, Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly President Heng Samrin see off King Sihamoni at Phnom Penh airport in July. (Khem Sovannara)

“I have forces to do it, don’t forget,” the then-second prime minister warned during a 1996 speech, having obtained a transcript of remarks by then-first Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh in which the Funcinpec leader ordered his troops to get organized.

The following year, factional fighting erupted in Phnom Penh between armed forces loyal to each of the two men, with Mr. Hun Sen emerging victorious. A U.N. report in August 1997 confirmed summary political executions of 41 opponents to Mr. Hun Sen, including Ho Sok, secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, who was killed inside the ministry.

Twenty years on, Mr. Hun Sen is approaching perhaps the biggest threat to his power since then. With next July’s general election looming, the opposition CNRP hopes to go one better after coming close to a shock victory in 2013.

Analysts say the crucial ballot likely was fueling a sense of paranoia and the premier’s violent outbursts.

“Despite their power, all dictators live in a state of paranoia because of the threat of an elite-driven coup or citizen-led overthrow,” said Lee Morgenbesser, a research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University and author of “Beyond the Facade: Elections Under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia.”

“The opposition’s success in the last national election no doubt compounded this fear by demonstrating to Hun Sen that his party—with all its advantages—lacked popular support amongst nearly half of the population,” he said in an email.

Mr. Hun Sen’s penchant for increasingly threatening politics was an indicator of his willingness to keep grip of power at all costs, Mr. Morgenbesser said.

“Hun Sen’s more fiery rhetoric is strategic in the sense that it signals to opposition groups, civil society actors and media organizations the boundaries of political action,” he said.

“But to what end? After 11,895 days in power, what does he want that he does not already have? I suspect the answer is selfishly simple: the perpetuation of his own dictatorship,” he added.

While the premier has spouted similar threats in the past, Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” said the recent outbursts were exceptional and indicative of increasing paranoia as the election looms.

Whether his threats were reactionary in nature or part of a more careful strategy in the run-up to the election was unclear, he said.

“Hun Sen is no newcomer to this kind of rhetoric, which has been a mainstay of his theatrical public performances for years, though the language of recent months does seem to be unusually extreme,” Mr. Strangio said in an email.

“It is hard to determine the extent to which this results from a calculated strategy, or simply uncontrolled outbursts. I would describe it as a strategic venting of anger, driven by a fear and paranoia that is growing more and more out of proportion to the opposition he actually faces,” he said.

Mr. Strangio said he saw a mix of “mounting paranoia—the PM seems to be seeing color revolutions lurking around every corner—and calculated threats and bluster.”

Government spokesman Phay Siphan admitted that Mr. Hun Sen’s recent rhetoric was in reaction to the 2013 election, while noting the subsequent protests led by the opposition CNRP that swept Phnom Penh as the party and its supporters rejected the results.

The demonstrations ground to a halt in early 2014 after forces opened fire on protesters during clashes in the capital.

“It’s just related to the past experience of 2013. We won’t let it happen,” Mr. Siphan said. “The prime minister wants everyone to abide by the law.”

The recent speeches in question were not “threats” but “warnings,” he added.

Mr. Strangio said the prime minister likely hoped he wouldn’t need to put his words into deeds, but the past shows that it shouldn’t be ruled out.

“While we can never know for sure, history suggests that Hun Sen still sees politics as a zero-sum game of survival, and that compromise remains outside his political and moral vocabulary,” he said.

“The most effective threat is the threat that one doesn’t need to follow through with, but Hun Sen has shown he is willing to act ruthlessly in order to maintain his hold on power. It could be bluster—but who’s going to take the chance?”

Political analyst Cham Bunthet agreed the threats were out of the prime minister’s playbook of intimidating dissenting voices when he feels endangered.

Threats were part of a political strategy of instilling fear from the top, which would likely have more effect on the older generation who survived the Khmer Rouge and the civil war. The ruling party couples that fear with recruitment at the local level to entice the next generation to its side, he said.

“I don’t think the young generation are scared or really care about what the prime minister says,” he said. “But his people work so much at the grassroots level…work very hard to recruit the poor, building the brand of the CPP.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Bunthet said the possibility of the prime minister turning his threats into actions within the next year should not be overlooked.

“I think now it’s more likely a threat, but the prime minister is very pragmatic. If it comes to a point that he’s in a very hot spot, I think he would do it,” he said.

“If you push him to the corner, when he gets back there, the only thing he can do is punch back,” he added. “And seriously, he will punch.”

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