Back in January, the situation there seemed cut and dried:
Hun Sen staged a coup in 1997. He then intimidated opponents, manipulated elections and cut constitutional corners, allowing him to move steadily to reclaim the full powers he held before the UN intervention.
During the past year, he has choked off the last effective political opposition while continuing to marginalize the monarchy, manipulate the courts and intimidate labor unions and other civic groups.
In December, the leader of the only significant opposition party, Sam Rainsy, who had already fled the country, was sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison for criminal defamation.
Now, with a series of arrests and lawsuits on defamation and related charges, Hun Sen is for the first time directly attacking the human rights groups that, by default, serve as a de facto democratic opposition.
The Bangkok Post further discussed Hun Sen's persecution of Cambodian human rights critics in a Feb 1/06 story titled, "Hun Sen says foreign critics are animals." (Sorry, no link is available.)
Cambodian Centre for Human Rights director Cam Sokha and his deputy Pa Nguon Teang as well as legal activist Yeng Virak were arrested and jailed pending defamation hearings over anti-government slogans which had allegedly appeared on a banner for International Human Rights Day on Dec 10 [/05].
Gahhh! They were arrested for a slogan on a banner. Happy International Human Rights Day!
Others were arrested for politically disagreeing with the government:
Independent broadcaster Mom Sonando and teachers union head Rong Chunn were arrested last October after they criticized the government's new border agreement with Vietnam...
After foreign critics asked Hun Sen to withdraw the charges against the men, his reply was this:
"Any foreigners, if you are not an animal, please talk about the law. Don't talk about politics...You have asked me to drop the complaint. I am not the chief of the court. I cannot drop it and am unable to suspend [the cases]. Now there are two possibilities. One, let the court sentence them, and then I will ask the king for a pardon for you..."
"Two, please be quiet..."
Love them choices.
"Please choose your option. Some critics are animals. Cam Sokha, Pa Nguon Teang and Mom Sonando clearly understand about animals."
"In Cambodia, if you want to become well-known, they have to blast Hun Sen. Then if they are jailed they can have donors..."
Thomas Jefferson, he's not. But it seems though, that he'd rather silence his enemies rather than jail them. Because on Feb 10th, Cambodia's convicted opposition leader returned to Cambodia, and he didn't wind up in the clink. There was a price, though:
[Sam Rainsy] received a royal pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni last week.
The catalyst for the pardon appears to have been a letter that Mr Rainsy sent to the prime minister last Friday.
In it he apologised for linking Hun Sen to a fatal grenade attack on a Sam Rainsy Party rally nine years ago.
He also indicated he would be less abrasive towards the government in future.
I take that as meaning that from now on, he'll be much less critical towards government policies. Quite frankly, I'm not sure what's the purpose of even having an opposition if it's just going to roll over and play dead. Some of Rainsy's supporters feel the same way, though they've taken their disappointment with their leader a bit too far:
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has been allotted 12 armed bodyguards because of fears he could be assassinated by critics angered by his truce with his former arch-rival, Prime Minister Hun Sen, officials said yesterday.
(From "State assigns bodyguards to protect Sam Rainsy," in the Feb 17th edition of the Bangkok Post. Sorry, no link is available.)
How threatening violence against their own party leader is going to help matters is beyond me. Having to depend on the government for protection puts Rainsy even further in Hun Sen's debt.
All of this is pretty convincing evidence that Cambodia is ruled by a dictator. Which leaves me scratching my head over the next story:
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said yesterday he wanted to remove from the statute books a criminal defamation law which rights activists say he has been using to silence critics.
Defamation should be a civil action under which those found guilty would have to pay compensation, Hun Sen said after making up with Sam Rainsy, for whom he requested a royal pardon allowing for Sam Rainsy's return from France.
(From "Hun Sen intends to pull defamation law," in the Feb 15/06 edition of the Bangkok Post. Sorry, no link is available.)
So here's the question: since when do dictators just voluntarily give up weapons in their coercive arsenal? The criminal defamation law has obviously served Hun Sen well in the past. Has he had some kind of Road to Damascus moment, and become a new convert to democracy?
What's the deal?
If anyone knows the answer, or can direct me to a good blog on Cambodian politics, I'd appreciate the help. 'Cause right now, I'm baffled.