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In Cambodia, a political crackdown deepens

PHNOM PENH -- Pity the opponents of Cambodia's prime minister. Three years after nearly toppling the long-serving Hun Sen in national elections, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party finds itself besieged by an intensifying legal assault that has landed more than 20 critics of the government in jail in the past year.

The crackdown slipped into high gear on May 2 with the arrest of four staff members from Adhoc, a local human rights group, and a senior member of the National Election Committee. The five have been accused of bribing a 25-year-old hairdresser to deny an alleged affair with Kem Sokha, the CNRP's deputy president. Another "accomplice" -- a worker from the United Nations human rights office in Phnom Penh -- has been charged in absentia.

The arrests are just the latest twist in a complex sex scandal that has unfurled since recordings of alleged phone conversations between Sokha and the young woman were leaked two months ago. This, in turn, has broadened the ruling party's legal-political offensive aimed at crippling the CNRP and its civil society allies ahead of local elections in 2017 and crucial national polls the following year. In response to the arrests, 59 non-governmental organizations released a statement denouncing the crackdown as "a farcical use of both the criminal justice system and state institutions as tools to intimidate, criminalize and punish the legitimate activities of human rights defenders and civil society."

Familiar territory

None of this is new in Cambodian politics. Like the monsoons, political repression is a seasonal phenomenon, usually descending at the mid-point of the five-year electoral cycle. Similar high-pressure fronts were present in 2005-06, and again in 2009-10, when government critics were hauled into court on a range of pretexts. The difference this time, analysts say, is that the government is casting its net wider than ever as it prepares to face a resurgent CNRP at commune elections scheduled for June 2017. "The scope and breadth are unprecedented. It's open season on Cambodia's human rights defenders," said Sophal Ear, an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles and author of "Aid dependence in Cambodia: How foreign assistance undermines democracy."

Among those in prison are two opposition lawmakers arrested for claiming alleged border incursions by Vietnam, and three other CNRP officials who appeared in court on May 5 charged with fomenting an "uprising" when they clashed with security forces in mid-2014. In March, a court sentenced a 25-year-old student to 18 months jail after he called on Facebook for a "color revolution" to overthrow the government.

"It's now crystal clear that Hun Sen is trying to derail or seriously pervert the electoral process because he knows that his [Cambodian People's Party] would lose any real elections in 2017 and 2018," Sam Rainsy, CNRP president, told local media on May 5. Rainsy was commenting from exile in Paris, where he says was forced to go, as in the past two election seasons, by threats of his own arrest on defamation charges.

Suos Yara, a CPP spokesman, said he could not comment on the recent arrests, denying that the party was influencing the Cambodian judiciary. "This is a duty for the legal branch, and we have nothing to do with that," he said. But in remarks made during a May 4 meeting with European Union representatives, Ouch Borith, a secretary of state in the foreign ministry, said the government had "no choice" but to make the arrests, due to the CNRP's "unethical and provocative behaviors and incitements".

The CPP has good reason to be concerned. At the last national election in 2013, Rainsy's party scored large gains by tapping into a deep reservoir of discontent about corruption, land grabs, and a lack of job opportunities for the young. (Some two-thirds of the population are under the age of 30, according to the UN.) Since then, Hun Sen has adopted a dual-track strategy of trying to win back support through populist reforms -- wage hikes for teachers and soldiers, promises of land for poor farmers -- while slamming shut any prospect of an opposition alternative.

Leader's two faces

This strategy can be seen on Hun Sen's busy Facebook page, in which photos of the leader playing with his grandchildren -- strongman as family man -- alternate with official ribbon-cuttings and warnings of legal action against any commentators who "twist" the truth or besmirch the honor of the CPP. "All of you have rights, but please do not forget that we also have rights like you," he wrote in an April 25 post.

In his 31 years at the apex of Cambodia's turbulent politics, Hun Sen has developed a feather touch for political manipulation, alternating periods of pressure with periods of calm in just the right balance to keep his opponents off balance and overseas development aid flowing in. In tightening, he plants the seed; in slackening, he reaps the grain.

Ou Virak, the head of the Future Forum policy institute, who is also facing defamation charges for publicly criticizing the legal campaign against Sokha, said the current blitz, as in past, is likely to lead to negotiations in which Hun Sen will try to wring concessions from his opponents and assuage the concerns of foreign governments. "I think there will be a period of cooling down, and that's when the opposition will be weakened," he said. Sophal employed a different metaphor for Hun Sen's strategy: "It's like a knob on your stove," he said. "Sometimes the gas is off, and other times, it's at full blast." Whatever the setting, his opponents have generally been well cooked.

But some warn that while old tactics may sideline the opposition, they are doing little to win back popular support. Political sentiment is notoriously hard to gauge in Cambodia; the country has no official opinion polls. Even so, Kem Ley, the head of Khmer For Khmer, a political advocacy group, said that on recent trips to the countryside, he found few people who supported the ruling party. With increasing access to information via the internet, and a growing sense of shared grievance, people's expectations are rising. "Almost all of them I met, they did not support the ruling government -- they want change," he said. "The CPP always claims about 6% annual growth in gross domestic product, but if we look at the ground reality and the poverty rate, it's very bad."

Others said that whether or not the CPP actually wins the elections in 2017 and 2018 is a separate question from whether the party would ever give up power. Sophal said, "Only the karmic wheel of life will take care of that, and we know how this ends. All phenomena are impermanent."

The issue of permanence, and its opposite, seem to be on Hun Sen's mind. The prime minister remains relatively youthful -- he turns 64 in August -- but he has clearly started sizing up his place in the Cambodian pantheon. In February, work began on a lavish memorial on Phnom Penh's Chruoy Changva peninsula, commemorating the CPP's role in the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, and the success of Hun Sen's "win-win" policy, which is credited with ending the country's civil war in the late 1990s.

In a similar vein, many observers believe he is also starting to prepare the way for a successor. Most predictions settle on his eldest son Hun Manet, 38, a lieutenant general in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces who was recently dispatched on a hearts-and-minds tour through Cambodian diaspora communities in the United States. (He met mainly angry protests.) The other possible candidate is his youngest son Many, 34, who was elected to the National Assembly in 2013 and heads a prominent CPP youth organization.

While a stable succession plan will be necessary to secure his legacy, Hun Sen will face challenges finding someone skillful enough to continue the delicate balancing act that has secured his survival through five election seasons. "It depends on his children, whether they're up to par to take over the leadership," said Virak. In the meantime, there are new elections to navigate. And with Hun Sen still firmly in the driver's seat, it may be some time before Cambodia experiences a permanent change in its increasingly turbulent political climate.

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