Hun Sen’s ceasefire: A dictator’s folly?

Photo: World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons

Cambodia’s Prime Minister has called a cease-fire amid growing tensions over alleged purges of opposition supporters. The move has been panned by critics as just another tactic to consolidate the rule of a leader who relies on military might to support his position. 


Relations between Cambodia’s two most prominent parties has soured in the past couple of months. Allegations are flying that the government is cracking down on its critics to stifle and intimidate members of the opposition ahead of the 2018 general election.

But fear and doubt are growing among the incumbent CPP government. They faced their toughest victory yet in the 2013 general elections and Prime Minister Hun Sen is afraid he won’t be lucky enough to win next time. This has triggered a brutal purge with high-profile casualties.

In light of their actions, Hun Sen and the CPP-dominated government have had to deny that they were using their judiciary powers to target opposition members. However, in their latest witch-huntNy Chakrya, an election official and former rights activist, has been convicted of criticizing the judiciary and faces six months in prison.

In the midst of the resulting backlash Hun Sen challenged his opponents to expect more of the same if they protested. And then things changed. Unlike the scripts of his previous strongman exchanges, Hun Sen has taken a step back and decided to enter this situation as a mediator; declaring a political “ceasefire” last Thursday. But for many this is just a tactic to consolidate the gains he has already made before he loses public support entirely.

When asked about his motivations, and if it will hold, Hun Sen stated that he “should not talk much because there is a ceasefire” and that he wanted “the situation to be quiet, [and didn’t] want any exchanges”.

Another civil war?

However, not all of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leadership accepts Hun Sen’s “ceasefire.” Its leader and President, Sam Rainsy, has struck out against Hun Sen saying his olive branch was a ruse. In a BBC interview on Monday he also suggested that members of his party should not return to parliament. Rainsy’s comments have baffled many CNRP members, who are starting to doubt Mr. Rainsy’s ability to understand the political realities in their country.

Hun Sen’s olive branch to the CNRP could be a de-escalation of tensions, which have been boiling for the past several years. But even if this brought a new era in Cambodian politics the chances of an opposition government are slim. The CPP-dominated military has said it would refuse to hand over power to the CNRP, even if they win an election, spreading fears of a future coup. The armed support of Hun Sen’s elite bodyguard unit, together with this commitment from the Cambodian military angers opposition supporters. They see Hun Sen as a military dictator rather than a democratically-elected Prime Minister.

Thus, Hun Sen’s attempt to bring the CNRP into the fold to prevent another civil war seems to be at risk; Ram Rainsy and his CNRP leaders in Cambodia seem to have different agendas. Moreover, Hun Sen’s previous purges of opposition members might not be easily forgiven, or his opponents, making a long-term ceasefire look doubtful.