Cambodia– Responding to Rising Voter Expectations

October 16, 2017

Cambodia– Responding to Rising  Voter Expectations 

by Kongkea Chhoeun, Australian National University

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As long as the Cambodian government manages to maintain satisfactory economic performance, continues its piecemeal reforms benefitting the majority of the population, and promotes some appearance of democracy in the country, it will continue to demand difficult value judgments on the part of Cambodian citizens as to whether the CPP’s actions against the media and civil society are worth fighting back against.– Kongkea Chhoeun


It might be easy to forget given the events of August–September 2017, but Cambodian democracy had until a few years ago been making progress. Many key indicators of democratic quality had continued to improve since the 1998 national elections, which followed the near collapse of the system in the aftermath of the July 1997 internal fighting between armed forces loyal to Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Rannariddh.


Competition among political parties increased, thanks to the unification of the opposition parties in 2012 ahead of the 2013 national election. The economy also continued to grow extraordinarily well. Growth has averaged 7 per cent per year since 1993, and poverty has fallen more than 1 per cent per year on average since 2003. Inequality has also declined. Vertical political accountability has been strengthened markedly, thanks to decentralisation and deconcentration. Cambodians are increasingly able to hold local leaders to account through local democratic processes.

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Sanderson Park, at Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh  has a sculpture of a dove with an olive branch in its beak. It is made up entirely from parts of AK-47 rifles.

But the 2013 polls were a turning point. Although they won the election, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lost the popular vote for the first time since 1998, seeing its popular vote plummet by more than 20 per cent. To its credit, the CPP-led government subsequently implemented various reforms aimed at winning the hearts and minds of Cambodian voters. The CPP has permitted moderate reforms, restructured the National Electoral Committee and increased public servants pay. And in August 2017, Hun Sen also promised a slew of new benefits for garment workers, including a big increase in their monthly minimum wage.

But with the carrots have come sticks.Indicators of horizontal accountability have either stalled or are in decline. Local and international NGOs and media operated with comparatively little constraint from the state before the 2013 national election period. Since then, the government has made disturbing moves that wipe out progress made in terms of political openness. Among a range of actions is the passage of legislation governing NGOs.

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Despite a boycott by the opposition, the Parliament passed the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations, which requires the nearly 5000 domestic and international NGOs that work in the country to register with the government and report their activities and finances or risk fines, criminal prosecution and being shut down. In August 2017, the government used this law to order the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to shut down its operations and repatriate its foreign staff, accusing the NDI of illegally operating in the country.

The Cambodian government has also targeted foreign and foreign-linked media. In August 2017, the government accused the Cambodia Daily of failing to pay more than US$6 million in taxes, giving the paper one month to resolve the issue or risk being shut down. The Daily is a US-owned outlet credited for its reports critical of the government. In addition, the government instructed more than a dozen radio stations across the country to cease operations, accusing them of failing to report how much and to whom they sell their airtime.

Two major factors — one internal and one external — may explain the government’s recent measures against international NGOs and media. Internally, these measures were escalated as a result of the June 2017 local government elections, the result of which represented a big boost for the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party and a serious blow to the CPP. After the June 2017 local government elections, the CPP still controlled the majority of local governments — 1156 or 70 per cent of communes. But the opposition party’s share of local governments increased about 12 fold in comparison with the last local elections held in 2012.

The external factor is the declining role of the United States as a champion of democracy. The drastic moves targeting US-based NGOs and media occurred in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump. His election and subsequent attacks on mainstream media have disconcerted democrats at home and abroad and certainly delegitimised US efforts to promote liberal democratic principles internationally.

Furthermore, the failure of the United States to pre-empt and manage democratic breakdown in Thailand, and to promote democracy in Laos and Vietnam, only serves to diminish the US role in promoting democracy in Cambodia, and potentially gives the Cambodian government an excuse to maintain the status quo.

