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.

ASEAN at 50: Challenges and Opportunities for Cambodia

April 18, 2017

ASEAN at 50: Challenges and Opportunities for Cambodia

by Kimkong Heng

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In August 2017, ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) will be 50 years old. ASEAN was established on August 8, 1967 in Bangkok by the five founding member countries, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. The major aims for the birth of ASEAN were to encourage economic cooperation, promote regional peace and stability, and create platforms for mutual assistance and collaboration in economic, social, cultural, technical, educational and administrative areas. The concepts of non-interference in one another’s internal affairs, and the peaceful settlement of interstate disputes are, among others, the fundamental principles to which ASEAN tries to adhere.

Throughout these 50 years, ASEAN has both faced challenges and at the same time enjoyed prosperity as it weathered many storms in its own region, the larger Asia-Pacific region, and the global arena. Cambodia, which will celebrate her eighteen years in ASEAN late this April, has had to confront the challenges and seize the available opportunities this regional group has had to offer. To informally commemorate the 50th anniversary of ASEAN and to toast Cambodia’s 18th birthday in ASEAN, this article will examine the potential challenges and opportunities Cambodia, a small state and the youngest ASEAN member, has experienced and will likely experience in the immediate and distant future.

Fifteen years ago, a Cambodian scholar predicted that Cambodia would face three categories of challenges while it was trying to secure its place in the regional association. In the short-term, during its preparation for ASEAN membership, Cambodia would face many obstacles including its lack of human and financial resources, poor legal framework, and weak institutional organization. In the medium- to long-term, Cambodia would have to address economic, diplomatic, and financial challenges, as well as tackle challenges related to national prestige, borders, sovereignty, legal and institutional framework reform, and lack of strategic thinking.

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Cambodia at Sunrise–Calm, Serene and Captivating

Over a decade later, many ASEAN observers and commentators also saw challenges which lay ahead for Cambodia as she prepared to join the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Sowath Rana and Alexandre Ardichvili, for example, listed six main human resource development (HRD) challenges Cambodia would face as it joined the AEC in 2015, including the education and employment mismatch, higher education challenges, technical and vocational education and training challenges, HRD challenges in the private sector, limited awareness and engagement in ASEAN and AEC processes, and technology infrastructure challenges.

Amongst all the challenges, however, this article argues that the strategic challenge — mediating ASEAN and China over the South China Sea issue — is Cambodia’s greatest challenge at present. Cambodia has been criticised twice for her decision to ally herself with China and block ASEAN from issuing joint communiqués which criticize China for her assertiveness and expansionist policy in the South China Sea. With the South China Sea dispute still on the horizon, Cambodia is likely to face this strategic challenge again because this small state cannot afford to lose China for ASEAN or vice versa.

Cambodia has taken advantage of her ASEAN membership to salvage her once non-existent relations with ASEAN member states and ASEAN Dialogue Partners.

Although Cambodia is not one of the claimant states involved in the South China Sea conflict, her membership in ASEAN puts her in a difficult position to help settle the disagreement between her ASEAN counterparts and her closet ally, China. Thus, it is a big challenge for Cambodia to strike a good balance in her endeavors to help mediate between the conflicting parties. As China is described and seen as Cambodia’s most trustworthy friend and largest provider of aid, loans, and grants, the possibility of seeing Cambodia jump on China’s bandwagon could not be higher.

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GDP Real Growth in Excess of 7.5 per cent p.a over the last 2 decades

Furthermore, to expect Cambodia to act against her own national interests in order to preserve ASEAN’s centrality is highly unlikely to happen, even though ASEAN remains the cornerstone of Cambodia’s foreign policy. In this regard, the next chapter of Cambodia’s foreign policy will definitely play out in favor of China despite peer pressure from the ASEAN states.

Opportunities for Cambodia

Despite these many challenges, there are enormous opportunities for Cambodia as an ASEAN member. From economic to social advantages, and from diplomatic to strategic benefits, Cambodia has enjoyed and will continue to enjoy tremendous opportunities as the country strives to keep up with its more developed ASEAN friends and exert its influence on the region.

