Nothing, no one lasts permanently.
|Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, right, and his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, left, review an honor guard, Hanoi, Vietnam, Dec. 20, 2016 (AP photo by Tran Van Minh).|
World Politics Review, by Prashanth Parameswaran Monday, February 13, 2017
For over three decades, Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, has ruled his country without any sign of ever wanting to give up power, despite growing indications that Cambodians want him to. As the country prepares for elections, he has begun his most ruthless campaign yet to consolidate his position as a strongman and undermine his opponents to ensure his own political survival. The resignation of the country’s longtime opposition leader is just the latest indication of the heavy price that Hun Sen is exacting on Cambodia’s domestic politics and foreign policy.
Since coming to power in 1985 with Vietnamese support following the brief but brutal reign of the genocidal Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s cunning one-eyed premier has skillfully played his domestic opponents against one another and extracted support and resources from his neighbors to preserve his power. Though Hun Sen initially restored political stability to Cambodia and rebuilt it following the carnage of the 1970s, it has become increasingly evident that his continued rule is coming at great costs that Cambodians are less willing to bear.
The clearest sign of this was during the 2013 elections, when Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People Party, or CPP, lost 22 seats and registered its worst showing since 1998. The CPP was declared the winner, but polls were widely seen as corrupt, sparking widespread protests and a nearly year-long boycott by the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, or CNRP. As Cambodia prepares to hold local elections in June and national elections next year, Hun Sen is determined to guarantee a decisive win for himself and the CPP, no matter the backlash.
Domestically, he has begun deploying the full range of tools to undermine and divide the already weakened opposition. From Hun Sen’s perspective, that strategy appears to be working already. The president of the CNRP, Sam Rainsy, who has been in exile in Paris since November 2015 to avoid a prison sentence over defamation charges, abruptly resigned over the weekend. He had led the opposition for more than two decades. In December, the CNRP’s vice president, Kem Sokha, who is now positioned to become the acting opposition leader, was offered a royal pardon that voided a jail sentence in what some saw as the regime’s latest attempt to drive a wedge between him and Rainsy. Hun Sen has been pushing through legislation that would prevent so-called “culprits” from heading a political party, a move that was designed, it seemed, to unseat Rainsy from the CNRP’s top post.
Below the opposition’s leadership level, human rights groups have documented cases of arbitrary arrests and detentions of opposition lawmakers, activists and members of civil society groups—all part of a broader crackdown on dissent.
While this might protect Hun Sen, it risks undermining the legitimacy of the election itself, paving the way for political paralysis at best and violence at worst. Another boycott by the CNRP and its supporters or other perceived threats to the CPP’s position ahead of the elections could lead the government to harden its stance or even postpone polls altogether, which could in turn sow popular discontent. Mass opposition rallies after a likely CPP election victory, along the lines of 2013, could lead to heavy police repression and perhaps even the declaration of martial law.
By moving the country too close to China, Hun Sen may compromise his ability to maximize Cambodia’s security and economic partnerships while preserving its autonomy.
Meanwhile, Hun Sen has embarked on a two-pronged strategy to limits the influence of his foreign critics in the country while tethering Cambodia more closely to China. Though Hun Sen no doubt sees Beijing as both a counterweight to Vietnamese influence and a hedge against the West, he understands that warm ties with Cambodia’s largest trading, investing and military partner are not just pragmatic but necessary ahead of the elections. He needs to secure support to shore up his domestic position, and he cannot get it anywhere else. For Hun Sen, towing China’s general line on the South China Sea, or the “one China” policy when it comes to Taiwan, is a small price to pay for Beijing propping him up, whether by buying rice to help avert an economic or social crisis or funding larger infrastructure projects. “You may not agree, but you can see why he sees it as making sense,” one frustrated Cambodian official told me back in October.
Selective crackdowns on foreign individuals and institutions in Cambodia are nothing new, as evidenced by the passage of a controversial NGO law back in 2014, despite international furor. But the government has also been stepping up suppression of naysayers in the country seen as threatening its image. Last year, it tussled with the local office of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) over the terms of an updated memorandum of understanding allowing it to operate in Cambodia, after the human rights office had criticized Hun Sen for banning Rainsy from returning to the country. The government wanted the new memorandum to emphasize that the OHCHR would not intervene in Cambodia’s sovereign affairs. The nearly 10-month standoff finally ended last December, just days before a government-imposed deadline for the OHCHR to either sign a new agreement or shut its office in Phnom Penh.
Although this hard-line approach may keep Hun Sen comfortably in power in the short term, it may not be a wise strategy for securing Cambodia’s longer-term national interests. By moving the country too close to China, Hun Sen may compromise his ability to maximize Cambodia’s security and economic partnerships while preserving its autonomy and sovereignty. The price Cambodia has to pay for Hun Sen’s hold on power may be getting too high. Consider the growing scrutiny of Chinese economic and political assistance, which has included funding “to support election infrastructure,” as well as the sudden and largely unexplained decision last month to temporarily suspend military exercises with the United States.
As Cambodia moves through local elections this year and into national elections in 2018, there is little reason to believe that Hun Sen will let up. He may simply be calculating that he can afford to tighten his control for now and absorb any domestic and international costs until he secures his election victory, after which he can once again loosen up. If there is any lesson to take from the reign of Asia’s longest-serving leader, it is that one should not doubt his capacity for survival. But like in 2013, elections in 2018 could prove to be a much tougher fight than Hun Sen anticipates.
Prashanth Parameswaran is an associate editor at The Diplomat magazine currently based in Washington, D.C., where he writes mostly on Southeast Asia and Asian security affairs. He is also a doctoral candidate in international affairs at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. You can follow him on Twitter @TheAsianist.