Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for 36 years, is now facing an unprecedented political crisis. This results from the desire for change held by an ever-increasing majority of the people.
Young people aged less than 36 represent more than 70% of the population. They dream of a new political landscape which breaks with that defined by Hun Sen since their birth. All they have known is the current authoritarianism and corruption, which goes hand in hand with poverty and injustice. In terms of employment, education, health and infrastructure, they hold Hun Sen responsible for the ever-more obvious gulf which has opened up between neighbouring countries and Cambodia. This cannot be hidden in a world in which everything can be seen instantly.
The Hun Sen regime is the result of war and ideological conflict in the 1970s. The regime is led by former Khmer Rouge members who converted at the last minute. Such a regime is an archaic political anachronism, and its foundations are shaking.
The threat to the regime comes from a democratic opposition which represents the population’s desire for change. The rise of the opposition accelerated in 2013 with the emergence of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Despite systematic electoral fraud, the opposition, which was united for the first time, won almost half the seats in the national assembly. This was a political earthquake which sowed panic in the ranks of the ruling power. Its impact was confirmed four years later with the local elections of 2017. The CNRP achieved an identical success and confirmed that it had strongly established itself at the grassroots level all over the country.
Hun Sen’s fear of the democratic opposition
It’s clear to Hun Sen that this wave of democratic opposition, which is the result of deep-seated demographic, economic, social and technological trends, can’t be contained by democratic means. To stay in power, he has to change the rules of the game or the game itself, meaning abandoning the democratic competition.
This leads to a first contradiction: how to maintain at least a façade of democracy which Cambodia is supposed to present since the Paris Peace Agreements of 1991 and which is needed to continue to receive precious Western aid?
Political survival trumped this consideration and in November 2017, less than a year before the legislative elections of 2018 which he risked losing — Hun Sen simply dissolved the CNRP, then the only parliamentary opposition. This sudden and arbitrary elimination of the opposition allowed the ruling party led by Hun Sen to take 100% of the seats in the national assembly in the legislative elections of July 2018. Cambodia thus returned to the single-party system of the Communist era which spawned its current “strongman” leader.
A succession of contradictions
The first contradiction inherent in the aim of eliminating the opposition was followed by a second contradiction of method.
To wipe out the opposition with the stroke of a pen, Hun Sen could come up with nothing better than to personally accuse the leader of the CNRP, Kem Sokha, of “treason” and “sedition with the complicity of Americans”. Such language recalls the murderous paranoia of the Khmer Rouge and their outlandish Cold War propaganda. It is incompatible with the image of a Cambodia at peace with itself and the rest of the world. Understandably, the pretext used by Hun Sen — a former Khmer Rouge military commander — to eliminate the opposition and kill democracy in Cambodia is unacceptable for the West. The European Union and the US applied sanctions and threatened to increase them if Hun Sen did not return to the rules of the democratic game, starting with the dropping of the absurd accusations made against Kem Sokha.
Hun Sen’s third contradiction is a tactical one linked to the use of a subservient judiciary. He is in a trap of his own making: if he drops the charges against Kem Sokha, he has to rehabilitate the CNRP. To absolve Kem Sokha is to admit that the opposition party was wrongly dissolved. The CNRP must therefore be allowed to participate in the next local (2022) and legislative elections (2023). Such a prospect is a source of fear for Hun Sen, who has no way to square the circle.
Because Hun Sen’s political survival prevents him from recognising Kem Sokha’s innocence, the latter’s trial has been delayed from one year to the next since his arrest in 2017. This allows Hun Sen to play for time while holding Kem Sokha as hostage. These delaying tactics are the only ones open to Hun Sen. He can’t hold a real trial for Kem Sokha for the simple reason that there is not a shred of evidence to support the accusations against the leader of the opposition.
Dangerous alliance with China
Fear is leading Hun Sen to absurd choices, including in his choice of international alliances. His lurch into totalitarianism has drawn increasingly strong condemnation from the West, and Western aid to the regime has been whittled away. So Hun Sen turns to China, which asks no questions in terms of human rights. This dangerous shift has been carried out at a moment when only China is capable of meeting the ever-growing financial needs of the corrupt Hun Sen regime in exchange for the port and airport facilities which Beijing needs to continue its expansionism in Asia. A Cambodian ally likewise provides valuable diplomatic support for China within ASEAN.
Ending democracy in Cambodia and the arrogance shown in the face of Western objections means that Hun Sen has also ended the country’s neutrality. Yet democracy and neutrality are laid down in the Paris Peace Agreements of 1991 and Cambodia’s constitution adopted in 1993.
No irreversible fait accompli
Hun Sen’s unprincipled arrogance will quickly reach its limits because, unlike his Chinese protector, the small Cambodian dictator has neither the means nor the power to impose a fait accompli.
Hun Sen would be wrong to seek inspiration from some of China’s diplomatic “exploits” which are a stain on our conscience. The case of Tibet with the destruction of a proud nation represented by Dalai Lama, that of Xinjiang with the persecution and forced assimilation of the Uyghurs, and that of Hong Kong with the gagging of protestors who have been deprived of their liberty, are fait accomplis which China has imposed on the international community through the forceful diplomacy of an economic and military superpower.
But the killing of democracy in Cambodia — which is guaranteed by an international treaty — and the violation of the country’s neutrality — which would certainly have far-reaching implications for the security and stability of the region — will never be accepted and recognised by the international community as an irreversible “fait accompli”. This is especially true of the West and its allies, who have levers of pressure that a weak and dependent Hun Sen cannot ignore.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Sam Rainsy, Cambodia’s finance minister from 1993 to 1994, is the co-founder and acting leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).