Author: Sorpong Peou, Ryerson University
In recent months, the Cambodian government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen has taken stronger steps to guarantee a win in the national election scheduled for July 2018. Hun Sen’s objective is simple — to prevent his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) from losing power by whatever means necessary.
Hun Sen has relied on a combination of three tactics — coercion, co-option and control — to maintain his domination over Cambodia’s politics in the name of Protecting National Security. Those who cannot be co-opted into the CPP’s sphere through material rewards can be coerced into submission, and those who do submit are still kept under tight control.
The CPP is also resource-rich, well equipped with coercive means and in control of state institutions, especially the armed forces and the judiciary. Those who have refused to defect to the CPP or who resist it face acts of intimidation and threats of punishment.
Disarming the CPP’s political opposition involves taking pre-emptive action to make it difficult for opposition leaders to mobilise effective political support far ahead of the 2018 election. Hun Sen has been successful in suppressing the political opposition and shutting out any help offered to his opponents. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been the primary target. The recent jailing of its president, Kem Sokha, is a good example of Hun Sen’s tactics. The recent decision by the Supreme Court to dissolve the CNRP ensures the CPP will not face any credible challenges in 2018.
Any organisations, domestic or foreign, perceived as politically supportive of or sympathetic to opposition parties are also viewed as potential targets by the CPP. Media outlets have come under pressure, especially those that broadcast news produced by foreign media agencies such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. The government recently shut down The Cambodia Daily, a major English language newspaper in the country, and sent its owner a bill of several million dollars for its failure to pay taxes. In August 2017, the government closed the US-funded National Democratic Institute and expelled its staff from Cambodia.
Hun Sen claims these ‘legal’ actions against the CPP’s political opponents and its critics are about protecting national security. Is this true?
The answer is no. Since the end of the Cold War, Cambodia has not encountered any serious external threat. In fact, the country has been blessed with goodwill from countries around the world. Cambodia did the right thing when it joined ASEAN in 1999. In spite of some unresolved territorial disputes and minor border clashes between Cambodia and two of its fellow ASEAN members, Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodian relations with its neighbours have been relatively peaceful. Western democracies may want to see regime change, but evidently have not done anything credible to undermine the CPP.
The unarmed opposition to the CPP does not pose any threat to Cambodian national security either, but it has threatened to undermine the ruling party’s political dominance. Although the CPP won in the 2013 national election, it lost 22 seats to the CNRP, giving the opposition more leverage over the ruling elite. In spite of good economic growth, ratings of Hun Sen’s performance among urban populations remain low. If elections were free and fair, the CPP would end up losing.
While they have done a lot of good for the country, including taking part in the war against the murderous Pol Pot regime and helping many Cambodians to enjoy the fruits of economic growth, the CPP elite have reason to worry about their political future.
Hun Sen and other top CPP leaders have been accused of human rights violations and rampant corruption and thus can never be sure of what might happen to them if they were to lose power. Hun Sen has already been threatened with legal action — another reason why the CPP has tightened control over the security forces and the judicial system, using the courts to prosecute any serious opponents threatening its survival.
Cambodia’s politics of survival is likely to continue unless or until members of the CPP elite and those in the opposition see their common problem: the inherent weakness of Cambodia’s state institutions, which perpetuates the toxic dynamics of threat and counter-threat. Both sides tend to demonise each other. They keep engaging in the nasty politics of character assassination, killing any possibility of advancing a common interest or any hopes for solidifying the culture of dialogue.
Cambodian leaders have a big choice to make. Either they continue along this current trend with no end in sight, or they band together to build the country’s democratic state institutions for the benefit of their own nation. Working together is certainly the only way out and the best option, but this is likely to fall on deaf ears. This is the tragedy of survival politics in Cambodia — a real threat to democracy and its national security.
Sorpong Peou is President of Science for Peace, based at the University of Toronto, and Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration, Ryerson University.