Cambodia-Vietnam Ties Turn 50

June 21, 2017

Cambodia-Vietnam Ties Turn 50

by  Vannarith Chheang, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute

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Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung  of Vietnam (photo: Duc Tam/ VNA)

2017 marks 50 years of diplomatic relations between Cambodia and Vietnam. Both countries have organised a series of events to commemorate their time-honoured traditional friendship that is bound by strategic convergence, common vision and shared interests.

Over the past fifty years, the relationship ebbed and flowed with changing geopolitics and domestic politics in both countries before settling since 1979. Yet anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodia — mainly driven by domestic politics — has constrained both countries from deepening their strategic partnership.

Cambodia’s opposition party tends to use ‘Vietnam threat’ rhetoric to gain popular support. In an attempt to delegitimise the governing Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of the upcoming elections, former President of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party has posted a series of short video clips explaining the roots of the CPP and its connections with the communist party of Vietnam. But Cambodian voters are increasingly concerned about their livelihood, social justice, good governance, human rights and environmental protection much more than the Vietnam factor.

There is political cost attached to strengthening bilateral relations with Hanoi, including potentially losing votes to the opposition. Despite this, the long-ruling CPP remains committed to maintaining and enhancing the Vietnam relationship for the sake of national and regional peace and development.

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A new bridge is now linking Vietnam and Cambodia after being inaugurated on April 24, 2017 by Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and his Cambodian counterpart Samdech Hun Sen. The Long Binh-Chrey Thom Bridge is built over the Binh Di River and connects the provinces of An Giang in South Vietnam with Cal Dal in Cambodia. It is 442 metres long and 13 metres wide and is designed to withstand speeds of 80km/h and allow cars to cross at a speed of 80 km/h.

It is clear that Cambodia is unable to enjoy peace and development without having good and stable relations with its immediate neighbours. Both countries understand that without sticking together under the ASEAN umbrella, their regional role and leverage will be weakened. As a result, Cambodia and Vietnam’s foreign policies have both focused on regional integration and community-building.

Cambodia and Vietnam also share the concern that rivalry between major powers is threatening regional peace and stability. Learning from their Cold War experience, they must stay united to survive and thrive.

In early 2017, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited Cambodia three times, including to attend the ground-breaking opening ceremony of Chrey Thom–Long Binh Bridge (connecting Cambodia and Vietnam), pay an official state visit and attend the World Economic Forum on ASEAN. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen is planning to visit Vietnam later this month to commemorate 40th anniversary of his struggle against the Khmer Rouge regime. Such frequent high-level bilateral talks significantly contribute to nurturing political and personal trust, which are the foundations of the relationship.

Early in 2017 at the 4th Meeting on Cooperation and Development among the Border Provinces, both countries’ deputy prime ministers underscored the need to develop the Vietnam–Cambodia border area. They agreed to modernise infrastructure facilities, promote trade, investment, services and tourism and build border economic zones and markets.

Vietnam is now the fifth largest investor in Cambodia after China, South Korea, the European Union and Malaysia — it has invested in 183 projects with an aggregate value of US$2.86 billion. The investment projects target rubber plantations, telecommunications and banking. Vietnam is also Cambodia’s third largest trading partner with about US$3 billion over the last few years. They aim to achieve a US$5 billion trade volume in coming years. The planned construction of 116 warehouses at strategic border crossings between Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — expected to be completed by 2035 — will improve trade flow between the two countries.

People-to-people connectivity between Vietnam and Cambodia has been markedly strengthened over the years. There are currently more than 400 Cambodian students pursuing their higher education at various universities and institutions in Vietnam. And Vietnamese are the largest group of tourists to Cambodia, accounting for 19 per cent of all visitors.

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The  Neak Loeung Bridge located in the Prey Veng Province is 2,220 metres long, 13 metres wide and 37.5 metres above the water level. It will have two wide lanes for traffic. When completed it will facilitate trade between Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.

Looking ahead to the next fifty years, Cambodia–Vietnam relations will evolve in tandem with the speed of ASEAN community building. ASEAN provides institutional and diplomatic leverage for its member states to strategically manoeuvre and collectively hedge against major powers to minimise risks while maximising interests where possible. Collectively advocating for a rules-based regional order will help smaller countries like Cambodia and Vietnam to protect their legitimate interests.

To reduce ‘Vietnam threat’ perceptions in Cambodia, both countries need to promote engagement at all levels. Right now there is a lack of academic or intellectual dialogue between the two countries. Exchange programs among students, youth leaders, future leaders and community leaders need to be further promoted. Political parties in Cambodia should not use Vietnam for their own political gains — such a strategy is obsolete and does not fit into the evolving dynamics of ASEAN regionalism.

Differences over the management of the Mekong River and the South China Sea dispute need to be resolved the ASEAN way — through consultation and consensus. Cambodia and Vietnam might have different views on these complex issues, but they need to respect each other’s national interest and position without harming bilateral friendship and ASEAN unity.

