The Current Situation in Cambodia — Rajkiran Barhey

6 December 2017 by

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On 5th December 2017, an event exploring the current political situation in Cambodia was held at Chatham House. The discussion was led by Sam Rainsy, a key member of Cambodia’s recently dissolved opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). The discussion touched on a plethora of issues relevant to politics and human rights in Cambodia, ranging from the impact on Cambodia of China’s dam-building project to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.


This article will provide a brief history of Cambodia before reviewing four topics which were considered at the event: (1) the influence of China; (2) the power of the army; (3) sanctions and aid; and (4) the 2018 election.


Cambodia’s journey through tyranny

Following independence from France in 1953, Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy until 1970, when Prince Sihanouk was ousted in a coup. The Khmer Republic which replaced the monarchy lasted until 1975, when the brutal Khmer Rouge Communist regime, led by Pol Pot, took control. In the ensuing genocide, between 1.5 and 3 million people were killed. From 1978 until 1991, Cambodia was occupied by Vietnamese forces in a protracted war which eventually toppled the Khmer Rouge. Ultimately in 1993, the monarchy was restored and Cambodia became a democracy. A more detailed timeline can be found here.


The struggle to maintain democracy

Hun Sen has been Prime Minister of Cambodia since 1985. He rose to power as a member of the Khmer Rouge but played a key role in the peace talks during the 80s and early 90s, thus securing the maintenance of his position as Prime Minster. He leads the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP).


The first elections in 1993 led to a coalition which included Hun Sen’s party and a royalist party called FUNCINPEC. However, in 1997 Hun Sen led a coup to oust his coalition partner. Although further elections were held, the 1997 coup attracted international opprobrium. Since then, elections have been held, coalitions have been formed and broken, but Hun Sen’s rule remains constant.


Concerns about the state of Cambodia’s democracy have been rising since the 2013 national elections in which the CNRP opposition gained approximately 44% of the vote. Allegations of electoral fraud and irregularities led to anti-government protests which were violently suppressed, meeting with condemnation.


Local elections in 2017, also plagued by irregularities, led to further gains by the CNRP. All eyes are now looking to the scheduled 2018 national elections. However, in November 2017, the Supreme Court authorised the dissolution of the CNRP, and banned all its members from participation in politics for at least five years. This is a deeply worrying development.


Sam Rainsy, a leader of the CNRP, has been accused of defamation numerous times and been sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. As a result, he lives in exile.


‘A tipping point’

Mr Rainsy began by stating that Cambodia was at a tipping point. The dissolution of the opposition, the closure of all independent media outlets, threats to human rights groups and the lack of any prospect of a proper election in 2018 means that the future of democracy in Cambodia is uncertain.


China/Cambodia relations

A key enabler of Hun Sen’s regime is China, who have consistently supported his repressive policies. In addition, China has provided billions of dollars to Cambodia in loans and aid, equalling, if not surpassing, aid packages from the US and other countries.


But Rainsy observed that Hun Sen is playing a dangerous game by publicly allying himself with China at the expense of maintaining solidarity with other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries. As an example, he pointed to Hun Sen’s refusal to condemn China’s alleged violations of the law of the sea in the South China Sea.


He suggested that Cambodia’s isolation from other countries could harm its interests in the long run. He drew parallels between Hun Sen’s approach to foreign policy and Pol Pot, who similarly isolated himself from all countries except China.


The power of the army

Another key enabler of Hun Sen’s regime, as in any repressive state, is the Army. The topic of the Army’s power arose in response to a question about who might succeed Hun Sen (he is the world’s longest serving prime minister). The audience member wanted to know if Hun Sen was priming one of his children to be his successor in order to establish a dynasty, similar to the North Korean regime.