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Angkor Wat in Siem Reap–Steadfast, Dependable and True Symbol of an Emerging Cambodia

Economically, Cambodia has greatly benefited from ASEAN as it joined the ASEAN Free Trade Area in 1999 and the World Trade Organization in 2004. It has also attracted foreign direct investment from ASEAN member states, particularly Thailand and Vietnam. While Thailand and Cambodia have agreed to strengthen cooperation in bilateral trade and investment, the two-way trade volume between Vietnam and Cambodia, according to Khmer Times, reached USD 3.37 billion in 2015 and USD 2.38 billion in 2016. These figures, however, were below the 2015 target of USD 5 billion both countries have pledged.

In terms of social prospects, Cambodia’s ASEAN membership has helped to increase opportunities for Cambodians through the mobility scheme for skilled labor, improved access to cheaper and a wider range of imported goods and services, and improved education and health services in the Kingdom. More importantly, by joining the ASEAN and later the AEC, people-to-people connectivity between Cambodia and the other ASEAN members has increased.

As for the diplomatic gains, Cambodia has taken advantage of her ASEAN membership to salvage her once non-existent relations with ASEAN member states and ASEAN Dialogue Partners, particularly Australia, China, Japan, and the United States. Until more recently, Cambodia’s foreign policy has significantly been strengthened and Cambodia has put in a great deal of effort to upgrade its diplomatic relations with its nearest neighbors, ASEAN members, and regional and global powers.

Noticeably, Cambodia-Russia bilateral relations have recently been restored and strengthened, with exchanges of high-level visits and greater mutual support and cooperation between the two countries. Likewise, Cambodia-China bilateral relations have reached a new historic high, with Xi Jinping’s first presidential visit to Cambodia last year, immediately following Cambodia’s refusal to partake in an ASEAN joint communiqué critical of China’s claims and policies in the disputed territory in the South China Sea.

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Phnom Penh –The Pulse of The Kingdom of Cambodia

Strategically, Cambodia’s geopolitical location and ASEAN status, together with current political developments in the region, have granted this small state a special privilege to assert its influence and exercise its power in the regional group and the wider Asia-Pacific region. If Cambodia were not an ASEAN member, she would have found it hard to capture Chinese attention and enjoy China’s financial aid — with its controversial no-strings-attached policy — arising from Cambodia’s intervention in the territorial dispute over the South China Sea.

Thus, in spite of the great challenges, Cambodia seems to be able to grasp considerable opportunities along its zigzag ASEAN path. In this respect, it might not be wise to weigh the challenges against the opportunities for Cambodia because it has been a mixed blessing for the country. It would be best, nevertheless, for Cambodia to continue to engage with countries in the region and regional initiatives like the Greater Mekong Subregion and ASEAN, or else it will run the risk of becoming too dependent on China.

Kimkong Heng is an Assistant Dean, School of Graduate Studies and a doctoral candidate in International Relations, Techo Sen School of Government and International Relations, The University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Cambodia: Time for the United States to cancel its 1970 Dirty Debt

April 16, 2017

Cambodia: Time for the United States to cancel its 1970  Dirty Debt

by Kongkea Chhoeun@www.eastasiaforum,org

The Cambodian government has once again called on the United States to cancel its US$500 million debt. In the 1970s, the Cambodian government borrowed about US$270 million to purchase food supplies. This debt was never repaid and has now swollen to US$500 million. This is equivalent to 15 per cent of Cambodia’s 2016 national budget and about half the total aid the country has received from the United States since the peace settlement of 1991.

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Cambodia and the United States have been negotiating the debt since 1995 but have failed to come close to an agreement. The latest appeal by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen likely stems from the Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) anxiety about its popular support ahead of the 2017 local government election. By exploiting public sentiment in support of debt cancellation, the CPP can position itself as the champion of the Cambodian people.

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Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger : The Bombers of Cambodia–Time for the US to atone for their criminality

But the call also has merit. The Cambodian government has consistently argued that this is ‘dirty’ debt. It maintains that the Lon Nol government, which came to power in March 1970 through a US-backed coup, borrowed the funds to buy weapons that were used against the Khmer Rouge in the civil war of the early 1970s. The CPP also argues that Cambodia deserves debt forgiveness because of illegal bombing carried out by the United States from March 1969 until August 1973.

