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Southeast Asia's Game of Thrones
Cambodia on the Edge

Political drama is brewing in Cambodia, the FT reports:

Cambodia is beefing up its feared Chinese-backed prime ministerial bodyguard force as a jail term imposed on an opposition leader threatens to trigger another political crisis in Beijing’s staunchest Southeast Asian ally.

Authorities in Phnom Penh have warned they will crack down on a mass protest threatened by the Cambodia National Rescue party after Kem Sokha, its deputy chief, was sentenced in absentia last week to five months in prison for twice ignoring a court summons.

Tensions have been growing for weeks in the small but strategically-situated Mekong region state, where soldiers, naval vessels and Chinese-made helicopters were deployed late last month near the opposition’s headquarters in Phnom Penh. Authorities have now warned they will not tolerate any opposition rally to denounce the Kem Sokha court ruling.

The current prime minister, Hun Sen, has been in power for 31 years. The next elections are still two years away in Cambodia, but analysts expect them to be more contentious than usual. The government has been cracking down on the opposition wherever and whenever it can, but the unrest hasn’t gone away. Opposition leaders have been trying to organize ahead of local elections next year—having power at the local level is a big assist in national races.

It’s premature to expect anything other than that Hun Sen will hold on for yet another term, but Cambodia is playing a pivotal role in Southeast Asia right now, and so whatever happens there will have ripple effects. The week after receiving a $600 million downpayment from China, Cambodia blocked ASEAN’s attempts to issue a statement after the Hague South China Sea case. Regime change could bring about a new attitude towards Beijing.

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