As his new government finally gets to work, Cambodia’s prime minister is tightening his grip on power, shrewdly snubbing or quashing his top rivals, analysts and activists say.
Hun Sen, the region’s longest serving leader, formed a coalition government last month with his former royalist coalition partner after a year-long impasse following July 2003 elections which his party failed to win outright.
While the international community and most Cambodians were relieved at the resumption of parliament, critics are alarmed at the menace they say Hun Sen poses to the kingdom’s young democracy.
"He is in an unchallengeable position. Democracy is threatened by events over the last few months," political analyst Lao Mong Hay told AFP.
"He can ignore all criticism from outside and inside the country. He has the command of the security forces and he has the command of the public administration."
In a matter of weeks, Hun Sen has trampled over the constitution, secured domination in his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), snubbed revered King Norodom Sihanouk and is again flexing his muscles against the vocal opposition party.
Activist hackles were first raised by a disputed law he insisted be passed last month by parliament to ensure his re-election as prime minister.
The king refused to sign the bill from self-exile in North Korea, where he retreated in frustration over the ongoing political saga in which he was sidelined.
The 81-year-old instead ordered acting head of state, Chea Sim, to decide on signing it, sparking the greatest tension of the year-long stand-off.
According to diplomatic sources, Chea Sim, who heads a rival CPP faction and was once considered the country’s most powerful man, tried to use the bill as a bargaining chip to win more ministries for his faction in the new government.
Hun Sen refused to budge. His forces descended around Chea Sim’s home on July 13 and he was escorted to Thailand by the national police chief, leaving his royalist deputy to ink the contentious legislation.
The highly secretive CPP, a former communist party installed by the Vietnamese after they chased the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, swiftly closed ranks and insisted Chea Sim had left for a medical check-up.
Meanwhile a dispirited King Sihanouk threatened to abdicate.
Although the king has made such warnings before, diplomats say this time he is dismayed by political developments and wishes to withdraw.
King Sihanouk said he will stay abroad in Beijing, where he travelled after North Korea, until he receives a guarantee from parliament that he will not be breaching the constitution by abdicating.
"People’s stomachs are a more urgent problem," than the king’s abdication, Hun Sen snapped in response, arguing that under the constitution, the king is king for life.
The opposition has charged that Hun Sen would prefer King Sihanouk to stay stranded in exile. Others fear his abdication will spark a constitutional crisis, as no procedures are in place to choose his successor.
"Only two things stand in the way between Hun Sen and his vision: the king and god," one Phnom Penh-based diplomat said.
On another front, Hun Sen is squeezing the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.
Shortly after the government was formed, the premier claimed the opposition was building a rebel force aiming to topple the new government.
No arrests have been made, but several party members were tricked into making false confessions about the alleged front in what the diplomat described as a naive move that flopped — one of Hun Sen’s few misplaced steps.
Hun Sen last week blocked members of the opposition from sitting on national assembly commissions charged with debating draft laws.
The criticism of laws by the opposition, which has had places on the commissions since UN-sponsored elections in 1993, is now effectively silenced.
"The power of the opposition party is getting smaller and smaller," Hang Puthea, the director of election monitoring group Comfrel, told AFP.