Likewise, Australia and European countries have been silent on these issues so far, showing a similar unwillingness to influence internal political decisions in Cambodia. The 2014 Australia–Cambodia refugee deal tainted Australia’s reputation as an altruistic donor to Cambodia, and has certainly undermined Australian leverage in promoting reforms in Cambodian domestic affairs. And European countries have been busy cleaning up the mess in their own backyard after the Brexit vote in 2016 and the rise of populist movements across the continent.

Meanwhile, Cambodia is increasingly dependent on China, and less and less so on Western countries. China is feeding the Cambodian economy, investing US$857 million (roughly 61 per cent of total FDI) and channelling US$320 million in aid (roughly 30 per cent of total aid) to the country in 2015. By contrast, investment and aid from Western countries is either modest or on the decline.

Whatever the mix of domestic and global political influences, the consequences of the CPP’s crackdown on Cambodia’s democracy are being felt. As long as the Cambodian government manages to maintain satisfactory economic performance, continues its piecemeal reforms benefitting the majority of the population, and promotes some appearance of democracy in the country, it will continue to demand difficult value judgments on the part of Cambodian citizens as to whether the CPP’s actions against the media and civil society are worth fighting back against.

Kongkea Chhoeun is a PhD Candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

This article was first published here on New Mandala.


Why Cambodia is turning its back on the West

September 10, 2017

Why Cambodia is turning its back on the West

opinion September 10, 2017 01:00

By Shaun Turton, Mech Dara
The Phnom Penh Post
Asia News Network

With China throwing its support behind premier Hun Sen, both are protecting each other’s interests

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Their Forebears were abandoned by the United States and its allies; The United States bombed the Cambodian countryside, as Nixon and Kissinger expanded the war, and in the name of democracy and human rights brought tragedy and hardship to the Cambodian people. When it suited American interests, US administrations from Kennedy to Obama (and Trump too) have not hesitated to let history repeat itself.

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His Excellency  Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia

Cambodians under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen have learned well; they are naturally cautious and circumspect; and  they are  now seeking new friends and strategic partners who respect Cambodia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in their effort to build national resilience through sustainable development. The country has enjoyed peace, stability and strong economic growth for more than 2 decades and the way forward for the Cambodian people, in my view, is promising.

The Asian Development Bank has called Cambodia an “emerging tiger economy”.  From a Miracle by the Mekong, the Kingdom is a key member of ASEAN and a proud nation ready to take its place in the community of nations. As a witness to its progress for more than 25 years, I am very bullish.–Din Merican

By Shaun Turton, Mech Dara
The Phnom Penh Post
Asia News Network

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The Cambodian National Flag with the The Independence Monument in the Background, Phnom Penh

Its president imprisoned on a charge of treason and its existence under threat, the Cambodia National Rescue Party last week renewed its calls for the international community to step in and stop what’s widely seen as an all out assault on the Kingdom’s democracy.

But with China throwing its support behind the premier Hun Sen, the West’s statements of condemnation and concern, which have flooded in from embassies, NGOs and the United Nations in recent days, will have little impact, particularly in the absence of concrete measures, analysts said.

Building on a statement of support from China’s Foreign Ministry, senior Chinese diplomat Wang Jiarui met on Thursday with National Assembly President Heng Samrin to offer private assurances amid the mounting criticism, according to Samrin’s spokesman Sorn Sarana.

Jiarui, the former head of the Chinese Communist Party’s international liaison department and current vice chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), reaffirmed Beijing’s support following the late-night arrest of CNRP President Kem Sokha, Sarana said. He said the official, whose committee is described as a non-state organ that advises on state affairs, expressed the sentiment that “an obstacle for Cambodia is also an obstacle for China”.

“China is behind Cambodia to help and support,” he said, relating the discussion. “The success of Cambodia is also the success of China.”

