Cambodian Leader Takes Final Steps Towards Authoritarianism

Cambodia’s recent general elections have seen the Cambodia People’s Party re-claim all 125 parliamentary seats, in the absence of any true opposition. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 33-year long reign has taken its final steps towards authoritarianism.

In November, Cambodia’s only viable opposition party, The Cambodian National Rescue Party (C.N.R.P), had been dissolved by the country’s highest court, under charges of collusion with the U.S. forces. The C.N.R.P had almost managed to unseat Hun Sen in the 2013 elections, but recently, the group’s leader, Kem Sokha, had been jailed under charges of treason.

San Rainsy, the co-founder of the C.N.R.P, decried in a statement from exile, that “A victory without a contest is a hollow one… [which] does nothing to resolve the political crisis which Cambodia faces.” Rainsy then acknowledged Cambodia’s recent turn to authoritarianism over the last 12 months.

In the absence of any true opposition, the Hun Sen’s regime has since then undertaken the dissolution of any foreign or independent media, giving the government exclusive control over information within the state’s borders. While the country’s shift to authoritarianism has resulted in the withdrawal of aid and support from western nations, China has sided with Hun Sen and his decidedly one-party dictatorship.

Indeed, Cambodia’s overseas aid has been under threat as a result of this ‘totalitarian drift’. While historically, Cambodia had received supported from the U.S., the White House has now passed a bill to withdraw all economic support from the nation, claiming that, “The flawed elections, which excluded the country’s principal opposition party, represent the most significant setback yet to the democratic system enshrined in Cambodia’s Constitution.” As America pulled its support, China, with its analogous one-party rule, has taken their place as a powerful benefactor. This shift in alliance is expressed most clearly by Son Eysan, the Cambodian People’s Party spokesperson, who declared, “We don’t like any country that interferes in our country or tries to control us… U.S. assistance to Cambodia has strings attached, but China doesn’t do that.” With support from a massive regional power, there does not appear to be much effective international resistance to the authoritarian regime, which has allowed former Khmer Rouge member and now-Prime Minister Hun Sen, to maintain his rule over Cambodian.

Hun Sen’s popularity and power had been waning in recent years, and the recent dissolution of opposition parties, in conjunction with independent media critic and NGOs, have resulted in his fear of being ousted from power. In 2013, Hun Sen’s party lost control of a third of their local administrative bodies – a push which was largely the result of the nation’s youth being politically galvanised. But with the option to express dissatisfaction with the ruling party stripped from the Cambodian people, many were likely to abstain from the voting procedure all together.

Seeing this potentiality as a risk to his legitimacy as ruler, Hun Sen warned that, “Those who do not go to vote, and who are incited by the national traitors, are the ones who destroy democracy.” According to many reports from garment factory workers, who were notable supporters of the dissolved opposition party C.N.R.P, they were then given the option of choosing either to vote in the polls, or lose their jobs.

Any trace of democracy has been expunged in a country which, after surviving one of the most brutal genocides in living memory, still struggle to find its way towards the ideal of stability and equality. This hope has once again been stifled by a dictator who had sensed his long rule coming to an end, and chose to leave the people of Cambodia powerless for the second time in half a century.

Callum Foote