Cambodia opposition shrivels as Hun Sen's network branches out
Aidan Jones and Suy Se
Change had felt so close, says opposition activist Khem Chan Vannak wistfully. But then the decades-old networks of Cambodia's strongman leader Hun Sen showed their teeth, dissolving the rival party and cowing its base into silence.
Cambodia goes to the polls on Sunday, but without a serious opposition on the ballot sheet Hun Sen is poised to win big and extend his 33-year stay as prime minister.
But rewind just a year and his victory did not look so assured.
In June 2017 the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won around a third of the country's communes -- administrative clusters of villages -- in local elections.
Freshly elected as chief of the Kakab II commune, Khem Chan Vannak promised clean, scrupulous leadership for his scruffy Phnom Penh suburb of garment factories and cheap new apartments.
"I wanted to do something different for the people," the 39-year-old says.
But by November he was out of a job and the CNRP was no longer in existence.
The Supreme Court dissolved the party for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government, turfing out the CNRP's local officials and its 55 national MPs.
They were either urged to defect or replaced by ruling party officials and their allies.
The CNRP says the ruling was political sabotage orchestrated by Hun Sen, who has weaned the kingdom -- from its courts to communes -- on loyalty to him.
"It's very frustrating, the people chose us, they voted for something new... it turned out the other way," a forlorn Khem Chan Vannak told AFP.
But in the increasingly authoritarian country, there is unlikely to be widespread protest. Many core CNRP members are now in jail or self-exile.
Instead, the opposition has called for a boycott, urging supporters to show off non-inked "clean fingers" on polling day to undermine Hun Sen's victory with a low turnout.
"I won't vote, nor will my family," says Touch Teara, a CNRP supporter in the Kakab II commune.
"But people don't dare to protest... there are no leaders left."
- Friends and favours -
In the space vacated by the CNRP, Hun Sen's old patronage networks are budding new branches.
Maly Piseth, 42, was given Khem Chan Vannak's job in Kakab II.
A member of the ruling Cambodia People's Party (CPP) since 1993, his fortunes are entwined with Hun Sen's stay in office.
"He is a good leader, he is friendly with the people, he wants to fix their problems," Maly Piseth says from a new, marbled-floor office in Kakab II.
In return, all the prime minister requires is "people who are loyal to him".
Commune chiefs have been ordered to get the vote out, especially in opposition-majority areas.
On Sunday Maly Piseth will be going door-to-door to "encourage" the roughly 4,000 eligible voters to go the polls.
He insists there is no punishment for anyone who boycotts the vote. But, like all commune chiefs, he carries a big stick.
Commune chiefs sign off on the everyday details of Cambodian life.
They can grant or withhold permission to buy or sell land and the documents needed to apply for an ID card -- power the ruling party has carefully used to promote friends and hand out favours.
To head off a boycott, the CPP is now engaging in a petty but effective form of administrative harassment, several CNRP members told AFP, threatening to freeze out known critics at a local level.
Election officials have said calling for a boycott is a crime and they are investigating several former CNRP officials.
- 'New dreams, old story' -
In the last national election in 2013, the CNRP won 55 out of 123 seats, alleging chicanery in the count that edged them out of an outright win.
But Hun Sen was not on the ropes for long, using pliant courts to tie up critics in the media, civil society and the resurgent opposition in "a constitutional coup", according to CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy, who lives in self-exile in France.
Yet Hun Sen also draws devotion, underpinned by memory of Cambodia's traumatic recent history of civil war, the Khmer Rouge and occupation by Vietnam.
A former Khmer Rouge commander who defected late in the game, Hun Sen edged into power in 1985.
He rarely passes up the chance to remind Cambodians that stability and growth -- the economy is projected to expand by 6.9 percent this year -- are gifts of his rule.
It is a message that resonates with many voters.
From rank poverty and war, Muth Pros, 50, says his Kakab II commune now has clean water, electricity and clinics.
"I never expected to own a car, or for my two daughters to go to university," he says.
"Young people have new dreams but I only know the old story. I will vote for my prime minister."
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