PHNOM PENH -- Cambodian authorities are stepping up an increasingly violent campaign of repression against activists, openly admitting they seek to crush small-scale peaceful protests to suppress a larger uprising.
At least 24 activists have been arrested since July 31. One woman was dragged by her hair into an unmarked black Lexus, while another was seized after leaving a United Nations building where she sought refuge, according to human rights monitors.
Determined to snuff out such dissent, Cambodian authorities have targeted small demonstrations by youth activists, environmental campaigners and family members of imprisoned opposition politicians. Police have defrocked and detained a Buddhist monk for protesting, and seized two young rappers for political songs.
They arrested a 22-year-old woman for planning to walk alone to Prime Minister Hun Sen's house to discuss the filling in of a Phnom Penh lake for development. She has been charged with "incitement" for the attempt.
The renewed crackdown, which started with the arrest of a popular unionist, comes as Thailand's leaders face their own reckoning with disillusioned youths and citizens in Belarus revolt against a longtime dictator.
"Small protests or big protests, we arrest them all if they act against the law," Sok Eysan, spokesman for the ruling Cambodian Peoples' Party told the Nikkei Asian Review.
In a statement this month, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani, expressed concern.
"The current situation marks a deepening of the government's intolerance to dissent and repression of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association," Shamdasani said.
Government officials say they need to maintain "social order" and want to avoid the type of popular uprisings experienced in the Middle East a decade ago that became known as the "Arab Spring."
"A small fire can destroy a house," one government spokesman told local outlet Voice of Democracy, saying authorities would "smash" small protests to avoid bigger demonstrations.
Whether wittingly or not, their analogy places Hun Sen in the company of long-ruling unpopular autocrats whose citizens rebelled in response to oppressive regimes and poor living standards.
Hun Sen and the CPP claim they have brought "peace and development " to a country once torn by war and genocide, regularly pointing to Cambodia's consistent economic growth of about 7% over the past decade.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has exposed the fragility and unequal wealth distribution that has accompanied the expanding economy during their four decades in power.
Millions of people, many in debt to microfinance institutions, face unemployment or are struggling to earn sufficient income as the economic fallout of the public health crisis slams Cambodia's main growth drivers -- the garment, tourism and construction sectors.
In contrast, the vast wealth of a small political and business elite has been amassed amid endemic corruption and underfunding of public services like health and education.
"They develop [the country], but it's for the government families, not for the Cambodian people," activist Lim Kimsor told Nikkei. "The rich have become even richer and the poor have become poorer."
Like many, Kimsor's life has been shaped by the predatory practices of Cambodia's elite. The 31-year-old turned to activism after her family was among more than 100 forcibly evicted from their central Phnom Penh homes by developers in 2009.
She has spent the past 10 years involved with social and environmental campaigns, protesting against land grabs, rampant logging and sand mining. Now, Kimsor says, the space for speaking out has all but disappeared.
"Before they would try to block us, but now they arrest us," she said.
Cambodia under Hun Sen has been characterized by cycles of crackdowns against opponents followed by gestures of reconciliation to appease Western donors, whose aid poured in following UN-organized elections in 1993.
But the forced dissolution in 2017 of the main political opposition group, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, marked a new level of repression, with the regime discarding the pretense of democracy as Hun Sen looks to install his eldest son as successor.
Its descent deeper into authoritarianism has been helped by the rise of China -- Cambodia's top source of aid and investment -- which has lessened its reliance on development partners whose support is tied to the promotion of human rights and democracy.
Even with its position as one of Cambodia's most important markets, the European Union failed to get Hun Sen to reinstate the CNRP and drop a treason case against its leader Kem Sokha. Brussels' efforts culminated last month with a partial suspension of Cambodia's EU trade preferences in response human rights abuses.
While Hun Sen remained defiant -- saying he would "not bow" to Europe's demands -- the sanctions dealt a further blow to Cambodia's $10 billion apparel export sector as it reels from a severe order slowdown amid the pandemic.