Vannarith Chheang is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore

Mutual Respect– The Foundation for Better Cambodia-Thailand Relations

June 15, 2017

Mutual Respect–The Foundation for Better Cambodia-Thailand Relations

by Kimkong Heng

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The relations between Cambodia and Thailand can be appropriately labelled as a love-hate relationship, given the long history of bilateral ties between the two neighboring countries. However, racial hatred, arguably, seems to have prevailed among many, if not most, of the people of both countries, at least during the three-year Cambodian-Thai border dispute that started in July 2008 over the territory surrounding the 11th century Preah Vihear Temple (known as Phra Viharn in Thailand). The deep hatred and open hostility should come as no surprise if one examines the ancient and modern history of the relations between the two countries.

However, given their current political, economic and diplomatic relations, both countries can enhance their generally troubled relationship through a reciprocal exchange of mutual respect. There are many possibilities ranging from government-to-government initiatives to people-to-people connectivity programs to cultivate and nurture mutual respect, understanding, and tolerance between the people of both nations. Only when a sense of mutual respect is prevalent among Cambodian and Thai people, can harmonious bilateral relations between the two neighbors be maintained and strengthened.

From the Cambodian historical perspective, Thailand was a major threat to Cambodia’s land, although it is less of a threat compared to its Vietnamese counterpart to the present-day Cambodia. Every Cambodian, young and old, knows that Thailand was Cambodia’s traditional enemy and that Cambodia was the victim of devastating Thai (called Siam by most Cambodians) attacks on numerous occasions. There were two infamous invasions of Cambodia by the Siamese. One was the Siamese invasion of Angkor in 1431 and another was the invasion of Longvek, an ancient Cambodian capital (now located in Kampong Chhnang province), in 1593. The collapse of both ancient Khmer cities marked the downward trajectory of the Khmer Empire which was already in decline from the 13th to the 19th centuries, a historical period which saw Cambodia’s vast territory lost to Thailand and Vietnam until Cambodia became a French colony in 1863 under King Norodom’s reign.

Under the French, Cambodia-Thailand relations seemed to have been restored and improved, with a number of treaties signed between Siam and France, on Cambodia’s behalf. Following Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953, however, Cambodia-Thailand relations deteriorated when Thailand in 1954 occupied Preah Vihear by force. Cambodia then responded to the Thai invasion by bringing a legal case against Thailand before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1959. The ICJ in 1962 ruled that Cambodia was the rightful owner of Preah Vihear Temple. Relations between both countries could not be worse at that time.

Three decades later, after Cambodia’s UN-sponsored national election in 1993, the two neighbors began to establish good relations with each other. However, their seemingly good relationship was brief and fragile. In 2003, a violent riot broke out after a Thai actress was reported to have awkwardly claimed that Angkor Wat should be returned to Thailand. The incident saw the bilateral relations between the two neighbors descend to the worst possible level, once again. When their bilateral ties later seemed to normalize and improve, both governments again broke off their diplomatic relations. This was a result of Thai troops being stationed in a disputed area of land adjacent to the Preah Vihear Temple after the temple was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2008. Thailand’s troop deployment invited Cambodia to do the same, which led to a series of fierce border clashes and skirmishes between 2008 and 2011, despite several talks and meetings between the two governments.

As close neighbors and ASEAN members, the two countries could not need each other more in terms of trade, national security, strategic cooperation, and cultural and human exchange.

With ASEAN mediation (although no effective action was taken), domestic political developments in both countries, and the ICJ Judgment on Cambodia’s request for a reinterpretation of the 1962 judgment in November 2013, the Cambodian-Thai border conflict was resolved, and bilateral relations improved. Two years later Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Thai counterpart, Prayuth Chan-ocha, signed a series of agreements aimed at cementing bilateral ties between both countries. They agreed to develop border facilities, manage migrant labor, and triple their current trade volume to USD 15 billion by 2020.

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Thailand must respect Cambodia’s Sovereignty over Preah Vihear Temple

Nevertheless, a resurgence of nationalism in both countries, often manipulated by politicians, is likely to impact their bilateral relations. As Kimly Ngoun has noted, many issues such as the historical legacy of hostility and mistrust, different constructions of history by Cambodian and Thai elites, and political propaganda about national territory and sovereignty, remain to be addressed, otherwise future conflict between Cambodia and Thailand is inevitable.

All things considered, genuine and mutual respect between the people of both nations should be cultivated and nurtured. In addition to efforts at the institutional and governmental levels to salvage the troubled relationship between the two countries, individuals have crucial roles to play. As argued in another article, Cambodian youth have played a pivotal role in shaping Cambodia’s relations with Vietnam. And Thailand should not be an exception. Cambodian people, particularly the younger generation, therefore, should not dwell on their dark history; instead, they should use lessons from history to help them make informed and impartial judgments when dealing with issues concerning Thailand and its people. They should, moreover, focus on developing themselves by engaging in different forms of personal and professional development. Only when each and every Cambodian is more educated, pragmatic, open-minded, and culturally competent, will Cambodia be more competitive and well-received in its neighboring countries’ eyes and on the international stage.

