The recent military activity on the Cambodian-Laos border is all part of Hun Sen’s act. His performance is more Richard III than Prospero.
Laos and Cambodia have agreed to work together to resolve the border dispute. The two foreign ministers met in Vientiane. They both agreed to collaborate to come to a solution and prevent further escalation.
2018 has seen increased activity on the Cambodian side of the Laos-Cambodian border. The region continues to be a source of tension. But for Hun Sen, the border conflict is more theatrics than a genuine threat to stability. His military rumblings are a calculated political performance.
Hun Sen has increased border defences
Since the flare-up in 2017, Cambodia has placed a further 3,000 troops along the 540-kilometre border. The soldiers make up brigade 128, which was inaugurated in October 2017.
In February 2018, the brigade conducted live-fire exercise drills near the border. Few details about the exercise was revealed. However, indications suggest it was a component of a small weapons training program.
Hun Sen uses military theatrics to shore up power
Hun Sen uses the Cambodian military to boost his political image. He will escalate border tensions at crucial moments. When tensions rise, he either responds with military force or negotiates a de-escalation. Following the incident, he pedals an image as a pillar of peace and stability or a military strongman. This is a strategy he has employed several times during his leadership.
He used this strategy ahead of the general election in 2008. Hun Sen applied for the temple of Preah Vihear to receive World Heritage Site status. The temple sits in disputed land near the Thai border which Thailand claims. The move was deliberate from Hun Sen, knowing that it would irk the Thai government. Both sides began building up a troop presence in the area. Clashes broke out, and he was able to unite the country in the face of a common enemy.
In 2017, Hun Sen employed a similar strategy. His party had performed disappointingly in the communal elections. Hun Sen needed to create a military spectacle to boost his image once again.
In August, he told the Laos government that it had six days to remove its troops from disputed territories. Amid escalating tensions, Hun Sen had armoured vehicles parade through Phnom Penh. The same day he issued the ultimatum, he flew to Vientiane. He met with Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith the following day. The pair resolved the standoff and hugged in front of the reporters gathered in attendance.
Hun Sen wants to stir nationalist sentiment ahead of the 2018 election
His inauguration of brigade 128 and its exercises are another attempt to escalate border tensions. Hun Sen wants to stir up nationalist sentiment ahead of the 2018 general election.
For Hun Sen, he could foster an image as a defender of Cambodian sovereignty. Now the foreign ministers have deescalated tensions; he can appear as a peacemaker.
The risks were also minimal. The Laotian military is not a significant threat to Cambodia. If it responded aggressively to Hun Sen’s posturing, the fallout would be manageable. An attempt to employ the same tactics on the Vietnamese border would be far riskier.
Hun Sen’s handling of the military is straight out of a Shakespeare play. It has the ominous threat of conflict, two heads of state coming together, and in 2017, it ended with a hug. However, for the opposition it is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. The elections will already lack integrity, being neither free nor fair. Now there is the added stirrings of nationalist sentiment.