Tuesday, July 29, 2014

It is high time for Cambodia’s Hun Sen to go

The Financial Times: Editorial - July 27, 2014 4:56 pm

The prime minister has ruled the country for too long

Ayear-long political crisis ended last week in Cambodia when the opposition agreed to take up its seats in parliament after disputed elections last July. In return for calling off its parliamentary boycott, eight opposition figures were released from detention on trumped-up insurrection charges.

Of potentially longer lasting significance, the government agreed to overhaul the election committee in order to bring some degree of transparency to the deeply compromised electoral process. Opposition representatives will also get the chairmanship of five out of 10 parliamentary commissions, including those covering labour, human rights and anti-corruption – all areas of urgent concern.

In some ways, we have been here before. Time and again, Hun Sen, the cunning prime minister who will in January celebrate 30 years in office, has done whatever it takes to prolong his grip on power.

That has included a spell as co-prime minister after he refused to accept the result of UN-organised elections in 1993. By 1997 he was back in full control after a coup.

Keen to maintain at least the semblance of democracy – useful for keeping the aid dollars flowing – he has gone through the rigmarole of regular elections since. At last year’s poll, his air of invincibility wore thin. His Cambodian People’s party only narrowly won an election that the opposition claimed was rigged.

Last week’s “breakthrough” will be meaningless if it turns out to be just another act in Mr Hun Sen’s drama of perpetual power. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue party, led by Sam Rainsy, must ensure that pledges are honoured. More, it should help create something other than a rubber-stamp legislature. The danger is that Mr Hun Sen, a master tactician, will split the opposition through inducements and threats.

In some ways, Cambodia has come a long way from the genocidal madness of the 1970s when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge killed at least 1.7m people. The economy, propelled by a fast-expanding garments industry, big inflows of tourists and a scramble for resources, has been growing at some 7 per cent a year for most of the past decade.

In Phnom Penh there is a veritable construction boom. Chinese investment, western aid and the emergence of a fragile middle class – as well as a thin layer of the well-connected super rich – give the country a frontier feel.

Unfortunately, that comes with decidedly wild-west governance. Hundreds of thousands of subsistence farmers have been turfed off their land to make way for cash crops. Environmental degradation is rife. Anger over land seizures and rampant corruption, as well as growing wealth disparities, labour militancy and a surprisingly strong civil society have radicalised the population.

Mr Hun Sen must lance the boil. He should make steps to leave office. Handled astutely, he could prepare an orderly transition in time for the next election, likely to take place in 2018 – though sooner would be better. Like most leaders who have held power for so long, he is reluctant to give up the wealth and prestige that goes with it. Like many, he may fear what could happen to him without the protection of the state apparatus he now controls. The opposition should convince him that he can leave without revenge.

It is probably too much to ask for from either side. Yet, without such a deal, the social pressures that have built up are bound to erupt in further violence. Mr Hun Sen’s defenders claim he is still popular. They say he is the only person who can unite the country’s competing forces and keep the promising growth spurt going.

These arguments are unconvincing. More than 35 years have passed since the Khmer Rouge was driven from power. It is high time Mr Hun Sen went too.

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