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Thus, everyone, both Cambodians and Thais, have a vital role to play in improving and fostering good relations between the two old rivals. In this regard, Cambodian people must learn to embrace the culture, values, and aspirations of their Thai counterparts, although those Thai cultural aspects, as claimed by Cambodians, originally derived from Khmer culture. This cultural acceptance must be a collective effort requiring mutual respect. The Thai side must also pursue the same initiative — respecting Cambodian culture, values, and aspirations despite having very similar cultural identity and practices.

There are a myriad of options and actions which can be taken to promote this free and frank exchange of mutual respect. One option both governments have pursued but will still requires their serious attention is to improve border facilities and security to enhance trade, tourism, and mobility. This of course implies the demarcation of both land and maritime borders. With more development projects geared towards areas along the Cambodian-Thai border, chances are high for citizens of both countries to interact economically, culturally, and socially, leading to better mutual understanding and trust.

New initiatives for cultural and educational exchanges or projects involving youth engagement and interactions, such as study exchange programs and youth group camping, should be further encouraged and implemented. Moreover, initiatives to enhance business and investment and to improve deep institutional ties and physical infrastructure links between Cambodia and Thailand are essential because, in their absence, people-to-people links would be difficult, if not impossible. The mutual exchange of respect and understanding must therefore be fostered at all levels, although the emphasis should be targeted at the grassroots level by fully engaging individuals and the youth of both countries.

The cultivation of mutual respect among the people of Cambodia and Thailand is clearly a prerequisite for the long-term healthy relationship between the two former enemies. As close neighbors and ASEAN members, the two countries could not need each other more in terms of trade, national security, strategic cooperation, and cultural and human exchange. To instill respect for one another, people of both nationalities must learn to be more outward-looking yet less self-important in their perceptions of their neighboring counterparts. It is probably wise for them to remember an old Khmer saying which goes, “In times of trouble, a good neighbor is better than a faraway relative.” Good neighbors must show one another mutual respect.

*Kimkong Heng is Assistant Dean at the School of Graduate Studies and a researcher with Techo Sen School of Government and International Relations in the University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.


Cambodia’s society is changing fast, and its parties slowly

June 10, 2017

Cambodia’s society is changing fast, and its parties slowly

by Kimly Ngoun

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Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian Peoples’Party wins 2017 Commune Elections

On 4 June, Cambodia held its 4th commune elections. According to the National Election Committee (NEC), 7,040,594 people or 89.52% of registered voters—Cambodia’s highest-ever voter turnout rate—cast their votes in the country’s 1,646 local government areas, known as communes.

Eleven political parties fielded candidates in the election. However, only Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) led by Kem Sokha and the self-exiled Sam Rainsy had the resources and extensive nation-wide organisational structure enabling them to field candidates to contest in all the communes. Based on the preliminary and unofficial results published in a government-affiliated media outlet Fresh News, the two major parties won all communes, except one which went to a small party.

The CPP led in 21 provinces, claiming victory of 1,163 communes to the CNRP’s control of 482 communes. The opposition led in Phnom Penh city, Siem Reap, and Kampong Cham provinces and won some communes in other provinces. However, when examining the popular vote, as tallied by the Situation Room, an election monitoring group of NGOs, the CPP received 48% to the CNRP’s 45%. In the previous commune elections in 2012, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party—which later merged to form today’s CNRP—won only a total of 40 communes to the CPP’s control of 1,592 out of the then 1,632 communes.

Despite the high stakes for both parties—for reasons which I will outline below—the 2017 commune elections went smoothly, with no major incidents reported. CNRP’s President Kem Sokha joined the campaign trail in the provinces and led more than 50,000 party supporters in a parade in Phnom Penh during the campaign’s last day (pictured below). Prime Minister Hun Sen, the CPP’s president, also led about 150,000 supporters through the streets of Phnom Penh on the last day. His participation in the campaign trail marked a major break from tradition, since he had chosen not to participate during election campaign seasons since 1998.

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The Prime Minister’s direct participation in the campaign trail, Kem Sokha’s active leading of his party’s campaigns, and the high voter turnout attested the significance of this commune election for the future of the CPP and the CNRP and for the general population. When the preliminary election result was released by the local media, officials from both parties quickly claimed victory for their respective parties. The CPP argued that it won the election contest on the ground that it managed to stop the opposition party from winning more communes. If we expected a continuation of voting trends from the 2013 national election, the CNRP should have won many more communes. The ruling politicians interpreted it as an indication of voters’ turning their support back to the CPP. However, the opposition party claimed that it won the contest because it gained a more than tenfold increase in the number of communes under its control, if compared to the 2012 commune elections.

What kind of democracy is being consolidated?

This latest commune election was in many ways different from previous ones, and marked another milestone in Cambodia’s political and social transformations. To gain an understanding of how and why it has come to its current dynamics, it is worthwhile to sketch the electoral evolutions within Cambodia’s broader political and social contexts since the post-Cold War first national election in 1993.

Cambodia’s current electoral and democratic politics and practices are largely a product of complex interactions between diverse domestic and global actors, forces and processes over the last two decades. After the end of the Cold War and the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement, the United Nations and international communities implemented democratisation and post-conflict state building projects in Cambodia through such activities as administering the 1993 general election, supporting activities of civil society organisations, and providing development aid and annual financial assistance to the government. However, as implemented elsewhere, such projects rarely achieved their ideal expectations. The internationally-imposed liberal democratic discourses when introduced in post-conflict states are often susceptible to processes of localisation and manipulations by diverse and powerful interest groups.

