Hun Sen retains his tight grip on Cambodia, and freedoms can wait

Markus Karbaum says having decimated all credible opposition, the Cambodian strongman is a shoo-in for victory in the general election next week. Given the fear, resignation and indifference that prevail, he looks set to rule for as long as he likes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 July, 2018, 2:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 July, 2018, 2:02am

The result of Cambodia’s parliamentary elections on July 29 is already fixed. After dissolving the popular opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) last November, Prime Minister Hun Sen is only competing against supernumerary challengers which are too weak to create even an illusion of competition.

Nevertheless, he is at the peak of his reign that, after all, has lasted since 1985. His success boils down to his almost uncontested monopolisation of physical force, framed by submissive partners in both domestic politics and international relations.

A former Khmer Rouge soldier, Hun Sen became head of government in the follow-up regime installed by Vietnam, which occupied Cambodia in the 1980s. He contributed to ending the civil war in 1991 and thereby two decades of violence. Under UN sovereignty – the UN peacekeeping mission in Cambodia endured from 1992 to 1993 – Hun Sen had to grasp the nettle by accepting a liberal constitution and a defeat in the general elections in 1993. Even so, he remained Cambodia’s political hegemon.

As he has never accepted rivals or challengers, intimidation, threats, and even murder, were effective tools in his political tool kit. About 200 people fell victim to his will to power between 1997 – beginning with an assault of an opposition rally and a bloody coup d’état against his royalist coalition partner Funcinpec – and the post-election process in 1998 when demonstrations against Hun Sen were violently broken up by security forces.

Afterwards, his dominance was widely consolidated in a façade democracy. In 2013, his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) only narrowly beat the CNRP in unfair elections. After the opposition won more than 43 per cent of the popular vote in commune elections in June 2017, its fate was sealed.

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While dissolving the most popular opposition party would trigger a national crisis in many other states, Hun Sen remains unchallenged after he got rid of the CNRP. Most opposition politicians have escaped abroad and are calling on a voter boycott of the elections, meaning turnout is the only result of interest in the ballot.

Within his own party, Hun Sen has long marginalised all potential rivals and has installed his close associates in the top ranks of Cambodia’s security forces. His regime has eradicated the independent media and is increasingly exerting control on the internet and social media.

It is widely taken for granted that Hun Sen is able to rule for as long as he wants or as long as his health allows.

Admittedly, force is not the only reason for his dominance. Economic growth, in particular an annual expansion of around 7 per cent this decade, has capped potential dissatisfaction among the regime’s followers and supporters. Some 13.5 per cent of the population was in poverty in 2014, compared to almost half the population in 2007, according to the World Bank.

However, while the regime uses economic development as the main pillar for its legitimacy, most Cambodians are not part of the ruling CPP patronage network and hardly benefit from the economic rebound. Education and health care in the country are still considerably underdeveloped compared to most of its neighbours.

As pointed out by the Bertelsmann Transformation Index 2018, red tape and nepotism prevail. And Cambodia remains the most corrupt country in Southeast Asia, according to corruption watchdog Transparency International. These conditions contributed to the rise of the opposition CNRP as the regime has, so far, been completely unwilling to transform its governance style.

Instead of protesting against the growing social imbalance and the inefficient public sector, for years Cambodians have been migrating in increasing numbers. This trend has left many unable to find regular work abroad, putting Cambodians at the greatest risk among all Southeast Asians of becoming victims of human trafficking, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index.

In effect, a population exchange has taken place, as initially Vietnamese and recently more and more Chinese citizens resettle in Cambodia, at least with the goodwill of the Hun Sen government.

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Many prominent opposition politicians and civil society leaders are among those who have left Cambodia since 2015. This has left the country without liberal resistance and makes it easier to understand why the former opposition is urging a boycott of the ballot.

In June, former opposition leader Sam Rainsy even called for a popular uprising after the national elections to force a change of government. It appears to be an appeal from an ivory tower: there is neither opposition to Hun Sen within his own ranks, nor any other potential driving force to initiate such a rebellion. Meanwhile, a combination of fear, fatalism, resignation and indifference prevail among the people.

In the past, Sam Rainsy has often called for international sanctions from the European Union and the United States, the two leading markets for Cambodia’s apparel industry, which generated 80 per cent of all national exports last year. With the exception of some rather symbolic measures, this has not happened.

Sam Rainsy surely knows that foreign pressure would only reach a level powerful enough to rattle the regime if Hun Sen violently quashed a rebellion, incurring a significant number of fatalities. It is a cynical game to play as Sam Rainsy is not willing to sacrifice his own life.

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The fact there is no regime change in sight is also due to two decades of international support for Hun Sen. Whereas he heavily depended on Western aid in the 1990s, China has now taken over the tutelage of Cambodia. The extent of bilateral assistance, Chinese investments and political collaboration is so immense that the relationship could fairly be described as neo-colonial. Given the liaison, Hun Sen could remain untouched if the EU and US ended preferential access of Cambodian garments to their markets.

Amid decreasing Western influence and the dissolution of the CNRP, Hun Sen has everything under control again. The upcoming elections will not affect this status – and any party that evolves, by accident, into a relevant competitor to Hun Sen’s party may bitterly regret it.

Dr Markus Karbaum is a political scientist and an independent consultant specialising in Cambodian politics