 A representative from the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh did not respond to messages to verify Sarana’s characterisation of the discussion, but for analysts, China’s backing was hardly surprising given Hun Sen’s long drift into Beijing’s orbit.


Backed by more than $1 billion (Bt33 billion) in foreign direct investment and $265 million in overseas development aid, according to 2016 figures, Chinese support insulates the premier from external pressure, at least to a certain extent, analysts said.

Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at Australia’s University of New South Wales, said China had previously shown its willingness to supply military equipment and plug holes left by the withdrawal of Western aid. Cambodia, meanwhile, has repeatedly backed China’s position on the contested South China Sea.

“China will pick up the pieces if the US or other donor countries resort to sanctions or other punitive actions against Cambodia,” Thayer said, adding that nonetheless, the support was not a carte blanche endorsement of Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades.

“The message was subtle but clear. China will support Hun Sen under these conditions, but if Hun Sen cannot protect Chinese interests they will support a CPP leader who can.”

The premier himself has shown no signs he’s willing to cede power should his ruling Cambodian People’s Power lose next year’s election, announcing on Wednesday that he planned to rule for 10 more years.

Eleven months out from the crucial national ballot, the government has pursued what’s widely seen as a relentless crackdown against the opposition, independent media and civil society, culminating this week with the arrest of Sokha, who faces up to 30 years in prison on a “treason” charge for what officials say is a US-backed plot to topple the government.

A well-connected observer familiar with thinking inside the CPP said the government’s virulent anti-Americanism reflected a belief that the US and US-backed organisations were supporting the CNRP, as well as frustration over Washington’s reluctance to forgive war-era debt. Nevertheless, the observer, who requested anonymity because of the tense political environment, said the escalation against the US was a gamble.

He described anxiety in the CPP about the US’s recent announcement of visa restrictions for Cambodians, which came in response to Cambodia’s refusal to accept deportees as part of a controversial US programme to sends home long-term non-native residents who are convicted of a felony.

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Phnom Penh in the Land of Temples, Smiling People, and Wonder

The possibility of trade restrictions also worried many in the party, he said. The scrapping the EU’s “anything but arms” preferential trade arrangement, or the US’s zero tariffs for travel wares could have “devastating” economic consequences given European and American markets are vital to Cambodia’s almost $7 billion garment export sector. With the minimum wage rise in Cambodia making other countries in the region more appealing to manufacturers, lead ASEAN analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit Miguel Chanco said such moves would be a stronger tool than aid cuts, which have long been threatened but without much impact.

However, in light of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and the Myanmar military’s crackdown against ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine state – and considering the political upheaval in the US and EU – discussions of such actions were “unlikely” to feature high on the agenda, he said.

Simply put, the EU and the US have bigger domestic fish to fry. The former is dealing with the complexity of Brexit, while the latter is busy dithering on Donald Trump’s controversial domestic agenda,” Chanco said.

According to a government database, China last year provided about 30 per cent of Cambodia’s $1 billion overseas development aid budget, followed by Japan, which contributed 10 per cent, and is also second only to China for foreign direct investment.

Following Sokha’s arrest, the Japanese Embassy released a cautious statement calling on the ruling and opposition parties to “make efforts to create a suitable environment to realise a free and fair” election.

Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson urged Japan not to “soft-pedal”, and to use its central role at the UN Human Rights Council to take a strong position against threats to the legitimacy of next year’s election, noting Tokyo was a major supporter of preparations for the upcoming ballot and had led the UNTAC mission that staged Cambodia’s 1993 vote.

“I would take five statements of concern, and if I got something from Japan that was somewhat terse and tight and strong, I would match those up against the others,” Robertson said, noting Japan’s preference for closed-door diplomacy.

“Japanese critical statements are sort of like unicorns; you get a critical Japanese statement, it’s like, ‘Did I just see a magical creature?’”