Likewise, in Cambodia the 1993 election did not lead the country on the path to liberal democracy. Rather, it set the country on the course to a hybrid electoral regime or what political scientist Andreas Schedler calls electoral authoritarianism. Although the Funcinpec Party of Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s son, won the election, the ruling CPP refused to relinquish its control of state power to Funcinpec. Thus, a compromised political solution was hammered out with both parties forming a coalition government and Cambodia for the first time having co-prime ministers, Ranariddh and Hun Sen.

But that power sharing arrangement did not last long. Tension between both parties in the government intensified and broke out into open armed fighting in Phnom Penh in July 1997. Forces loyal to Hun Sen defeated Ranariddh’s quickly. Following that incident, the prince and his party became weak and moved into self-destruction mode. In contrast, Hun Sen emerged as Cambodia’s most powerful man and the country’s most skilled manipulator of electoral and patronage politics.

Hun Sen’s reinvention of himself from the mid 1990s saw him embarking on two important political projects as the backbone of his power consolidation: manipulating elections as a key political legitimation strategy, and building vast and complex patronage networks with key players in the bureaucracy, the armed forces, the private business sector, and local provincial power brokers.

Sitting on top of the sprawling patronage networks and having state resources at his disposal, Hun Sen directed resources to rural development projects throughout the country, building schools, roads, bridges, pagodas, houses and irrigation canals. The incumbent and his party machine also handed out cash, sewing machines, and electric generators—among many other items—to poor rural dwellers. All the items were communicated as omnaoy (gifts) from the prime minister, and they bore his name. Those gifts really responded to the everyday needs of the rural people in the context of post-conflict rural development. The prime minister crisscrossed the country to preside over the inaugurations of those development projects and usually gave lengthy impromptu speeches touching on aspects of war, peace, development, his rural background, and his political opponents. The speeches resonated very well with the rural audience. Therefore, the leader garnered mass popularity among rural voters and turned rural provinces into the CPP’s strong support bases, which guaranteed victories for his party in all subsequent elections.

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On Hun Sen’s watch Cambodia has also experienced unprecedented economic and development and urbanisation. The country experienced strong annual economic growth of about 7% for a decade leading up to the 2013 elections. Foreign investments and tourists have increased every year, boosting and diversifying the national economy and increasingly integrating it into the global capitalist economic system. Phnom Penh’s urban economy and landscape have also experienced major transformations with the mushrooming of businesses and services, and a boom in construction of high rise buildings and borei (gated residential communities). The prime minister took great pride in these transformations and added them into his bucket of political legitimation narratives to win elections. Hun Sen has portrayed Cambodia under his watch as experiencing its most modern and joyful era.


As for the opposition forces, following the disintegration of Funcinpec, no credible political force could challenge Hun Sen in the arena of electoral politics. Though it was to emerge as a major opposition force, Sam Rainsy’s Khmer Nation Party, which was established in 1995 and later became the Sam Rainsy Party, remained weak and politically constrained from its formation until at least 2012. The party neither had an extensive organisational structure nor adequate financial resources to entice voters like the ruling CPP could. Sam Rainsy himself was often in self-exile to avoid court cases brought against him by the government. Some of his senior party members were vulnerable to enticement and cooptation by the government. Others who remained with the party needed to endure repression and hardship. Moreover, the party did not have concise policy platform for its election campaigns and was faced difficulties in spreading its message to voters since the CPP controlled almost all local media outlets. Therefore, Sam Rainsy often resorted to nationalist rhetoric accusing Hun Sen of being a Vietnamese ‘puppet’ and ‘damaging the Cambodian nation’ as a strategy to mobilise popular support to win elections. However, such rhetoric, and generally vague campaign messages about notions of nation, democracy, and accountable governance did not resonate well with the majority of voters who did not see the direct relationship between those big ideas and their daily needs.

Therefore, Hun Sen gained the upper hand in the electoral arena. National elections, as well as commune elections, which were introduced in 2002, became nothing but a legitimation mechanism justifying the incumbent’s extending his rule. Hun Sen’s CPP won in every election, from its landslide victory in the 2008 national election when it won 90 of the parliament’s 123 seats and in the 2012 commune election when the party gained control of 97% of communes. It looked like the elections gave the prime minister a mandate to rule Cambodia forever. Hun Sen declared that he would continue to rule until he was 90 (only later did he change his mind and say that he would rule until he was 74).

However, the result of the July 2013 national election surprised observers, shocked the CPP ruling elites, and changed the game of electoral politics in Cambodia. The ruling party’s control of seats in the parliament dropped to 68, while the opposition CNRP surged to 55. Moreover, the CNRP performed well in CPP’s rural strongholds leading it in at least three provinces.

