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Cambodia edging towards authoritarianism

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Sam Rainsy, former President of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), speaks to media after a meeting at the National Assembly in central Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 8 August 2014. (Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring).

In Brief

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has forced Sam Rainsy to resign from the leadership of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Hun Sen’s new law would dissolve any political party that’s leader is convicted of a crime.


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Due to a number of defamation charges, Rainsy has been in self-imposed exile in Paris to avoid arrest.

While it was never going to be easy for Rainsy to manage the upcoming political campaigns from France, the resignation still represents a large blow to the CNRP as they head in to the communal elections set for 4 June 2017 and the general elections in July 2018. The last general election in 2013 saw the CNRP return 55 out of the 123 available seats. All other seats were won by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by Hun Sen.

The 2013 results saw the greatest ever shift away from the CPP, but Rainsy’s resignation suggests that this trend will not continue. He was the figurehead of the party, often calling the Prime Minister out on his more authoritarian policies. The week before his resignation, Rainsy stated that he planned to sue Prime Minister Hun Sen in the International Criminal Court over the ‘alleged’ failed plan to create a militarised border between Cambodia and Thailand during the late 1970s and the early 1980s.

Regardless of whether this was political posturing or an actual move to challenge the Prime Minister, it seems that Hun Sen has won this round of political manoeuvring.

Another victory for the CPP would be especially good for China, who has been strengthening ties with Cambodia. Rainsy has been deeply critical of China’s investments, stating in late October 2016 that the China–Cambodia relationship has caused corruption and was ‘easy money’ for the government, yet had done little to help Cambodia’s economy.

The Lower Sesan 2 Dam exemplifies this. It is primarily funded by the Chinese state-owned company HydroLancang working in partnership with the Cambodian firm Royal Group. Despite the apparent economic advantages, little consideration has been given to the 5000 people, mostly from ethnic minorities, who are likely to be evicted from their homes. A further 40,000 people who live downstream are projected to lose the fishing stocks that they rely on both for food and for trade.

The dam also threatens key migration routes for fish and according to a 2012 study, it is the most damaging of all the dams proposed on the Mekong’s tributaries in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos between now and 2030. The Cambodian government’s environmental assessment report of the dam fails to take this into account, and no compensation will be provided to affected citizens.

Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Cambodia 150th out of the 168 countries surveyed and the most corrupt in ASEAN. Corruption in Cambodia is an inherent problem, hindering its ability to deal with international institutions and form bilateral relationships with many Western nations. As such, China is an easy source of money.

Cambodia drastically needs the money to invest in its infrastructure, but international institutions and Western nations often attach conditions to their loans concerning corruption and Cambodia’s human rights record. China does none of that, offering money with no explicit strings attached.

Yet this money does come with unspoken expectations. These expectations can be seen through Cambodia’s support of China’s South China Sea claim in ASEAN as well as reducing public support of the United States and scrapping of joint military exercises. These actions strengthen the ties between Cambodia and China, giving Cambodia access to the privileges that come with having a ‘great power’ ally.

It is also worth considering the way in which Rainsy was removed from political power. The introduction of a new law forcing the dissolution of the CNRP if Rainsy remained leader seems to emulate authoritarian processes. While China does not hold a monopoly on authoritarianism, this open action from Hun Sen is more closely aligned with Chinese methods than what would be expected in an officially democratic nation like Cambodia.

The CNRP is the voice in Cambodia for greater liberalism and further integration into the global market. It has been critical of the ‘no strings attached’ donations from China, so Hun Sen’s plan to weaken it will likely be appreciated by Beijing. The removal of a key CPP critic from a position of political power through open authoritarian methods is a clear rejection of the liberal international norms promoted by the West.

The new law by Prime Minister Hun Sen has been a great political move. Hun Sen has solidified his party’s once challenged position and strengthened Cambodia’s relations with China. The CPP, assuming it wins the upcoming elections, looks set to grow closer and closer with China.

Andrew Shearer is a Master’s student at the University of Exeter.

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