A small glimpse of Japan’s behind-the-scenes courting of Cambodia emerged last month, when Hun Sen posted a video of a surprise birthday party organised in Tokyo by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, complete with a personal rendition of “Happy Birthday” and a new set of golf clubs.

Paul Chambers, a Southeast Asia expert at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said Japan’s “jousting” with rival China would likely temper the strength of any public response, and the potential of punitive action.

“If Japan were to walk away from Cambodia, Tokyo would provide a vacuum which Beijing would only be too willing to fill,” Chambers said.

Noting Toyko had “little appetite for confrontation”, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, Los Angeles Ear Sophal said he saw little hope for anything “dramatic and coordinated” from the international community.

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A new Chinese-built bridge, on the right, spans the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh, running parallel to the bridge Japan helped construct in the 1960s.–Putting Words into Deeds is what counts.

“The last time anything serious happened in terms of aid suspension [1997], 100-200 people died,” he said, referring to the violent factional fighting in which Hun Sen ousted his royalist rivals from a coalition government.

“And, indeed,” he added, “China has already made a statement endorsing Cambodia’s actions.”



New Approaches to ASEAN Regionalism

September 4, 2017

New Approaches to  ASEAN Regionalism

by  Tan Hsien-Li, NUS


Duterte meets with Cambodian PM Hun Sen


Throughout its 50-year history of regional cooperation, legalisation and institutionalisation have not featured all that prominently in ASEAN’s diplomatic repertoire. Especially in its formative years, ASEAN relied on political flexibility and institutional informality, eschewing binding legal relations. Even as laws and institutions were developed in ASEAN, adherence to them remained underwhelming.


While ASEAN regionalism has often been lauded for achieving relative regional security, it has simultaneously been derided as weak and ineffective due to the lack of adequate implementation of its collective vision. But there are clear signs that the organisation has been adapting itself to have stronger laws and institutions since the ASEAN Charter was adopted in 2007.

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Cambodia played to the very successful WEF-ASEAN Open Forum, May 10- 12, 2017. Since joining ASEAN in 1999, the Kingdom under the leadership of Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen has been a very active contributor to ASEAN regionalism.

Alongside political flexibility, ASEAN’s ongoing legalisation and institutionalisation process is a conscious diplomatic strategy that is intended to, and will, have permanence. It is not a collective whim or reaction but a set of long-term cooperation and integration measures that member states have adopted to deal with significant geopolitical exigencies.

ASEAN’s initial foray into legalisation and institutionalisation was tentative as diplomacy and flexibility were prioritised. The five founding members expressly chose to establish the organisation through the ASEAN Declaration (1967), a non-binding instrument. It was only after about a decade of cooperation that ASEAN adopted its first legally binding treaty, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (1976), at the first ASEAN Summit. At that Summit, the member states established the ASEAN Secretariat and expanded the scope of regional cooperation beyond security to include economic development. They also developed ASEAN’s institutional capacities to attain these goals.

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Through the years, as ASEAN grew with the membership of Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, and the fields of cooperation intensified, regional decision-making modalities remained staunchly politically flexible and non-legalistic. There was a marked preference for consultation and consensus rather than actual compliance with the organisation’s ever-growing body of laws and institutions, especially regarding economic integration. Only an estimated one-third of ASEAN instruments of cooperation were actually complied with in the organisation’s first 40 years.

By the mid-2000s it was recognised that continuing this situation would be a grave strategic error for ASEAN’s reputation and competitiveness. An appointed group of eminent persons tasked with assessing the organisation’s new directions through the ASEAN Charter made three recommendations.

They first advised that for ASEAN to fully realise its primary goal of economic, socio-cultural and political–security cooperation, the informal association needed to become a reliable and ‘structured intergovernmental organisation’ with legal obligations. ASEAN needed to be an entity comparable to other international organisations in an intensely legalised global order. This included taking on legal personality and pursuing legal endorsement of the fundamental values of the international community, human rights and democracy.