Pundits attributed the surprising election outcome in favour of the opposition party mainly to demographic change and social media. They explained that a large number of voters were young and born after the Khmer Rouge regime. Therefore, they were not interested in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s narratives of war and peace. Furthermore, they were increasingly connected with each another on social media, thus bypassing the CPP-controlled media.

I contributed an article to New Mandala following the election that offered my analysis of the voters’ change of political allegiance to the CNRP. While I did not refute the pundits’ arguments, I was not convinced that generational change and social media necessarily led to change in political allegiance. What I saw was the CNRP’s concise policy platform of supporting family household incomes, which met people’s new life expectations. This policy triggered garment workers and ordinary public servants to convey the opposition’s policy messages to their rural localities and influenced their family members and fellow villagers to vote for the CNRP.

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Besides, the economic and social transformations brought about by peace, economic development, and Cambodia’s increased integration into the global economy since the 1990s meant that by 2013 Cambodia had already moved beyond the post-conflict setting. People were adopting new lifestyles and identities and were seeking empowerment and upward mobility. Their aspirations could be realised only by having the opposition party in government. Therefore, the CPP’s gifts started to lose their magical appeal in the course of Cambodia’s evolving into a modern society and economy. A recent study by Swedish scholar Astrid Norén-Nilsson about Cambodian people’s perceptions of the ruling party’s gifts also found that gifts were generally viewed negatively by supporters of both parties. Voters had aspirations for programmatic policies.

Although the CNRP did not win the 2013 election, the result represented a major triumph in its push for control of state power, and a major setback for Hun Sen. The prospect of the prime minister’s losing power in the next election in 2018 seemed a real possibility if he did not reinvent himself and his party quickly enough.

The CPP’s comeback: how real is it?

Realising the potential threats to his power, Hun Sen placed some young, highly educated officials in control of several ministries and pledged to carry out ‘deep and comprehensive’ reforms. He has also increased salaries for public servants and members of the armed forces. Moreover, he supported the increase of minimum wage for garment factory workers. He tasked one of his sons to be in charge of mobilising youth to support the ruling party. The prime minister even made use of a popular Facebook page, and has since been active on social media posting photos, video clips, government announcements, and updates almost on a daily basis. He has also solved numerous complaints raised by people on his page.

Meanwhile, his government also used judicial repression against the CNRP’s leadership, NGO officers, and political analysts in what were widely believed as politically motivated actions. At least two MPs from the opposition party, along with 5 staff, have been put in jail. The CNRP’s former president Sam Rainsy was forced to flee Cambodia to avoid a series of court cases against him. Rainsy’s deputy Kem Sokha was forced to take refuge in the CNRP’s headquarters for months to avoid a court summons and was only allowed to walk free after a royal pardon from the king. On top of this, the ruling party’s MPs in the National Assembly hastily passed controversial amendments to the Law on Political Parties. The amended law allows the government to dissolve any political party if its leader is a convict or the party carries out activities considered as incitement that affects national unity. Analysts considered the law as a time bomb that may be used at any time to dissolve the CNRP.

However, the opposition party’s leadership have appeared to be less satisfied with the election outcome because it fell short of their expectations. Kem Sokha had expected that his party would win 60% of the communes in order to build his party’s momentum to succeed in the 2018 election. However, his expectations were politically unrealistic given the current domestic and international political contexts. His party’s leadership had been severely obstructed from running an effective opposition party after the 2013 election. Their attention focused largely on how to survive in the face of the judicial repression I described above, and how to keep the party’s senior members together from being split by the ruling elites. They had little time to ponder about policy and strategies to prepare themselves well for the 2017 commune election.

This manifested itself most clearly in their policy messages. Their so-called ‘five points’ policy was in many ways similar to that of the ruling party, aside from their pledge to allocate each commune throughout the country an annual budget of half a million US Dollars from the state budget for local development projects if the CNRP wins the 2018 election. However, this financial pledge was vague and did not appeal much to rural voters because it cannot be translated directly into an improvement to their livelihoods. If the money is to build schools, roads, and irrigation canals, then it’s not much different from Hun Sen’s gifts in the form of rural development projects. The CNRP needs to present itself as a much better option than the ruling party if it wants to gain more votes.

Somewhat paradoxically, the 2017 commune election’s result is good for the opposition party since it gives it political space to manoeuvre ahead of the 2018 national polls. A decisive victory for the CNRP would force the ruling party to adopt more repressive measures against the opposition and perhaps even dissolve it before next year election. The CPP can do this given the current international political contexts. The ruling party has relied increasingly on loans, financial aid, and political backing from China. Western governments’ political influence on the Cambodian government has been waning. In addition, with Donald Trump as the US president and Western countries being overwhelmed with immigration crises and terrorist attacks, it is unlikely that they are paying much attention to what is happening in Cambodia.

With all this context as a background, although the 2018 national election will be the most watched, it will likely not lead to a decisive victory for either of the two major parties. Both the ruling CPP and the CNRP have a whole range of their own opportunities and constraints in front of them. Moreover, next year’s election will not lead to war or prolonged political instability—as threatened by the ruling elites—because such instability is counterproductive to the ruling party’s economic interests and would undermine Prime Minister Hun Sen’s own patronage networks, whose members have amassed so much wealth and their own vast business empires. However, in the longer term, tensions may increase as the society and the private sector keeps changing so fast, while the ruling elites are changing so slowly.


