BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - One would think that, after being in power for three decades, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen would feel more secure about his position. Sadly, this is not the case. The strongman has a weak temperament, and no mandate from the people is enough to put him at ease. As he prepares for another general election next year, he has decided to go after his political challengers and outspoken critics.
Observers cannot say they didn't see it coming - that Hun Sen's reign would eventually slide towards dictatorship. He has been behaving dictatorially for years, and he doesn't really care what fellow citizens, or the world, think of him.
This past week the Cambodia Daily, one of the most respected publications in Southeast Asia, was forced to close because of a seemingly bogus allegation about it not paying taxes.
Hun Sen's government said the newspaper owed US$6.3 million (S$8.48 million) in back taxes and gave its owners a month to pay up or face closure. The paper earned no profit and thus could hardly be expected to pay taxes, but that seemed to be beside the point. The real point is that it was consistently critical of Hun Sen.
"Descent into outright dictatorship" read the headline on its final edition. That was no cheap shot, as Hun Sen's supporters would have people believe. The paper had been a thorn in the government's side for most of his tenure in office, carrying stories about corruption, environmental degradation, abuses of land rights and other sensitive issues.
It is clear that, in Cambodia, especially among the younger generation, disaffection continues to spread, resulting in the political opposition gaining more ground, as seen in local elections held this past June.
Hun Sen's response to that shadow on his future stability was not a bout of soul searching but rather a strike at the opposition. Kem Sokha, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the main opposition front, was arrested and jailed on a charge of treason. The accusation stems from a video in which he speaks to an American about ways to strengthen his political movement. Hun Sen appears to be so insecure that a rival just talking about politics to an outsider is cause for repression. If found guilty, Kem Sokha could spend 30 years in prison.
As if that weren't enough, Hun Sen also threatened to dissolve the CNRP if its members didn't withdraw support for their leader. He might as well order them to vote for his Cambodia People's Party.
Hun Sen has meanwhile lashed out against the US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), an organisation dedicated to promoting democracy all around the world. The premier wants its representatives out of his country. Radio stations have also been told to stop broadcasting Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
Repression is never good for business. With its gross domestic product expected to expand by 7 per cent this year, Cambodia is one of the fastest-growing economies in Southeast Asia, but that could quickly change if investors react negatively to the harassment of opposition politicians and foreigners such as the NDI and American-owned Cambodia Daily.
Hun Sen should be striving to cement his legacy as the leader who guided a benighted country back into the light, not as a dictator drawing the shades.
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