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(September 11, 2018) 10 ways to maintain Hun Sen's 'barami' - Kavi Chongkittavorn

In the past election spin, it was about barami (charisma). When Hun Sen entered politics in the mid-1970s, nobody thought he would have the staying power to last so long. Thirty-three years ago, he was the world's youngest prime minister. Today, he is still around having outlasted every other world leader to rank as longest-reigning prime minister.

Such appears to be Cambodia's destiny, as he said this year he would stay on in power for another 10 years to oversee developments in Cambodia. If that proves to be the case, he will certainly end up in the Guinness World Records. But even if this is his "destiny", there's no guarantee he will find a place in the hearts of most Cambodians.

If he wishes to achieve that goal, he must make sure his barami remains intact and sustained at the highest level among the 15.6-million population. Barami refers to the Buddhist belief that the merit which accumulates from a person's daily life and actions give them an "aura of power" or a "ring of respect". According to this belief, it enables people to achieve and retain a revered status. It also posits that barami is timeless and must be earned.

In Cambodian culture, the worst-case scenario would be when a person with a surplus of barami losses it due to over-confidence, self-gratification or arrogance. That person would then be condemned and shunned by society at large.

After the general election in July, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party won all of the seats. There were outcries overseas and harsh criticism about the way the polls were conducted, but several world leaders later congratulated Hun Sen on his victory. This suggests the world does not have a uniform idea about Cambodia, which stands as a unique political construction forged by the United Nations back in its heyday of the 1990s. After a peace agreement was signed in Paris in 1993, Cambodia was supposed to serve as a model of democracy for the world's lower-income nations. That dreams remains elusive.

Moreover, now Hun Sen has seemingly ascended to the zenith of his power there are only 10 ways he can supposedly retain his barami.

First, he has to reconcile with the opposition and other political elements. After a year in detention on treason charges, opposition leader Kem Sokha was released from jail yesterday. In fact, releasing all of the political prisoners who were arrested just prior to the election would be a wise move for Hun Sen. They were jailed because of their political activities. Now that political season has gone quiet. the strongman must grant them amnesty and allow more political space for everyone.

Second, Hun Sen must realise that the Cambodia media is returning to its heyday when it was among the freest among the new Asean members during the 1990s. At the time it created a strong impression everywhere, encouraging the Cambodian people to go to the polls. The media has done a lot of good in Cambodia and it used to enjoy friendly ties with Hun Sen. But with the proliferation of social media, he thought he could do his own publicity without the aid of the media. In the future, if any journalist appears bent on defaming him (or others), they are likely to face legal action. But the government should not initiate this unilaterally.

Third, let civil society organisations do their thing. They are non-partisan and want to help the government by rolling out people-centred projects the authorities are not capable of. If there are organisations the government holds responsible for inappropriate programmes, it would be better to call them in for further consultation and find out more about their intentions. Cambodia used to be a haven for grassroots organisations and international civil workers because the country needs help in so many fields.

Fourth, Cambodia must renew ties with Western democracies. Cambodia's neutrality is well-known, so Phnom Penh cannot ignore the international community, which played a principle role in rehabilitating and transforming the war-torn country into a modern nation. Western countries have their own sets of values and norms, as do Southeast Asian nations.

Whatever Cambodia finds suitable could be adopted without surrendering its own traditions and culture. Hun Sen has shown himself to be a pragmatic leader who wants to see continued economic progress and cares about the well-being of Cambodians.

Fifth, Hun Sen must further strengthen ties with China, making sure shuang ying (win-win) solutions turn into san ying (win-win-win) solutions that benefit Cambodian society as a whole, Hun Sen, and China. Cambodia has become the most pivotal country for China in Southeast Asia. The reason why it has featured so much in the global media lately is partly because of Hun Sen's close ties with Beijing. Hun Sen has his own set of convictions when he deals with foreign countries. He is not a clone of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa or Djibouti President Ismail Omar Gulleh.

Sixth, Cambodia must return to its traditional role of being an "equaliser" within Asean. There is no need for it to become the maverick of the regional bloc, as it was in 2012. After being admitted to Asean in October 1999, Cambodia was full of angst against its colleagues in the regional grouping due to it having been the last one in the door. Hun Sen wanted Cambodia to be the first among former Indochinese countries to join Asean to make it distinctive from them. Cambodia was first invited, along with Myanmar, to join the group in 1967 by Thailand. However it declined, saying it practiced a strict foreign policy of neutrality. After joining Asean, it gained more confidence. Hun Sen knows the bloc like the back of his hand. When Cambodia chaired Asean in 2002, he played an important role in reducing the gap between old and new members. A decade later he pushed the bloc to adopt the Drug-Free Asean banner it still upholds today.

Seventh, to provide a smooth transition, Hun Sen must prepare the next generation of Cambodian leaders beyond members of his clan. This is important. The main reason he wants to stay on for another 10 years is due to his belief that the Cambodian People's Party is too fragmented and would not be able to survive without him. In the past decade, for the first time, Hun Sen has had to deal with colleagues who hold different views on Vietnam and China, the country's top allies. Luckily, Hun Sen and his comrades-in-arms have seen eye-to-eye on the need to strengthen ties with Thailand. His two sons, Hun Many and Hun Manet, are still young and need time to mature.

Eighth, Cambodia has a dynamic population, with those in the under-30 bracket accounting for 65% of the population, according to the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP).

So, these are the "Harry Potters" of the tech-savvy generation who want to see miracles from their leaders -- especially in raising their future prospects and income. Hun Sen's son, Hun Manet, who would be his No. 1 candidate to succeed him, is well known for the work he does with young people, who may connect with his liberal mindset. But he needs to do more homework, acquire more experience, and get more support on matters of national defence and protecting Cambodia's interests. He still has a long way to go on this, with much patience required.

Ninth, Hun Sen must spread the wealth as it is too concentrated among a small group of elites. These days, even poor villagers need capital to try something new or innovate to survive. It is reassuring to see Hun Sen pay attention to the well-being of the poor, especially for factory workers in the garment industry. In the future, if the EU and US remove Cambodia from their preferential tax-free and quota-free trade agreements on garments, it would cause chaos in Cambodia. As such, Cambodia must diversify its economy and ensure young workers benefit. More investment is also needed in rural areas, while the potential of young start-ups is very high among Asean. Meanwhile, young people have benefited from the presence of Western donors, and are now considered more international compared to some of their neighbours.

Tenth, Hun Sen has to make ensure forest land and natural resources remain in their natural setting, without giving away concessions easily. If not, he will be forgotten in a matter of days. Cambodia is rich with forests, water and mineral resources, and they need protecting.