During this period, US warplanes dropped more than 500,000 tons of explosives on Cambodian villages along the Cambodia–Vietnam and Cambodia–Lao borders. Up to 500,000 lives were consequently lost. Moreover, the secret bombing campaigns and the US-supported coup created the conditions for the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime that killed almost 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979.

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Former US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt

The United States has consistently refused to completely cancel the debt but has long indicated that it is willing to negotiate a partial cancellation. US Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt was recently quoted in local press as saying that the United States has, ‘never seriously discussed or considered cancelling the debt’ but is willing to ‘[work] out a deal that works for both sides’.

The deal that the United States has in mind is no doubt similar to the one it struck with Vietnam in 2000. That year, the United States enacted a repayment-for-assistance program after Vietnam signed a bilateral agreement in 1997 and resumed making scheduled payments of its debt. The US Congress created the Vietnam Education Foundation, into which is channelled about 40 per cent of Vietnam’s total debt payments to the United States. The Foundation provides opportunities for Vietnamese nationals to pursue graduate and post-graduate studies in the United States and for US citizens to teach in Vietnam.

It is certainly in US interests to settle the Cambodian debt as soon as possible. Cambodia has drawn closer and closer to China over the last two decades. As a small, poor and insecure state surrounded by two bigger, historical enemies, Cambodia needs China as insurance against Vietnam and Thailand. More importantly, Cambodia’s political regime increasingly depends on China for foreign capital to sustain the economic performance needed to maintain its political legitimacy. Foreign direct investment from China reached US$857 million in 2015 or roughly 61.1 per cent of total FDI. Chinese aid to Cambodia amounted to US$320 million in 2015 or roughly 30 per cent of total aid received.

Cambodia’s closer links with China benefit China’s strategic interests too. Cambodia closed Taiwan’s representative office in Phnom Penh in 1997. In 2010, Cambodia deported 20 Uyghur nationals and Chinese citizens to China. In July 2012, Cambodia prevented ASEAN from issuing a joint statement over the South China Sea issue. Once again in July 2016, Cambodia blocked any reference in an ASEAN statement to a UN-backed court’s ruling against Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea.

Data from the Council for the Development of Cambodia shows that the United States has granted US$1.13 billion to Cambodia since 1992. But no matter how much aid the United States has already generously given to improve the lives of Cambodians since the early 1990s, if the United States wants to regain influence in Cambodia, it needs to forgive the debt.

It is unclear why a compromise similar to the US–Vietnam deal has not been struck between the United States and Cambodia. In any case, Cambodia appears to bear little penalty for not repaying its debt. It can access the foreign capital it needs, mainly from China. It also borrows from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

Given this, even partial repayment from Cambodia is unlikely. So the logical step forward is for the United States to write off the debt. But this is unlikely, especially under the Trump administration. The result will be to push Cambodia deeper into China’s orbit.

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


Cambodia: Stability, Security and Economic Growth amidst Geo-Political Uncertainties remains top priority

March 22, 2017

Cambodia: Stability, Security and Economic Growth amidst Geo-Political Uncertainties remains top priority

by Dr. Sorpong Peou

Cambodia’s ruling party is seeking to shore up its chances of electoral success with recent changes to the rules governing political parties, Sorpong Peou writes.

Much has been written about the Cambodian culture of impunity as an obstacle to democratic development, but what is still least understood is the fact that the persisting culture driven by the fear of personal retribution (actual or perceived) has been a principal threat to democracy.–Dr. Peou

Is Cambodia heading towards a single party dictatorship? This is a legitimate question after the Cambodian government took a drastic but unsurprising step in February 2017 to amend the law on political parties – a step that its critics consider undermines liberal democracy. In my view, Cambodia has not resembled any form of liberal democracy since 1997, and the existing hegemonic party system is likely to remain.

If and when it comes into effect, the amended party law will allow the Supreme Court to dissolve any political party with leaders who have criminal records and to bar such party leaders from standing for political office for five years. Moreover, the new law requires that any party that loses its President find a replacement within 90 days of the King’s signature.

