This coming Sunday, Cambodians will head to the polls to vote in local elections. Whatever the result, though, the politics of the country are unlikely to change much. Prime Minister Hun Sen, Asia's longest-serving leader (in office since 1985), has the country firmly under his control. Shrewd and relentless in eliminating his political foes, Hun Sen has established a pervasive patronage system and played regional and global powers to his advantage. The local media is firmly under the government's thumb. But perhaps most importantly, the prime minister has overseen years of strong economic growth and a sharp decline in poverty.
The leader of Cambodia's opposition, Sam Rainsy, is undeterred. "We don't need to convince anybody about the bad will of the Hun Sen government. Everybody sees it [for ] himself," Rainsy said. "So actually the environment is rather favorable for us."
To most onlookers, Rainsy's optimism may seem quixotic. But he and his colleagues are feeling a tailwind these days. The Arab Spring has shown that democratic reformers can triumph even under the most improbable of circumstances. Closer to home, recent developments in Burma (aka Myanmar), where the military-backed government has embarked on a series of democratic reforms, serve as a reminder that political change can take unpredictable paths. If Burma succeeds in shedding its pariah status, countries like Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam will find it harder to rationalize their own poor records on human rights. Those governments know that the changes in Burma have made it harder for them to legitimize their own authoritarian rule, said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
Now Rainsy is going for broke. As he told me in a recent interview, he is now openly advocating a strategy to lead a "revolt" against Hun Sen: "The objective is to bring down the Hun Sen regime."
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Rainsy has long been a thorn in Hun Sen's side. As finance minister in the country's first democratically elected government in 1993, Rainsy quickly lost his position after speaking out against corruption. He formed his own opposition group in 1995, now known as the Sam Rainsy Party. He's since been fending off myriad forms of intimidation, ranging from bureaucratic intrigues to assassination attempts. Since 2010, he has been forced to remain in exile to avoid imprisonment, on what he claims were trumped-up charges of defacing government property and forging official documents.
In 1997, Rainsy was nearly killed when assailants hurled grenades at him while he was speaking at an anti-corruption rally in Phnom Penh, leaving 16 dead and 150 injured. Human rights investigators concluded that Hun Sen's bodyguards provided cover for the attackers, but no one has been brought to justice for the incident. "He's tried to kill me many times," Rainsy says. "Having failed to kill me physically, now Hun Sen is trying to kill me politically. Given the context, remaining alive is quite an achievement."
Cambodia's opposition has seen its position erode in recent years. The power of Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) appears to have only grown, as it has neutralized previous rivals, leaving Rainsy and his party the only viable challengers. The once powerful royalist Funcinpec -- which won the 1993 elections only to be out-maneuvered and out-gunned in a 1997 coup d'état by Hun Sen's forces -- has withered into a corrupt, minor coalition partner.