Kimly Ngoun is a lecturer at the Department of International Studies at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, and a PhD candidate at the Department of Political and Social Change in the ANU’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

All photographs taken by the author. Header image: voters attending a commune polling booth in Phnom Penh.

2017 Cambodian Commune Elections–CPP wins

June 6, 2017

Congratulations to Royal Government and the People of Cambodia led by HE Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen. You have shown that democracy via free and fair elections works. CPP wins to provide peace, stability and development for all Cambodians​​ as well as ensuring stability and sustainable for ASEAN and Southeast Asia as well.

សូមអបអរសាទរដល់រាជរដ្ឋាភិបាល និងប្រជាជនកម្ពុជា ក្រោមការដឹកនាំរបស់សម្តេច នាយករដ្ឋមន្ត្រី​ តេជោ ហ៊ុន សែន ដែលបានឆ្លុះបញ្ចាំងពីលទ្ធិប្រជាធិបតេយ្យ​តាមរយៈ​ការបោះឆ្នោតកន្លងទៅប្រកបដោយយុត្តិធ៌ម និងត្រឹមត្រូវ។ គណៈបក្សប្រជាជនកម្ពុជាត្រូវ​បានឈ្នះឆ្នោត និងធានាជូនប្រជាជនកម្ពុជានូវ​ សន្តិភាព ស្ថេរភាព និងការអភិវឌ្ឍន៍​ជូនប្រជាជនកម្ពុជាទាំងមូល ក៏ដូចជាធានាជូននូវស្ថេរភាព និង​ និរន្តភាពអភិវឌ្ឍន៍ ជូនអាស៊ាន និង ជូនតំបន់អាស៊ីអាគ្នេយ៍ទាំងមូលដែរ។ៈnsparency-the-main-winner/

Analysts say greater transparency should emerge as a result of changes heralded by this year’s commune elections.

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Independent political analyst Meas Ny said the CNRP has won more commune seats than before, but could not say immediately if this would lead to improvements in local services.

“We have to wait and see when they come to work in their positions,” he said. “They have to work first.”  He added that with the CNRP getting more seats in the communes, government officers’ work would be more transparent because both parties are competing closely for support.

He said: “My thoughts are that from now on the provincial governors will have to manage their work effectively, otherwise there will be a greater effect on the CPP.

“In the case of a CPP governor putting pressure on a CNRP commune chief, people in the commune who voted for the CNRP will react. For commune development, budgets have to get approval from the government and national assembly.”

Sam Kuntheamy, Executive Director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said provincial governors could not put pressure on new CNRP commune chiefs because they worked awithin a system, having to go through district councillors, provincial councillors and then to the Ministry of Interior.

“So the provincial governor cannot make their work difficult,” he said.  Adding to that, the new commune chiefs have to implement the policies their parties campaigned on.

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HE Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen leads CPP to victory in 2017 Cambodian Commune Election

“It’s good now because the Senate election will start next month, so the opposition party will get more seats because more commune members will vote for their party member in the Senate.”

The opposition would gain positions of provincial councillors or district councillors from the votes of commune chiefs and commune members. He said the mission of commune councils was to serve the common interests of citizens and act as the agent of the central government.

Specific functions were to maintain order, offer services for citizens’ health, well-being and contentment, to plan for economic and social development, and to ensure citizens have a quality standard of living. He said: “The commune chief has to respond to the needs of the commune community.”

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told Voice of America radio the opposition party would have 487 commune chiefs working at the grassroots. “Whoever comes from whatever political party works under the Ministry of Interior,” he said.

“We will not discriminate against a political party.” The National Election Committee said preliminary results showed the CPP winning in 22 provinces. The CNRP won in Siem Reap and Kompong Cham provinces and in Phnom Penh. The CPP came top in 1,163 communes and the CNRP won 482. The Khmer National United Party won one commune.

More than 85 percent of the 7.8 million registered voters turned out in an election described by international observers as free and fair with no sign of intimidation, violence or coercion.



In response to the invitation of the National Election Committee through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the Royal Government of Cambodia, the election observation delegation of the Centrist Asia-Pacific Democrats International (CAPDI) led by Honorable Agung Laksono, Vice-Chairman of CAPDI and Former Speaker of Republic of Indonesia, nine delegates from Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, and Turkey arrived in Cambodia to observe the 2017 commune council election.

As part of the mission, the CAPDI delegation paid a visit to Prime Minister Hun Sen and leaders of three main political parties such as the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the National United Front for an Independent, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (Funcinpec) and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Moreover, we were also briefed by representatives from the National Election Committee and Civil Society Organization Alliance Forum on a range of issues regarding the election process.

On Election Day, the CAPDI delegation went to a number of polling stations in the capital city of Phnom Penh and in provinces. We were impressed by a large voter turnout of 80% of all the registered voters and we observed that people were casting their vote in an open and free environment. More importantly, voters appeared to be more enthusiastic and happy to take part in the election process. There was no sign of intimidation, coercion and violence. Furthermore, the election staff was selected through a transparent and competitive process and they did their job with a high degree of integrity and professionalism.