Second, they advised that ASEAN should be more actively visible in the international order to take advantage of the economic opportunities brought about by regional economic integration. A coherent economic bloc would attract more foreign investment and enable the region to compete against China and India.

Third, they noted that the overt lack of respect for rule of law and institutions not only tarnished ASEAN’s reputation but also prevented member states from reaping the expected rewards of cooperative endeavours.

Since ASEAN already possessed adequate hard and soft laws, member states simply needed to work on implementing and complying with these commitments in a timely fashion. Further, monitoring and dispute-settlement mechanisms needed to be established across all areas of regional cooperation. In particular, the ASEAN secretary-general and the secretariat were to monitor regional legal and institutional compliance.

These strategies formed the core of the ASEAN Charter as it mapped out the trajectory for the tri-pillared (political-security, economic and socio-cultural) ASEAN Community. In the first decade of this transition, there has been an unsurprising tendency to backslide due to path dependencies. Monitoring oversight has not been exercised by the ASEAN secretary-general or the secretariat, and none of the ASEAN dispute settlement mechanisms have yet been used.

In particular, enthusiasm for legalisation and institutionalisation has not yet emerged in national or ASEAN Secretariat departments that deal less directly with law or handle sensitive issues such as internal economic policies, forestry and agriculture. These departments are understandably more protectionist and are reluctant to move to a structure of rules and institutions. It is unsurprising therefore that the launch of the ASEAN Community was fraught with defensive justifications that the full attainment of community goals needed more time and resources beyond the formal deadline of 31 December 2015.

But ASEAN’s strategic legalisation and institutionalisation is not slated for failure — there are procedural and reputational safeguards that compel progress.

For one, the charter is ASEAN’s first constituent treaty that lays a strong foundation for compliance with regional laws and institutions. It is a permanent fixture in ASEAN regionalism unless it is superseded by a subsequent constituent treaty, which is unlikely due to the grave credibility costs in a highly legalised contemporary international order. The cornerstone ASEAN Community Vision 2025 document reinforces the norms articulated by the Charter.

If they default on the charter and other ASEAN laws, and fail to comply with regional agreements, ASEAN states will be unable to attain the economic profit promised by cooperation. This is in addition to the loss of goodwill and potential retaliatory action when such commitments are broken. Recalling that economic disputes are increasingly resolved through adjudicatory mechanisms, ASEAN’s economic partners would likely use the settlement mechanisms stipulated in ASEAN treaties rather than pursue lengthy diplomatic negotiations to resolve disagreements.

Today, network governance plays a central role in intra-ASEAN relations. A genuine reformative effort can be seen among the officers who work on ASEAN issues in the national ministries and the ASEAN Secretariat. For example, in customs procedures, officers are keen to regularise procedures in line with the rule of law and institutions. Networks of shared experiences among regional counterparts are increasingly built through capacity-building initiatives jointly organised by regional and external stakeholders. Even more encouraging has been the recent establishment of dedicated monitoring units in the ASEAN Secretariat to build each of the three pillars of the ASEAN Community.

The officers of ASEAN and its member states are demonstrating an increasing adherence to the rule of law despite considerable obstacles. Slow as the progress might be, the transformative power of law and institutions once they are set in motion cannot be ignored. Greater familiarity and usage will reinforce and bring more uniformity to regional legalisation and institutionalisation. As this strategy evolves, its particular characteristics will go on to define a unique new model of ASEAN regionalism in the global order.

Tan Hsien-Li is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for International Law, National University of Singapore.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Strategic diplomacy in Asia’.


Cambodia–Civil Servants and the State

August 5, 2017

Cambodia–Civil Servants and the State

by David Hutt

There are times when the work of a journalist in Cambodia is made so easy. Compared to some other countries, where politicians rarely say what they think (or think beyond what they are told), Cambodian officials tend to wear their innermost thoughts on their sleeves, words rolling from the tongue in almost stream-of-consciousness fashion.

