For those following Cambodian politics, 2017 was bewildering, even by the usual standards of the country. Confronted with the growing risk of losing power in this year’s upcoming election, it appears as though Prime Minister Hun Sen and his governing party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), decided to put an end to the experiment with liberal democracy in Cambodia that began with the United Nations-sponsored general election of 1993.
In a series of attacks on the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the CPP branded the main opposition as a party of “national traitors” and “puppets of the West”. It lined up its media mouthpieces and intellectuals to insinuate “secret collusion” between the opposition and the United States to stage a “colour revolution”. In this atmosphere, CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested and charged with treason and, in mid-November, the party itself was dissolved.
What explains Hun Sen’s sudden decision to turn off the democratic reform switch, bury the gains of the last two or three decades — democratic elections, a nascent civil society, a free press — and revert to the old ways of doing things?