We were also grateful for the Cambodian government’s efforts in ensuring safety and security for voters, members of political parties, the election staff, members of the media and local and international observers before, during and after the election. The CAPDI delegation along with representatives from various political parties and civil society organizations also monitored the vote counting process.

The CAPDI delegation also noticed that Cambodia has made a lot of progress since the country fully achieved peace and stability after the transition period of the late 1990s.

Progress can be seen, not only in the economy, but also in the political democrat process.

Finally, the CAPDI delegation would like to congratulate the Cambodian people, the NEC and the nearly 8 million registered voters and other relevant agencies for successfully conducting a free, fair, secrete and credible commune council election. We witnessed a sincere desire from the voters to express their sentiment in a peaceful and democratic manner. We are confident that political leaders would be able to resolve their differences also through a peaceful and win-win manner. CAPDI is ready to support any process that would lead to peace, stability and prosperity in Cambodia.

The University of Cambodia Honors Dr. Tony Fernandes of AirAsia

May 19, 2017

The University of Cambodia named its Business School in honor of Dr. Tony Fernandes, AirAsia Group CEO

by AirAsia Press Release


The University of Cambodia (UC) has named its business school after AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes. UC unveiled the Tony Fernandes School of Business and its accompanying logo on the eighth floor of the main campus building last Wednesday.

A lecture hall in the same building, which will be used for hosting conferences, workshops and seminars, was also christened after AirAsia. Fernandes had earlier been conferred an Honorary Doctorate in Management by the university at SEATV Auditorium here for revolutionising air travel in ASEAN and facilitating regional integration through greater connectivity.

The University of Cambodia Founder, Chairman, Board of Trustees, and President HE Dr Kao Kim Hourn said, “It is a privilege to name this school after Tony, in honour of his outstanding success as an entrepreneur. What makes him truly exceptional is that, despite his many achievements, he remains humble and down-to-earth, demonstrating compassion for others through his philanthropy and support for sports. We hope that by bringing Cambodia and Malaysia closer, we can further strengthen the fraternal relations between our two countries in years to come.”


AirAsia Group CEO Tan Sri Tony Fernandes said, “What an amazing honour to be recognised by The University of Cambodia. I’m not sure I deserve to have a school named after me but I hope the students here will be inspired by what they can achieve if they believe the unbelievable, dream the impossible and never take no for an answer.”

AirAsia operates five routes to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap – with a sixth to Sihanoukville from next month – connecting Cambodia to the rest of Asean and beyond with just one stop via Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok to more than 120 destinations in Asia, Australia and New Zealand, the Middle East and the US. The University of Cambodia School of Business was ranked as Cambodia’s top business school in the Eduniversal Business Schools Ranking 2016, which rated it as a “good business school with strong regional influence”.

About The University of Cambodia


Since its founding in 2003, The University of Cambodia (UC) has become a premier higher education institution in Cambodia. It is an intellectual community where students learn how to explore their curiosities, create and share knowledge, refine and challenge ideas, promote greater understanding, and serve their families and communities. Based in Phnom Penh, The University of Cambodia offers a range of degrees through Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctoral programmes. All Colleges and Schools are officially recognized by the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC), the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS), and the Accreditation Committee of Cambodia (ACC). UC is also a member of the Cambodian Higher Education Association (CHEA). Currently, the University operates six colleges and two schools, including the Tony Fernandes School of Business, and offers students the choice to study in two languages, English and Khmer.

About AirAsia

AirAsia, the leading and largest low-cost carrier in Asia by passengers carried, services an extensive network of over 120 2000px-AirAsia_New_Logo.svgdestinations. Since starting operations in 2001, AirAsia has carried more than 330 million guests and grown its fleet from just two aircraft to over 200. The airline is proud to be a truly ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) airline with established operations based in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines as well as India and Japan, servicing a network stretching across Asia, Australia and New Zealand, the Middle East and the US. AirAsia has been named the World’s Best Low-Cost Airline at the annual Skytrax World Airline Awards eight times in a row from 2009 to 2016. AirAsia was also awarded World’s Leading Low-Cost Airline for the fourth consecutive year at the 2016 World Travel Awards, where it beat a field of full-service carriers to become the first ever low-cost carrier to win World’s Leading Inflight Service.







What China’s Belt and Road has to learn from 1920s America

May 17, 2017

What China’s Belt and Road has to learn from 1920s America

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plan to resurrect the Silk Road must heed the lessons of a bygone era

By  Sourabh Gupta

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Perceptive China-watchers have observed that President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) has modelled his political mission on Deng Xiaoping ( 鄧小平 ) – even if his methods bear a whiff of Maoism.

Deng put an end to the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and engineered China’s transformation towards socialist modernisation. Xi’s sweeping reforms and anti-corruption crackdown aim to engineer an analogous transformation that will deliver China to the cusp of a “moderately prosperous” society by the time of the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial founding in 2021.

