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Fears for Cambodia's future as nation mourns former king

Sunday, 3 February 2013 - 5:58pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph

Thousands of Cambodians were in the capital, Phnom Penh, on Sunday for the second day of an elaborate funeral ceremony for the country's former King Sihanouk, who died of a heart attack in October aged 89.

Thousands of Cambodians were in the capital, Phnom Penh, on Sunday for the second day of an elaborate funeral ceremony for the country's former King Sihanouk, who died of a heart attack in October aged 89.

They waited patiently for hours in the sun to pay their respects, as the elaborate cortege made its way to the towering funeral pyre near the royal palace where he will be cremated tomorrow.

But beneath the united exterior - as the country recalls the man who was crowned in 1941 and oversaw a bloodless transition from French colonial rule to independence in 1953 - is growing unease over the repressive rule of Hun Sen, Cambodia's prime minister.

Hun, 60, has been in office for 28 years and has pledged to continue until he is 90. He has stayed in power by imprisoning opponents or forcing them into exile, buying votes and manipulating electoral rolls, and is notorious for his unreconstructed attitude towards his political enemies.

"I not only weaken the opposition, I'm going to make them dead," he said in 2011, in response to the Arab Spring uprisings and the idea that anything similar could occur in Cambodia.

The king, who abdicated in favour of his son in 2004, was often critical of Hun and many Cambodians regret that his voice will no longer be heard. But with national elections due in July, Hun and his Cambodian People's Party now face unprecedented challenges to their rule.

Despite their iron grip on the judiciary, military and media there has been a rise in dissent, reflected by the number of campaign groups springing up. Their emergence has been prompted by the extreme inequality of Cambodian society, where the centre of the capital is a flourishing haven of imported cars and new apartment blocks, but a third of all Cambodians still lack access to running water.

Across rural Cambodia, an estimated 700,000 have been thrown off their farms to make way for the so-called "economic land concessions" that now cover one tenth of the country.

Illegal land grabs are the most emotive and prominent of the rights abuses that multiplied last year, according to a report by the US-based Human Rights Watch last week. Local campaign groups say more than 10 per cent of Phnom Penh's population - 150,000 people - have been forcibly evicted. Chray Nhim might have been among them, had she not taken dramatic action after she and fellow villagers were given a week to leave their homes near Phnom Penh, without compensation, to make way for the nearby airport to expand. The day before Barack Obama was due to fly in on an official visit last November, the 34-year-old mother and 29 others painted "SOS" on their roofs and plastered them with pictures of the US president.

"I thought he could help us find a solution," she said yesterday in the spartan one-room house that she still defiantly occupies with her nine-year-old daughter. The media attention she generated means that, for now, her house still stands, but she remains angry.

"I blame Hun Sen the most," she said. "He is responsible for caring for the people. He shouldn't be allowing local authorities to take ordinary citizens' land."

Hun was once a Khmer Rouge commander under Pol Pot, whose genocidal regime was responsible for the deaths of up to 2.2?million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. But his faction split from the leadership and went into exile in Vietnam, returning only when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979 to end the Khmer Rouge's rule.

He is used to being obeyed and the number of land, environmental and labour activists being targeted with violence, intimidation or arrest leapt last year.

"The challenge here is the culture of fear which is a legacy of the Khmer Rouge, and that is something manipulated by the ruling party," said Mu Sochua, a senior opposition MP. "If there was a free and fair election in July, we would win."

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