Why is Hun Sen suddenly releasing his critics?
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Why is Hun Sen suddenly releasing his critics?

PROMINENT land rights campaigner Tep Vanny has been released along with three other activists following a royal pardon from Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni on Monday.

The mother of two was jailed in 2016 on a charge of aggravated intentional violence in connection with a March 2013 protest outside Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence.

Since then, she has been an issue of contention between the government and rights groups who decry the charges as politically motivated.

For just over two years, Tep Vanny has been behind bars with no offer of recourse from Hun Sen. Throughout that time, the 65-year-old leader has not so much as entertained the idea of releasing the wrongfully imprisoned activists. And yet the pardon that came Monday was at his request.

So why, after so long, has Hun Sen chosen now to show clemency? And what does he stand to gain from it?

Why now?

“It is reasonable to think that the regime is concerned about the potential economic ramifications of international discontent about the election,” Senior Research Assistant at the Griffith Asia Institute Lucy West told Asian Correspondent. “It is, therefore, taking steps to ameliorate any adverse effects that could come.”

Hun Sen has just come off the back of a highly contentious election victory in which his ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) took all 125 parliamentary seats.

It was the Hun Sen-led dissolution of the only credible opposition party – the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) – that allowed the CPP such a convincing victory.

In the lead up to the election, the government also shut down dozens of independent news outlets, arrested human rights defenders, and intimidated voters.

SEE ALSO: Death of democracy: Hun Sen sweeps to victory in Cambodia election

Hun Sen was lambasted by human rights group for the crackdown and threatened with sanctions by international governments for what they dubbed a “sham” election.

The United States followed through on their threats and imposed sanctions of several key players in Hun Sen’s administration.

Following the results, the European Union has said it is reconsidering its preferential trade deal with the country.

If pushed too far, the backlash could potentially devastate the Cambodian economy, which relies on the US and EU markets for more than two-thirds of their exports.

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Garment workers welcome Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen during a rally in Kandal province, Cambodia May 30, 2018. Picture taken May 30, 2018. Source: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Hun Sen needed to curry favour, and fast.

And it’s not the first time he’s used such tactics to prolong his now 33-year rule.

“It is a normal political solution of the ruling party,” Cambodian political researcher and blogger Noan Sereiboth told Asian Correspondent.

“It is not strange for them to pardon, it allows them to gain more and give less to decrease pressure from the international community and gain a concession after the ruling party’s landslide victory in the elections.”

Noan points to past occasions in which Hun Sen has engineered the pardoning of opposition members. In some cases, only to have the charges revisited at a later date. It’s an effective method of both winning-over and intimidation.

“Sometimes it becomes a culture to arrest and release later for the political tool,” Noan added.

SEE ALSO:  ‘A fundamentally flawed, mockery of democracy’: It’s time for Cambodia’s election

Can we expect more?

“Given that the election is over and the CPP regime has further consolidated its control over the country’s institutions, it is likely that we will see some conciliatory gestures in the short to medium term,” said West.

As part of his pre-election crackdown, Hun Sen also imprisoned CNRP leader Kem Sokha on charges of treason.

Kem was arrested in November and placed in the remote Tbong Khmum prison where he remains today awaiting trial.

Since the CPPs landslide win, rights groups and opposition members have come out imploring the government to include Kem Sokha in this apparent tide of goodwill.

In a post on his Facebook page on Sunday, former-CNRP leader Sam Rainsy called for the “ludicrous” charges to be repealed.

“Maintaining Kem Sokha in jail after such a dubious victory at what was clearly a sham election, will definitely not help Hun Sen in his effort to defend what is left of his government’s legitimacy,” he wrote.

Despite the hope that his release could be imminent, West believes Hun Sen may have other priorities that play well on the international stage.

“I think it is premature to think that Kem Sokha will be pardoned. It is more realistic to expect that Australian James Ricketson, who has been imprisoned for the past 14 months on alleged espionage charges, will be released and have his case dismissed,” West said.

Noan agrees. For Kem Sokha to be released, while possible, is unlikely and would only be carried out in the right political climate in which Hun Sen had negotiated his terms.

But whoever Hun Sen decides to acquit this time around, the practice of politically motivated jailing is unlikely to go anywhere.

“The CPP Government have significant if not complete control of the judiciary,” West warns. “[They] are, therefore, able to arrest and pardon with impunity.”