Hun Sen facing historic test

opinion January 07, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

Bloody crackdowns on Cambodian workers will backfire on Cambodia's strongman leader

Violence should be no longer be commonplace in Cambodian politics. The country, which suffered the atrocity of genocide in the late 1970s, is now civilised enough to settle internal conflicts peacefully.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has led the country through turbulent times over the past three decades, must renounce violence as a means of solving problems. After his key role in bringing peace and prosperity to the country, he must guard against using his strongman status to destroy it.
A fierce crackdown on garment workers who were simply demanding a minimum-wage rise claimed the lives of three protesters on Saturday and injured several others. The incident was the worst violence against Cambodian civilians in a decade.
The garment workers had teamed up with opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) under the leadership of Sam Rainsy, Hun Sen’s arch-rival. But that is hardly an excuse to use deadly violence to put down their protest.
Cambodia’s economy is growing thanks in large part to Hun Sen’s leadership, and the working class is a key force driving growth. The garment and textile sector in particular is huge source of foreign income, via overseas exports. Clothing of famous brands such as Levis, Nike, Polo and GAP are made in Cambodian factories. This sector employs some 650,000 workers, who help generate a large slice of the country’s wealth. At stake in the current unrest is the question of who should benefit from that wealth. The US$160- (Bt5,300)-per-month minimum wage demanded by the workers might have seemed high to some, but that figure would be open to negotiation. No one needed to have sacrificed his life for that amount of money.
Hun Sen has been in politics for a long time and should be well aware of a trend of non-tolerance for authoritarian rule that is sweeping the world. Street protests, uprisings, riots and chaos are more likely to occur under such conditions. And opposition politicians are skilled when it comes to piggybacking on unrest to further their aims. Hun Sen’s near-30-year reign is also being challenged by people – especially the young generation – who want to see change in a country in which they say power has been monopolised by the elite.
Governments in many other parts of the world have reacted to the “people’s power” trend with violence, yet such a response threatens not only the lives of citizens but also the political lives of those in power.
Veteran politicians like Hun Sen must find the most peaceful way possible to handle the situation, saving lives and keeping public order. Fierce crackdowns and bloodshed will not solve the problems and will damage the country in the long run. To ensure a reputation as a statesman, Cambodia’s leader must prioritise the fate of his country and the wellbeing of its people above his grip on power.