The Power Of One In Cambodia

Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia has led the country’s dominant political party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), for over thirty years. Despite the passage of time, Hun Sen’s leadership over the political landscape appears ironclad, raising unease amongst international observers and causing them to worry that the nation’s upcoming commune and general elections will fail to see Cambodia uphold commitments made in accordance with the UN Security Council’s Paris Peace Agreements in the early 1990s.

Radio Free Asia recently reported the former head of Cambodia’s main political opposition party, Sam Rainsy, openly urged the international community to remain vigilant over political developments in his country. Mr Rainsy expressed fear that “the upcoming elections cannot and will not be free with the current atmosphere of fear and intimidation.”

Mr. Rainsy co-founded and headed the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) until his resignation last month, following proposed amendments to the 1997 Law on Political Parties. The amendments, drafted by the dominant CPP, will broaden provisional powers allocated to the Supreme Court and the Ministry of Interior by granting them authority to suspend or dissolve any political parties deemed to be “secessionist or subversive” or provoking “incitement leading to the disunity of the nation”.

The law, once effected will also prohibit individuals with criminal convictions from holding high political office. On this basis, former CNRP leader, Mr. Rainsy, relinquished his position to allow the party’s continuity, and for the appointment of acting head (following Mr Rainsy’s self-appointed exile from Cambodia in late 2015) Kem Sokha to president. Both political representatives have been pursued and targeted over several years, despite holding parliamentary immunity. The charges pressed against them were widely believed to be politically motivated to limit their freedom of political practice. While Mr. Rainsy has outstanding prison convictions, Mr. Sokha has been granted a royal pardon, thereby allowing him to continue political representation.

The draft amendment bill to the Law on Political Parties, was unanimously accepted by the National Assembly of Cambodia, on February 20th 2017, despite the CNRP’s boycott of Parliament. The CNRP’s non-participation was openly stated to be in protest against the bill’s amendments which will further oppress political participation and result in “serious national disintegration” of liberal democratic expression. The boycott also highlighted the CNRP’s minority voting capacity against the CPP in both the National Assembly and the Senate.

Yet, the CNRP is not alone in criticizing Cambodia’s government for the proposed bill and the escalation in oppressive behaviour towards political opponents and civil society. National and international representatives from Cambodia’s Electoral Reform Alliance, ASEAN Parliament for Human Rights (APHR), Human Rights Watch and 39 countries under the UNHCR have publicly stated concern over what Amnesty International has deemed to be an increasingly “unstable political environment threatening human rights”.

The European Parliament issued an update in late 2016, to its June 9 (2016) resolution, deploring the deterioration of freedom of expression alongside the rise of politically motivated harassment and intimidation of political opponents, commentators and human rights advocates.

The update urged the Government of Cambodia to “recognize the legitimacy and useful role played by civil society, trade unions and the political opposition in contributing to Cambodia’s overall economic and political development.” It also made reference to the need for democratic dialogue to secure “political stability…and a peaceful society.”

However, the Government of Cambodia remains impervious to the criticism, apparently determined to maintain power for at least a further five years after the 2018 national elections by critically impairing the CNRP, or removing any other political opposition.

Elections in 2013 saw the CPP narrowly win office over the newly formed CNRP, whose populist front promoted the pursuit of national reconciliation, social justice, sustainable development and a pluralistic democracy.

The growth in CNRP’s popularity as a credible alternative to CPP’s long standing rule heralded a clear desire that Cambodia’s electorate seek change. The result seemingly unfurled a deep rooted insecurity in CPP leadership, and an equally unyielding resolve to not relinquish power.

The cost of this insecurity has seen Cambodia’s political landscape grow increasingly insecure for political opponents, their supporters and an array of civil society stakeholders who do not support the government’s extensive network of power.

Indeed, contemporary Cambodian political operations appear to closely resemble that which were present at a time when the nation experienced its most traumatic historic chapter. Though great efforts were structured by international agents to secure Cambodia’s political orientation to be focused on reconciliation and rehabilitation, actual practice seems to indicate that only small steps have been made over the past decades towards realizing a true change in the political nature of how things operate.

A review of UN Security Council (UNSC) documents pertaining to Resolutions on Cambodia, from 1990 to 1993, reflect the discussions around securing a stable political framework following the end of conflict with Vietnam, are still very applicable to the present day.

UNSC Resolution 792 from November 1992 called for the Cambodian state and its parties to uphold the obligations agreed to during the Paris Peace Accords, to recognize the people’s “right to determine their own political future through free and fair elections”.  The resolution further prescribed all political parties to work towards creating “a neutral political environment….and to prevent acts of harassment, intimidation and political violence”. This basic political premise would “contribute to the process of national reconciliation”, rehabilitation, reconstruction and stability in Cambodia.

A revision of these resolutions would appear to now be timely for Cambodia’s contemporary setting and upcoming elections. Support from international actors is needed to help bring a halt to civil and political abuses, and to ensure Cambodia’s people rightfully and freely express their political aspirations to move forward.

Yet, while political factors have seemingly limited Cambodia’s capacity to progress confidently, considered economic policy over the past two decades has delivered fast economic growth. According to the IMF, Cambodia has averaged 8% of yearly GDP growth since the 1990s, and increasingly opened its economy to engage with regional and global trade partners.

A significant driver of growth in Cambodia has been its strategic alliance with China, who remains Cambodia’s principal investor and aid development donor, along with Japan and South Korea. High levels of Foreign Direct Investment have enabled Cambodia to reconstruct and develop its urban infrastructure and economy.

Importantly, Cambodia’s economic growth has seen it achieve the significant UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of reducing the country’s poverty by 50%, in 2009. Yet this achievement, though seemingly strident, remains relatively shallow according to the World Bank.

In 2016 the World Bank reclassified Cambodia’s status to ‘Lower Middle Income’ country, from formerly being a ‘Low Income’ country. Beyond the classification however, the World Bank noted that while the total number of people living in poverty has improved, this improvement has only been marginal, reflecting a high level the country’s population as actually living in near-poverty. The observation also points to the fact that Cambodia’s high economic growth has not translated into equitable wealth distribution.

In its report, the World Bank noted challenges to Cambodia’s economic development (and delivery of evenly distributed economic benefits) stem directly from political policy and management. The World Bank cited “weak public service delivery” and structures, as well as “ineffective management..and (a) poor level of resource accountability” as critical limitations for government to effectively raise fiscal income and manage the distribution of resources. This commentary furthermore alludes to inherent underlying problems with corruption, which political analysts claim is rampantly practiced in Cambodia.

Thus we return to the central proposition that is Cambodia’s political structure, and the importance of allowing the electorate to design – through free elections – the outcome of the country’s leadership. International support for Cambodia’s people to realize their right of political participation and expression must be increased, and efforts to influence the government to ensure compliance with liberal democratic principles must be applied. Without these basic principles, there is a risk that Cambodia will move away from democratic pathways.

Carolina Morison