Rising grass-roots anger shaking Hun Sen's pedestal

A single mother fighting eviction is the face of a movement fed up with the intimidation and inequality that has sustained 28-year reign

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 February, 2013, 5:53am

Chray Nhim received just seven days notice telling her that she was to be evicted from her house near Phnom Penh's airport without compensation.

She knew extreme measures were needed if she and her fellow villagers were to avoid the fate of the estimated 10 per cent of residents of the Cambodian capital who have had their homes confiscated in the past 20 years.

The single mother's novel response was to paint a large 'SOS' sign on her roof and cover it with pictures of President Barack Obama, just days before he was due to arrive in Phnom Penh. Twenty-nine of her neighbours did the same. "I heard he was visiting for the Asean meeting, and I thought it could help us find a solution," Chray Nhim, 34, said.

Her protest was one of the most high-profile reactions to the increasingly repressive regime of Cambodia's long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).

As Cambodians mourn their former king, Sihanouk, whose elaborate four-day funeral ends today with his cremation in Phnom Penh, more are questioning the 28-year rule of Hun Sen. The former Khmer Rouge commander has stayed in power by manipulating the electoral roll and intimidating and imprisoning his political enemies.

Now, he and his government are being challenged by the rise of civil society groups. Everyone from farmers and beer girls - the young women who patrol bars promoting breweries - to communities like Chray Nhim's are mobilising into associations.

It is a radical departure for a country still deeply scarred by the genocide inflicted by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge revolutionaries in the 1970s.

"There have never before been groups agitating for social change. For a government that has been in power for so long, it's a worry. These people are voters and the protests create hesitancy in potential investors," said Naly Pilorge, the director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights.

Their rapid rise is being prompted by the land grabs, environmental abuses and violations of labour rights that have increased dramatically, according to Human Rights Watch.

Under Hun Sen and the CPP, Cambodia has become a society starkly divided between an elite that has grown wealthy on the back of collusion between business interests and the government, and the rest of the people, who live on about US$1 a day.

That extreme inequality means the centre of Phnom Penh is now a flourishing haven of imported cars and new apartment blocks, even while a third of all Cambodians still have no access to running water.

Most worrying for Hun Sen, the defiance of people like Chray, who is still occupying her home, is a sign he no longer can count on his fearsome reputation to quell dissent.

"Cambodian society has changed, regardless of the system Hun Sen has imposed. In the past, when he threatened to do something, people were cowed. I think an increasing number of people aren't scared of him now," said Lao Mong Hay, a Cambodian political analyst and former professor of Asian studies at Toronto University.

With elections due in July, the grass-roots resistance has inspired hope the opposition National Rescue Party can increase its share of parliamentary seats, making it harder for the CPP to maintain its total control of the judiciary and media.

"Civil society groups have played an important role in introducing debate about things that are alien to Cambodia, like the rule of law and democracy," said Mu Sochua, a former cabinet minister and senior National Rescue Party MP. "If we didn't have this movement, I wouldn't be optimistic about the future."