Friday, September 8, 2017

Cambodia: Hun Sen’s Illiberal Democracy

Background Briefing:
Cambodia: Hun Sen’s Illiberal
Democracy – Rule by Law
Carlyle A. Thayer
September 4, 2017
We are working on a report about the current crackdown on the press in Cambodia
and last night's arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha. We would appreciate your
assessment of the following issues:
Q1. How bad is this latest crackdown? Are people being dramatic, or is this really a
kind of apotheosis of repression since the onset of the Hun Sen era?
ANSWER: The worst crackdown since the 1993 UNTAC [United Nations Transitional
Authority in Cambodia]-sponsored elections came in 1997 in what is called by some
analysts a "coup." Street fighting led to the collapse of the coalition government and
the murder of elected politicians. The current crackdown is far more extensive than
"normal" repression under the Hun Sen regime. It is par for the course for Hun Sen to
go after high-profile opposition leaders and use legal means to bring them to heel or
exile. But this time Hun Sen is using rule by law or lawfare to bring down the
opposition. His target list has also expanded to take in overseas funded NGOs, the
National Democratic Institution and The Cambodia Daily. At the same time, Hun Sen
has cancelled military activities with the United States and Australia and even rejected
aid from the EU.
Q2. Do you think this marks a definitive rejection of the idea that Cambodia will be a
liberal democracy?
ANSWER: UNTAC bequeathed Cambodia a Constitution that enshrined liberal
democracy and a vibrant NGO and human rights community. Hun Sen is no democrat.
He refused to accept the results of the 1993 elections and forced a "two-headed"
coalition government. After the events of 1997, and the national elections in 1998,
Hun Sen has moved to consolidate his power. Hun Sen views the electoral process as
a form of self-validation. His regime's interference in all national and commune
elections since 1998 have given rise to protests and complaints of rigging. This was
particularly the case in 2013 when the elections were followed by a period of domestic
instability. Hun Sen is currently planning on a "clean sweep" of the 2018 national
Q3 What will/can/should donors such as the US, UK, Australia Japan, etc. do now?
ANSWER: The donor countries should continue to provide aid and assistance that goes
directly to the Cambodian people and is not controlled by the Hun Sen regime. This
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may be easier said than done. The U.S., UK, Australia and Japan need to concert
pressure on Hun Sen and his regime to respect the Constitution and the democratic
process. The bottom line is that outside countries have very little leverage. If they
impose sanctions they risk hurting the ordinary Cambodian. If they pressure too much
Hun Sen is likely to tell them "to go to hell." The donor countries should lobby other
members of ASEAN where some discontent with current developments in Cambodia
has surfaced.
Q4. What accounts for Hun Sen's willingness to completely jettison his relationship
with the U.S. at this point? Do you think it's the void left by Trump's withdrawal from
world stage, the place filled by China, the fact that Cambodia is now a middle-income
country and can't squeeze much more out of donors, all of the above, something else?
ANSWER: Taking a long -term historical perspective Prince/King Norodom Sihanouk
viewed China as the rising power during the Vietnam War and hitched his political
fortunes to Beijing. Hun Sen's current alignment with China replicates this past
proclivity. China is here to stay, the other powers will come and go; they cannot be
trusted inherently. Hun Sen is mainly pushing back against what he perceives as
unrelenting outside pressure to weaken the CPP's [Cambodian People’s Party] grip on
power by supporting opposition political parties. Hun Sen rails at Voice of America
Khmer Service and Radio Free Asia because he cannot control their message nor
intimidate them.
Hun Sen, like Sihanouk before him, views China as the rising power that is here to stay
in the region. China has been good to Cambodia. The Trump factor only feeds into this
perspective. Obama's rebalance to Asia included the Lower Mekong Initiative and the
TPP [Trans Pacific Partnership]. While Cambodia was not part of the TPP, it views
Trump's withdrawal and pledged cuts in the State Department's budget as signs of
U.S. disengagement. Trump is too unpredictable to be trusted, in Hun Sen’s view.
Hun Sen's turn against the U.S. military was aimed at keeping them out of the country
during commune elections on the supposition- however farfetched - that they might
interfere in Cambodian affairs in the event of instability.
Cambodia's economy is doing quite well posting the highest growth rates across
Southeast Asia. Western donor set conditions and are viewed as too intrusive. Hun
Sen has calculated that drying up western funds will starve the opposition.
The bottom line is that Hun Sen has always been an autocrat who is incensed at the
constant sniping by opposition politicians and their overseas backers. He cannot
understand why they do not appreciate the benefits CPP rule as bestowed on
Cambodia, from his perspective. With national elections looming in 2018 Hun Sen
does not want a repeat of 2013, as noted, he wants a clean sweep to validate his rule.
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Cambodia: Hun Sen’s Illiberal Democracy – Rule
by Law,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, September 4, 2017. All background
briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

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