After Cambodia’s 1998 elections, Hun Sen declared he was ‘the only captain of the ship’, finally shedding the conflicting title of co-prime minister he shared with Prince Norodom Ranariddh for the previous five years. Fast forward a quarter century, the captain successfully orchestrated a power transfer to his son, Hun Manet.
Hun Sen has evaded mutiny, rebellion and revolt from the vying factions within his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Yet, as many commentators have pointed out this year, the captain still holds some power, leaving him and his son as perhaps best described as co-prime ministers, a historical irony worthy of remembrance.
If 2023 will be remembered for anything, it will be the political acumen that Hun Sen showed as he found new ways to broaden the meaning of Cambodian democracy to now include hereditary succession. For over 30 years, Hun Sen re-defined the meaning of democracy and human rights to suit his needs. He cosied up to political leaders of all ideological stripes to keep international pressure at bay. How he did this and to what effect will be studied for years to come by would-be authoritarians and scholars alike.
Looking forward, the central question is whether, under a new arrangement, Manet will be able to effectively run the country. Although the outcome is anyone’s guess, these are the stories that observers will be following into 2024 to gauge an early answer.
Private debt will be a major problem facing Manet in his first term. After years of receiving easy money from Chinese investment and microfinance loans, Cambodians are drowning in debt. The International Monetary Fund estimates that private debt surpassed 180 per cent of GDP in 2022. It will likely be even higher by the end of 2023. This is the highest rate of private debt in Southeast Asia and not too far behind China. Although most private debt is held by corporations, households are increasingly leveraged.
This economic landscape will test Manet in 2024. With the Riel pegged to the dollar and many loans denominated in foreign currency, monetary policy will be of little help. Inflation is likely to increase and loan repayments could balloon for households and businesses alike. Plus, how the government winds down the macroprudential stimulus deployed during COVID-19 could compound these problems. On top of this, Cambodia’s ambition to become a middle-income country by 2030 leaves Manet in a difficult position. He can either increase public debt to meet the government’s so-called Pentagonal Strategy for economic development, or increase taxes. Both options pose problems.
Inequality driven by the climate crisis will also be a significant factor in politics to come. Although poverty rates have decreased since 2009 as GDP increased, there remains persistent inequality across the country. A Gallup poll conducted in 2022 showed that ‘in no other country in the world is there greater inequality between the rich and poor in their ability to afford food.’
Driving from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh shows this inequality as sight of fancy cars in the cities is replaced with that of thatch-roofed houses in the provinces. Of course, cities also have poor populations. Phnom Penh’s slums starkly contrast its mansions. Much of this inequality stems from corruption and close connections between business owners and the CPP.
Inequality and its causes predate Manet’s election. Still, he will face a situation that is quickly spinning out of control and hurting the poorest in the country, because of the ever-worsening climate crisis. Researchers of Cambodia have convincingly shown the interconnections between climate change and the exploitation of human labour, with one using the term ‘Carbon Colonialism’ to widen the conversation of inequality beyond the national boundaries of Cambodia. How Manet responds, if at all, to these overlapping problems will either build public support for his government or alienate the poorer population even more.
No outlook of Cambodia is complete without addressing the perennial question of the opposition. The opposition was more or less eviscerated in 2023. Few parties remain, many leaders have been imprisoned or exiled and no independent media publishes in the country. How the opposition responds and regroups in 2024 will be of the utmost importance, not only to disaffected voters looking for a viable alternative to the CPP but also to Western powers that have rhetorically supported democracy in the country for decades.
A liberal definition of democracy may have reached an end in Cambodia. Manet likely does not need opposition to provide legitimacy to his power. His legitimacy now rests on the country’s development. If the CPP under Manet’s rule can effectively run the state in the eyes of everyday Cambodian citizens, there would be no need for an opposition party. Exactly how Manet’s legitimacy as ruler plays out in the coming year will reveal more about how the opposition will reform, if at all.
2023 was an unusual year for Cambodia. It was the first time in over 30 years that a new prime minister came to power, Hun Sen being the only prime minister most Cambodians had ever known. With economic, climate and political challenges on the horizon, Hun Manet faces rough waters in 2024. How he navigates them will determine the country’s future trajectory. Will he be the only captain of the ship, or will his father have to take a larger leadership role?
Will Brehm is Associate Professor in Education at the University of Canberra. He is the author of Cambodia for Sale and co-editor of Public Policy Innovation for Human Capital Development, Memory in the Mekong and Education and Power in Contemporary Southeast Asia.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2023 in review and the year ahead.