To many tourists, Cambodia is simply an idyllic destination, its spectacular temples, blissful beaches and famously welcoming culture drawing over 5 million international tourists in 2016. Cambodia’s natural beauty however, belies a difficult past often characterised by violent, authoritarian rule. The current government is no exception with Prime Minister Hun Sen, leader of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), having marked 33 years in power as of 14 January 2018. With the CPP now the sole political party running in July’s entirely Chinese-funded elections, what better time to explore Cambodia’s current political climate and the forces at play?
Although the atrocities committed under the Khmer Rouge regime first come to mind when considering Cambodia’s past, it is the virtual absence of democratically-elected leaders throughout Cambodia’s history that continues to have an enduring influence on Cambodian politics. Starting in 1863 and continuing for nearly a century, Cambodia experienced colonial rule under the French, interspersed only with a four-year occupation by the Japanese. The tumultuous period from 1953-1970 saw somewhat less violent, but nonetheless authoritarian, rule from (then) Prince Norodom Sihanouk. During this period, Cold War tensions and the Vietnam War left Cambodia defenceless in the face of foreign powers heavily invested in pursuing their own interests in the region. With the US withdrawal from Vietnam came Cambodia’s slide into civil war, only ending in April 1975 when the Khmer Rouge proclaimed victory.
Although portrayed as a domestic uprising against the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1978. This marked the beginning of an especially intriguing era in world politics, during which Cambodia essentially operated as a Vietnamese colony. Despite growing reports of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, mistrust of Vietnam by many global powers led the US and China to advocate for the continued recognition of the Khmer Rouge regime and the punishment of Vietnam. These actors ensured UN funding allocated for Cambodia continued to be given to Khmer Rouge camps in Thailand throughout the 1980s. In fact, France was the only Western power not to vote for the Khmer Rouge to represent Cambodia in the UN, which they did until 1992. In a bid to stop the civil war which escalated in 1989 following the Vietnamese withdrawal, the 1991 Paris peace agreement saw a UN transitional authority share power with representatives of the various factions and incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was promoted to the role in 1985 following his important role in the Vietnamese invasion.
Despite considerable UN assistance in establishing a functional democracy in these formative years, Hun Sen maintained an iron grip on power. Even after losing the last UN-sanctioned election in 1994, his threats to reignite the civil war allowed him to stay on as a ‘second Prime Minister’. This arrangement lasted for three years before a bloody 1997 coup against the democratically elected ‘first Prime Minister’ Norodom Ranariddh saw him restored to his former position. The ensuing decades have seen a relative decrease in the exercise of such blatant authoritarianism, however the last few years have seen it gradually resurface.
Under the glossy façade of legality and with the threat of truly democratic elections foreshadowing an apparently unacceptable level of legitimate political opposition, the CPP has systematically removed their only opposition – the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The most recent CNRP leader, Kem Sokha, has been imprisoned since September 2017 on accusations of treason. Sokha was recently denied a visit by the UN Rapporteur undertaking a ten-day tour of Cambodia. A similar fate was avoided by long-term political opponent Sam Rainsy, who fled the country in 2005 when the National Assembly voted to remove parliamentary privilege from him and members of his then party. Despite his exile, Rainsy’s continuing involvement in Cambodian politics has seen his Phnom Penh property seized by the government after he was found guilty of defamation against Prime Minister Hun Sen. This attracted a fine of $1 million USD.
Hun Sen’s increasingly oligarchical stranglehold on Cambodian economic and political power continues to enable the CPP to operate with a unique level of freedom. Oppression of civil liberties such as freedom of speech continues to be increasingly commonplace, as seen in last year’s closure of respected independent newspaper The Cambodia Daily. The recent release of Hun Sen’s historically questionable documentary offers an intriguing insight into the CPP and the narrative they seek to promote. The discretionary use of facts and reverential air given to Hun Sen is unsettlingly reminiscent of the state propaganda historically commonplace in other authoritarian states. Given his statement in May 2017 that he intends to continue on for another decade, this is unsurprising.
Hun Sen’s 1988 assertion that China was 'the root of everything that was evil in Cambodia' has reversed drastically, describing China in 2006 as Cambodia’s 'most trustworthy friend'. When western countries were shocked by Hun Sen’s 1997 coup, China immediately recognised the new status quo, offering military aid. Since then, China and Cambodia have continued to develop ever closer ties, with China lavishing the lion share of international aid and investment on Cambodia’s aid-dependent economy. This is no coincidence, with Cambodia’s position on the Gulf of Thailand and its ASEAN member status highly favourable to Chinese commercial and geopolitical interests. Cambodia’s ties to China effectively give China a proxy in ASEAN affairs, primary among which is the South China Sea territorial dispute that continues to plague ASEAN Summits amid China’s increasingly proactive assertions.
With international concern still increasing following the CNRP’s dissolution, reprisals against former CNRP members and the withdrawal of US and EU electoral funding, China has again stepped in to fill the void. Continued Chinese support of Cambodia’s actions has seen Hun Sen downplay the importance of western aid, signalling a further departure from the principles of democracy and human rights this aid served to encourage. Hun Sen’s impending victory in July will be an emphatic victory of force and coercion over democracy and transparency, signalling a new era of control for the amaranthine Cambodian People’s Party.
Jordan is currently completing his final year of a Bachelor of Commerce with the degree of Bachelor of Laws at Macquarie University.