In one notable respect though, Xi has broken with the Paramount Leader. Deng had counseled a 24-character strategy on his countrymen: “observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” By contrast, Xi has not been shy to employ assertive diplomacy in support of an ambitious, long-term and strategic foreign policy.

No single political project personifies this more than the “Belt and Road Initiative”, which aims to resurrect the ancient Silk Road through infrastructure projects that will link Eurasian economies into a China-centred trading network. When two dozen or so heads of state assemble in Beijing for the Belt and Road Summit on Sunday and Monday, the magnitude of the imposing soft-power dimension of this “win-win” project that aspires to embed Xi’s “China Dream” within a “neighbourhood community of common destiny” will be on ample display. The BRICS Summit in Xiamen (廈門) this September will be a sideshow by comparison.

A variety of malignant motives, mainly economic, have been ascribed to the Belt and Road plan. It aims to channel Beijing’s allegedly manipulated reserve surpluses abroad, prop up the internationalisation of the yuan, unload China’s industrial overcapacity on neighbours, ensnare the recipient country in a cycle of debt, exploit the host country’s strategic resources and purchase their political affiliation along the way.

Steel pipes are loaded for export at Lianyungang port, Jiangsu province, China. Some critics see the Belt and Road as a way to unload China’s industrial overcapacity on neighbours. Photo: Reuters

While these claims contain merit, the redeeming arguments are more compelling. China’s hard currency reserves are better put to use in hard infrastructure projects in developing countries than deposited passively in New York’s financial market. At a time of volatility in liquidity provision in the international monetary system, yuan internationalisation and the rise of another issuer of safe, short-term and liquid instruments is to be welcomed. Moreover, the bilateral yuan swap lines and dedicated trade payments and securities settlement infrastructure that Beijing has rolled out over the past half-decade will enable recipient countries to denominate their borrowings in local currency, thereby limiting costs and exposures.

Transferring industrial capacity, improving infrastructure and reducing transaction costs on the other hand will enable developing countries to jump-start a dynamic upward spiral of growth and development in sectors where they enjoy latent comparative advantages – on lines similar to China’s own industrial jump-start in the 1980s. A comparison of China’s and the US’ Eximbank (Export-Import bank) loans to Africa, meanwhile, belie the oft-repeated claim that the former is directed solely at natural resources. China Eximbank has contributed to almost all 54 countries in Africa – resource rich or poor – and displays no perceptible pattern of favoured client state lending. US Eximbank loans, by contrast, are concentrated in energy and mining and confined to a favoured few.

Finally, with developing and emerging economies forecast to account for 59 per cent of world GDP in 2018 (neatly reversing the average 59 per cent accounted for by advanced economies from 1980 to 2007), as per the IMF, the rise of an alternate model of development financing that is leaner, cheaper, quicker and more flexibly attuned to host country systems and requirements should be welcomed, not stigmatised.

Development economics aside, the most consequential effects of the Belt and Road will be in international relations.

The Belt and Road’s storied predecessor, the Silk Road, two thousand years ago ushered in an age of commerce and civilizational exchange and afforded a set of loose principles of order and self-restraint. The Belt and Road’s ‘open regionalism’, likewise, will showcase Xi’s determination to practice a “new type of international relations” that binds China’s extended periphery as far out as Africa in a win-win embrace. Purposeful translation of his optimistic assessment for peace and development will realise the long-delayed promise of south-south cooperation in the post-colonial age. With luck, it will also confine the fascination with Great Power transition ‘traps’ – particularly the ‘Thucydides Trap’ (in which an established power’s fear of a rising power leads them into a vicious cycle of competition and eventually war) – to the armchairs of zero-sum-minded historians and think tank specialists.

Banners advertise the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Photo: AP

China’s re-emergence at the turn of, and the first few decades of, the 21st century bears remarkable parallels to America’s rise a century ago. Between 1890 and the early-1900s, the proportion of US manufacturers engaged in exports rose from less than a quarter to more than two-thirds, as the burgeoning surpluses of farms and factories were absorbed overseas. By the late-1910s and through the 1920s, the US became a prodigious exporter of capital as more than US$1 billion a year in loans surged out of New York. Nearly one-third as many foreign bonds floated on Wall Street as bonds of US companies.

As the Belt and Road becomes a conduit for the export of Chinese capital on as prodigious a scale as the US a century ago, its design and roll-out must also be informed by the cautionary lessons of that era. When boom had periodically turned to bust in the US economy and subjected many of her poorer hemispheric trade partners and raw material suppliers to simultaneous capital and commodity market shocks, Washington failed to provide the public goods (international development financing; recycling of capital flight; inter-governmental institutionalisation, and stabilisation loans, and so on) that could have placed a floor under the crash – and misery – overseas. China’s capital exports must avoid such boom-bust patterns and instead marry hard physical capital with soft technical know-how, managerial skills and local project ownership with purpose and patience.

During the next decade, China will replace the US as the world’s largest economic power. As it grows richer, it must assume the mantle of collaborative leadership and provider of global public goods. The Belt and Road is an appetising start but the proof of the pudding will be in its eating, as well as its ability to draw sceptical bystanders in the West and in Asia to the banquet