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Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen delivers peace, stability and development. Young Cambodians are proud of their country

Such an occasion happened on Monday when Vong Sauth (sometimes spelled Vong Soth), the social affairs minister, spoke at a small gathering for the appointment of new civil servants. The Phnom Penh Post quoted him: “Officials eat the state’s salary, and are asked to be neutral, but do not forget that the state was born from the party, and I think all of our officials must have the clear character of firmly supporting the party.”

Oh, such honesty. By officials, he means civil servants. And by saying this, he echoed what pundits have long accused the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of doing: making civil servants’ jobs dependent upon their support of the party. Indeed, Sauth went on to say that civil servants can’t support the political opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). “If anybody does not support the CPP, submit applications of resignation, and I can help you [with that], but if you are loyal to the CPP you must vote for the CPP, and then you can stay,” he said.

Knowing where the State begins and Party ends in Cambodia entails a microscopic study. It used to be said of Prussia that it was “not a country with an army, but an army with a country”. Might Cambodia be rendered “not a country with a party, but a party with a country”?

The military, supposed to be an independent of political parties in any democratic society, is already firmly symbiotic to the CPP’s interests. Last year, Chea Dara, a high ranking military officer who was incorporated into the CPP’s Central Committee, said: “Every soldier is a member of the People’s Army and belongs to the CPP because [Prime Minister Hun Sen] is the feeder, caretaker, commander, and leader of the army… I speak frankly when I say that the army belongs to the [CPP].”

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Cambodia at Sunrise–Calm, Serene and Captivating

And now we have Sauth demanding loyalty declarations from civil servants. Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, wrote in an email to journalists that he “should be immediately fired for his outrageous remarks that demonstrate he knows nothing about either human rights or democracy.” Robertson went on: “He shows his ignorance of modern democratic principles when he fails to recognize that in a democracy, it is politicians who are elected to make decisions on law and policy, but the civil servants have different duties, such as carrying out the day to day functions of government in an impartial and professional way”.

Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly responded to Robertson by saying he was “better off focusing on his chaos-ridden, war-mongering U.S. home that was unfit for the premier’s grandchild”, as the Cambodia Daily phrased it.

Since 1979, the State has been fashioned by the CPP—or “born from the party”, as Sauth said—and, like any offspring, it shares much maternal DNA. And, although the CPP supposedly discarded its communist credentials in the early 1990s, they weren’t completely lost. As I wrote at The Diplomat:

“Not dissimilar to the reign of Norodom Sihanouk, or the Angkor “god-kings” of earlier centuries, Cambodia operates a system noblesse oblige. Education, roads, and other basic services are, typically, not provided by the state but by the ruling CPP – at least this is how the government spins it. Rather than a welfare state, Cambodia has a philanthropic party. And all of this development work comes with the express condition of voting CPP when elections come around.

In an earlier article I described the ethos this creates amongst ordinary Cambodians and the civil servants: “because basic services are doled out by the party and not the State, they have to be earned.” One might also add employment for civil servants to this.

If this is a problem now, it will become even more apparent as the next general election approaches (it is set for next year). Sauth seems to think victory for the CPP is assured: it has the human resources, money, and power, he said. In his speech, he also imparted what was discussed at an internal meeting the day before, at which, he said, Prime Minister Hun Sen laid out the party’s strategy: “This election, if there are more problems with protests, your heads will be hit by the bottom of bamboo sticks.”

Elections in Cambodia are testing anyway but added to this is the knowledge that a handover of power to another political party (if that ever happens, or is allowed to happen) also entails the reformation of much of the State apparatus. Indeed, the question for the opposition CNRP is not just whether it can win next year’s general election but whether it can take over a State that appears inseparable from the CPP. This, in fact, might be the more difficult task.

David Hutt is a journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh. He is also the Southeast Asia Columnist for the Diplomat, and a contributor to numerous regional publications.


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.