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Cambodia’s politics of survival threatens democracy

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Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen attends the 64th anniversary celebrations of the country's independence from France, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 9 November, 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring).

In Brief

In recent months, the Cambodian government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen has taken stronger steps to guarantee a win in the national election scheduled for July 2018. Hun Sen’s objective is simple — to prevent his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) from losing power by whatever means necessary.


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Hun Sen has relied on a combination of three tactics — coercion, co-option and control — to maintain his domination over Cambodia’s politics in the name of protecting national security. Those who cannot be co-opted into the CPP’s sphere through material rewards can be coerced into submission, and those who do submit are still kept under tight control.

The CPP is also resource-rich, well equipped with coercive means and in control of state institutions, especially the armed forces and the judiciary. Those who have refused to defect to the CPP or who resist it face acts of intimidation and threats of punishment.

Disarming the CPP’s political opposition involves taking pre-emptive action to make it difficult for opposition leaders to mobilise effective political support far ahead of the 2018 election. Hun Sen has been successful in suppressing the political opposition and shutting out any help offered to his opponents. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been the primary target. The recent jailing of its president, Kem Sokha, is a good example of Hun Sen’s tactics. The recent decision by the Supreme Court to dissolve the CNRP ensures the CPP will not face any credible challenges in 2018.

Any organisations, domestic or foreign, perceived as politically supportive of or sympathetic to opposition parties are also viewed as potential targets by the CPP. Media outlets have come under pressure, especially those that broadcast news produced by foreign media agencies such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. The government recently shut down The Cambodia Daily, a major English language newspaper in the country, and sent its owner a bill of several million dollars for its failure to pay taxes. In August 2017, the government closed the US-funded National Democratic Institute and expelled its staff from Cambodia.

Hun Sen claims these ‘legal’ actions against the CPP’s political opponents and its critics are about protecting national security. Is this true?

The answer is no. Since the end of the Cold War, Cambodia has not encountered any serious external threat. In fact, the country has been blessed with goodwill from countries around the world. Cambodia did the right thing when it joined ASEAN in 1999. In spite of some unresolved territorial disputes and minor border clashes between Cambodia and two of its fellow ASEAN members, Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodian relations with its neighbours have been relatively peaceful. Western democracies may want to see regime change, but evidently have not done anything credible to undermine the CPP.

The unarmed opposition to the CPP does not pose any threat to Cambodian national security either, but it has threatened to undermine the ruling party’s political dominance. Although the CPP won in the 2013 national election, it lost 22 seats to the CNRP, giving the opposition more leverage over the ruling elite. In spite of good economic growth, ratings of Hun Sen’s performance among urban populations remain low. If elections were free and fair, the CPP would end up losing.

While they have done a lot of good for the country, including taking part in the war against the murderous Pol Pot regime and helping many Cambodians to enjoy the fruits of economic growth, the CPP elite have reason to worry about their political future.

Hun Sen and other top CPP leaders have been accused of human rights violations and rampant corruption and thus can never be sure of what might happen to them if they were to lose power. Hun Sen has already been threatened with legal action — another reason why the CPP has tightened control over the security forces and the judicial system, using the courts to prosecute any serious opponents threatening its survival.

Cambodia’s politics of survival is likely to continue unless or until members of the CPP elite and those in the opposition see their common problem: the inherent weakness of Cambodia’s state institutions, which perpetuates the toxic dynamics of threat and counter-threat. Both sides tend to demonise each other. They keep engaging in the nasty politics of character assassination, killing any possibility of advancing a common interest or any hopes for solidifying the culture of dialogue.

Cambodian leaders have a big choice to make. Either they continue along this current trend with no end in sight, or they band together to build the country’s democratic state institutions for the benefit of their own nation. Working together is certainly the only way out and the best option, but this is likely to fall on deaf ears. This is the tragedy of survival politics in Cambodia — a real threat to democracy and its national security.

Sorpong Peou is President of Science for Peace, based at the University of Toronto, and Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration, Ryerson University.

2 responses to “Cambodia’s politics of survival threatens democracy”

  1. There’s seems to be a rather alarmist attitude in this article. Why is democracy so sacred? It is an ideology that’s past its time. Autocracy is not only needed for economic advancement and stability, it is superior to democracy is just about any conceivable way. The problems with autocracy are really related to its people (i.e. a bad leader), and not the system itself. The problem with democracy is built-in. Cambodia should be cheered as a model for the developing world.

    • I appreciate the comments critical of my short piece and look forward to a healthy debate. The counterargument is thoughtful and interesting, but far from compelling.

      First, my piece is about the dangerous politics of survival in countries like Cambodia.

      Second, students of Cambodian history can tell us whether authoritarianism has proved to be superior to democracy. This is not to suggest that all democratic systems are superior to authoritarian systems, as far as economic performance is concerned. As a scholar, I lived and worked in Singapore for a number of years and admire what its government has accomplished, economically speaking; I did the same in Japan for 11 years. Any proposition that democracy is an impediment to economic growth or development has no consistent empirical support.

      Third, I am pleased to hear that my critic is optimistic about Cambodia – “a model for the developing world.” As someone who loves this country, I would like to hear good news. Even in this short article of mine, I also acknowledge Cambodia’s accomplishments. I always try to be fair and avoid being political or ideologically driven when doing empirical analysis.

      However, I would like to know how and why Cambodia should be “cheered as a model for the developing world” I am open to new arguments, as long as they can be empirically validated.

      My questions are as follow: 1) How exactly is Cambodia a model for the developing world? What are the indicators and explanatory variables? Is autocracy as a political system (apparently treated in the counterargument as the key independent variable) the main engine of economic growth in Cambodia? What does autocracy really mean? Has Cambodia been an autocracy? My argument is based on my understanding of Cambodia as an illiberal democracy but its system is likely to be authoritarian if the CNRC is not allowed to compete in the 2018 national election.

      My critic and I somewhat share an understanding of global politics. In his/her words: Democracy is “an ideology that’s past its time”. I would not go this far and would contend that democracy as an ideology is no longer as dominant as it was in the 1990s. Authoritarianism appears to be gaining momentum in recent years and threatens to undermine liberal democracy worldwide, but to say that it’s past its time is historically inaccurate. Ideology does not die; it waxes, wanes and waxes again. Even Marxism did not die after the so-called triumph of market-based democracy as Fukuyama saw it; the same can be said about liberal democracy, which appears to be waning at the moment but is likely to shine again when people under authoritarian rule begin to miss it.

      Is my defense of democracy “alarmist”? For me, what is alarming is the potential triumph of full-blown authoritarianism and the return of geopolitics. That said, I do not mean to suggest that democracies are perfect. They have a history of waging war against dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, and this is quite worrisome to me. But I remain unconvinced that a world full of autocracies is more peaceful or stable than a world full of democracies.

      At the end of the day, it is all about what people desire. As a survivor of the Khmer Rouge killing fields, I choose democracy but still see it as a unfulfilled dream.

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