Rainsy noted that whilst Hun Sen likely wants to be succeeded by one of his sons, they have not yet shown themselves to be ready for power. This is, in fact, one of the reasons why Hun Sen is so keen to stay in power himself – to give his successor time to prepare. He commented that if Hun Sen attempted to promote one of his sons to a prominent position, particularly in the Army, this would cause great discontent amongst senior Army officials. If Hun Sen lost their support, he would certainly lose power.


Rainsy analogised between the situation in Cambodia and that of Egypt under Hosni Mubarak. He recalled how the declaration by the Egyptian army generals of ‘neutrality’ gave the green light to those who wanted to topple Mubarak as they knew the army would no longer support him. Rainsy thus underscored the reliance of dictatorships on military backing.


Sanctions and aid

The ability of the international community to influence Hun Sen to change was a recurring theme of the discussion. In particular, Rainsy was asked a number of times about the potential imposition of sanctions and their effectiveness. In responding, he distinguished between (1) targeted sanctions on individuals and (2) broader economic sanctions.


In relation to targeted sanctions, Rainsy was supportive. He suggested that asset-freezing of powerful individuals in the regime would undoubtedly hurt their interests and would be effective. He noted that many senior officials complicit in repression are wealthy and often have assets hidden in foreign countries.


Economic sanctions could take the form of, for example, revoking the policy of preferential treatment of Cambodian exports. In response to expressions of a fear that such sanctions would be ineffective and only harm poorer citizens, Rainsy noted that companies in Cambodia must hand over a 20% stake to members of the elite (government minsters, army officials etc.). Therefore, sanctions that hurt company profits will hurt these elites and have an impact.


He also drew an analogy to the tactics of international trade unions, which pressurise large companies to improve their labour standards with the prospect of media campaigns against them to expose their workers’ rights violations. He observed how simply a threat can be as effective as actual action. In the case of Hun Sen, the threat of sanctions could be potent.


A member of the audience drew an analogy to North Korea, asking that if sanctions had not worked there, why should they work in Cambodia? Rainsy responded by pointing to the example of Burma, suggesting that sanctions there had played a part in diminishing the power of the military junta.


On the related issue of international aid, Rainsy was asked whether it matters if other countries cut off aid to Cambodia, given the vast loans which China provides. Whilst Rainsy acknowledged the dependency of Cambodia on Chinese loans, he observed that Cambodia still requires aid it receives from other countries, and so it would be effective to threaten the removal of such aid.


Whilst advocating the removal of aid to the government, Rainsy reiterated the importance of maintaining aid to independent organisations, especially the media.


The 2018 election

Rainsy was asked what he thought would be the prominent issues if there were free elections in 2018. In response, he highlighted two major problems: (1) youth unemployment and (2) land grabbing.


In relation to youth unemployment, he pointed out that approximately 70% of the Cambodian population is under 30. He stated that, whilst the official youth unemployment rate is stated to be about 0.5%, the real figure is much closer to 50%. Youth unemployment is thus a much greater problem that is acknowledged and leads to a range of social issues.


On land grabs, Rainsy explained that over 50% of the Cambodian population are farmers. However, the government has pursued a policy of confiscating land from small farmers and giving it to large private companies. The scale of the problem is so severe, charges have been filed with the International Criminal Court which now may class environmental destruction and land grabs as crimes against humanity.


He stated that if Hun Sen does not resolve these two problems, the situation could become explosive. Furthermore, he observed that the more discontent rises over these issues, the looser Hun Sen’s grip on power becomes and the more he has to resort to repression to consolidate his rule.



Rainsy commented that the dissolution of the opposition party has eliminated a source of hope for many people. When there is no hope, he said, people can turn violent, and violence could lead to revolution.


It remains to be seen how the situation will play out, but there is no doubt that recent events leave little hope of immediate improvement. Sam Rainsy’s talk also serves as a reminder of the infinitely complex ways in which economic, military, foreign and national interests interact in maintaining and destroying democracy.


Rajkiran Barhey is currently a pupil at 1 Crown Office Row.

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