The EU decision also increased Cambodia's reliance on the U.S. market and its Generalized System of Preferences, or GSP, handing Washington a source of leverage as it looks to counter Chinese influence in the region.
But while China may have the most economic might at its disposal, its capacity to tackle weaknesses in Cambodia's narrow economic base is limited.
Beijing's billions in aid and concessional loans have largely gone to infrastructure. Foreign direct investment from China, meanwhile, is focused on construction which, while the biggest contributor to GDP growth last year, employs about 200,000 workers, compared to some 620,000 in tourism and close to 1 million in the garment sector.
A yet-to-be-signed free trade deal with Beijing, reportedly focused on agricultural exports, is more symbolic than practical, say analysts.
Economist Intelligence Unit analyst Imogen Page-Jarret says China's government could help boost Cambodia's tourist numbers and encourage investment, but it would take "many years" to lessen its export reliance on the U.S. and European markets.
"Exports to China totaled only $916.2 million in 2019, or 5.5% of total exports," Page-Jarret said. "In addition, the main goods category that Cambodia is targeting for export to China under the FTA is agricultural produce, which is low in value added."
In the meantime, the COVID-19 crisis threatens to throw millions back into poverty and the government's support for swelling numbers of struggling citizens is falling short.
A plan to subsidize the wages of the more than 150,000 garment workers whose factories have suspended operations was scaled back and, according to reports, has been unevenly implemented.
Thousands of garment workers have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest deteriorating conditions and demand unpaid wages.
Labor rights advocate Kun Tharo said government pressure keeps the union movement fragmented, but the economic crisis has the potential to unify workers.
"When you have an empty stomach, when you have nothing to live on, to support your family and kids, it gives an opportunity for people to take a risk," Tharo said. "The real pressure is to mobilize groups together, not just individuals. Everyone has to stand up, that is the key."
Beyond the scope of the government's limited support, such as a monthly cash transfer of up to $30 for some 600,000 poor families, many more are falling through the cracks.
Vorn Pao of group IDEA, which represents some 12,000 informal workers ranging from drivers of tuk tuk three-wheeled motorized rickshaws, to small businesses, says his members were in deep economic trouble.
"They all have nothing now," said Pao. "Their situation is beyond desperate."
In the absence of an established social safety net, however, is a well-structured surveillance state.
The government's propensity and capacity to quash criticism has been increasing since 2013, when it almost lost a disputed election to the CNRP and faced the largest street protests in its modern history calling for Hun Sen's ouster.
Since then, it's granted itself legislative powers to control civil society, declare martial law and deploy widespread electronic surveillance. At least a dozen people have been arrested, "re-educated" or jailed this year for comments critical of the government on social media.
It is planning to further increase its control over the internet via a China-style firewall, as Nikkei first reported this month.
The CPP's strategy to avoid a repeat of its near defeat seven years ago has included targeting people who can mobilize others. Thus, it has arrested or intimidated journalists, unionists and monks.
The fate of CNRP leader Kem Sokha remains in limbo with Hun Sen this month saying his case could be delayed four years because of COVID-19. The pandemic, however, hasn't stopped authorities from jailing lower level opposition members.
One, aged 39, was this month sentenced to five years in prison for supporting the aborted return of self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy from France last year, which the government labeled an "overthrow" attempt.
Senior CNRP official Mu Sochua said near defeat in 2013 had made the CPP realize it could not afford to further extend democratic space lest it quickly lose control.
"Hun Sen will never, ever allow 2013/2014 to happen again, the mass demonstration," said Sochua, who is in the U.S. after Cambodian authorities canceled her passport.
"The economic situation is beyond his control as well, he knows if he lets workers, the informal sector and environmental activists walk, it will mount into an avalanche," she added.
"That's why even one young woman wanting to march on the street is not allowed."