The amended law will also allow the Ministry of Interior to suspend indefinitely any political party that the government considers to be involved in activities resulting in an “incitement that would lead to national disintegration” and subversion of “liberal multi-party democracy.”

The amendments were designed to ensure that the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Prime Minister Hun Sen will remain politically dominant, but not to eliminate opposition parties. They were intended to further empower two CPP-dominated state institutions – the Supreme Court and the Ministry of Interior – to prevent opposition parties, especially the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), from winning enough seats to form a government.

The CPP does not want to see the 1992 or the 2013 national election repeated. It lost the UN-organised election in 1992, but forced the winning party (led by the Royalists) to share power, and then removed the royalist prime minister from power by force in July 1997.

The multi-party system has since weakened, giving rise to a hegemonic party system, with the CPP as the dominant power. However, the party was badly shaken by the 2013 election results: it won only 68 seats (compared to the 55 seats gained by the CNRP), leaving it with fewer seats than the previous elections.

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Attempts by Hun Sen to seek reconciliation with CNRP’s Sam Rainsy has not been successful

After the 2013 election, the CPP leadership did a lot of soul searching and took a number of steps to weaken the CNRP. Opposition politicians have been subject to intimidation and litigation. Sam Rainsy, ex-President of the CNRP and opposition leader (in exile since 2015), has been sentenced to a total of seven years in prison. CNRP Vice-President Kem Sokha had been subject to criminal prosecution and sentenced to five months in prison (for not showing up in court for a dubious lawsuit against him) before he received a pardon from the King at Hun Sen’s request.

All this goes to show that the CPP leadership was well aware of the fact that it would not do well in the upcoming commune election in June 2017 and the National Assembly election in 2018 – if the CNRP could have its way. After the July 2016 killing of Kem Ley, a popular political commentator known for his strong criticism of the government, the CPP has become increasingly unpopular with growing public anger directed toward them.

Government officials have confidentially indicated that the CPP is determined not to lose in the upcoming elections and that it would not transfer power to any winning party if it lost. The amendments to the party law were just another step the CPP has taken as part of its pre-emptive measures designed to avoid the repetition of the 1992 and 2013 elections.

Much has been written about the Cambodian culture of impunity as an obstacle to democratic development, but what is still least understood is the fact that the persisting culture driven by the fear of personal retribution (actual or perceived) has been a principal threat to democracy.

Top members of the CPP elite remain as insecure as ever. What else can explain the fact that the (CPP) Prime Minister has up to 6,000 personal bodyguards? Opposition members have called CPP leaders traitors and threatened to bring them to justice for their past human rights violations (perhaps including some of those committed under the murderous Pol Pot regime) and rampant corruption. CPP leaders, thus, appear to believe that their political fate would be sealed if they lost the elections.

It is reasonable to assume that the CPP is not interested in turning the country into a single-party dictatorship, as some commentators think. The ruling party would be happy if it could just maintain a party system that would allow it to remain dominant and secure.

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 Cambodia has enjoyed peace, stability and sustained economic growth since 1998

The CPP’s behaviour may s also help explain weak reactions from members of the international community, especially donors, some of whom seem to prefer political stability under a CPP leadership to chaotic democratic politics. Others may simply have come to the realisation that there is not much they can do to weaken the CPP’s grip on power.

Over the past several years, CPP leaders have worked harder to deepen their relations with two powerful authoritarian states – Russia and China. China has emerged as Cambodia’s largest donor. Sino-Cambodian relations have grown much tighter in recent years. The harsh reality is that the CPP leadership remains suspicious of Western democracies’ regime-change agendas and wary of any criticisms directed at the human rights situation in Cambodia.

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The current global political environment also does not allow democracy in Cambodia to thrive. The looming return of fraught geopolitics (the rise of China, the escalating tension in the South China Sea, the ongoing confrontation between Russia and the West over Crimea and Ukraine), the rise of right-wing forces in Europe and the United States, and the persistence of authoritarianism in Southeast Asia – have all produced negative effects on Cambodian politics.

Dr. Sorpong Peou is Full Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, Canada, and a member of the Yeates School of Graduate Studies.

This article is a collaboration with Policy Forum — Asia and the Pacific’s leading platform for policy analysis and debate.