Foreign Policy Blogs

Further Thoughts on Democracy in Cambodia


Hun Sen

Prime Minister of Cambodia Hun Sen addresses the media after voting in local commune elections, June 2012. Photo credit: REUTERS/Samrang Pring

By Scott Bleiweis and Tim LaRocco

Recently Scott connected with fellow FPA blogger and journalist Tim LaRocco. Tim lives in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and shares his perspective on some issues raised in Scott’s recent post about chances for democracy in Cambodia. Tim writes, “Having been a resident of Phnom Penh for awhile now, I have had the opportunity to watch the political process unfold in this country from a closeup vantage point.”

Bleiweis: How do Cambodians feel about their leader, Hun Sen?

LaRocco: I don’t want to appear as defending or supporting Hun Sen nor his policies. I was at the ASEAN Summit this past April in the Cambodian capital where the Prime Minister, speaking as chair of the regional bloc, let loose a barrage of accusations directed at the foreign correspondents in attendance, decrying the less than flattering picture he believed we have been painting of him. That said, I must speak objectively: Hun Sen is widely supported by the general populous. Why is he supported? That is a question that can have myriad answers.

The country, despite its litany of problems, is on the upswing economically. In fact, this is an era of unprecedented economic success for Cambodia. Most people have access to clean water (Phnom Penh has an award-winning water filtration system), the national highway grid is almost completed, and sewage and sanitation are at acceptable levels for a developing state.

It also must be said that Cambodia’s financial windfall is in large part due to assistance from the People’s Republic, more so than any bold economic initiatives. Hun Sen has prioritized Phnom Penh’s relationship with China over every other foreign policy objective. This is a symbiotic relationship which results in massive profits for Cambodia, and provides a voice for Beijing within ASEAN.

Hun Sen’s popularity can also be a case of people preferring to deal with the devil they know, as opposed to the devil they don’t know. Irrespective, Hun Sen retains broad support throughout the country. Whether that support is legitimate and authentic is another issue altogether.

What is your sense of the level of corruption in Cambodian institutions?

My answer to you previous question is not to say Hun Sen has not consolidated his political power while in charge. Corruption is as rampant here as any other Third World country I have lived in, and that is saying something especially after touring Southern Africa for awhile in 2009. It’s an endemic which afflicts each sector of society from politicians, the military, and police. The media exploitation is particularly disturbing in Cambodia–an issue which was brought to a head recently with the death of environmental activist Chut Wutty.

What is your impression of public protests of foreign “land grabs” in Cambodia and unsafe factory conditions?

I detailed the appalling situation in Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila district last January. Furthermore, there was the murder of a worker protesting working conditions at a Puma factory a few weeks ago that went unpunished. Even so, the numbers of demonstrators at these various hotspots were only in the low hundreds. However, there has indeed been growing resentment with land grabs done by private companies with the government’s complicity.

My impression in reading statements by election monitoring groups is that early June’s local elections were largely not on the up-and-up. Would you agree?

To be fair, last week’s commune elections were not fraudulent. There were approximately 15,000 national and international monitors spread throughout the country, and no serious reports of discrepancies. The government even banned the sale and consumption alcohol for the weekend (much to the chagrin of the 30,000 Western expats who have nothing to do with the electoral process) in an effort to curb election-inspired violence. What was notable this election cycle was an absence of any violence which defined some of the polls in the past.

How do you view Sam Rainsy, one of the leading critics of Hun Sen’s regime?

Sam Rainsy is but a similarly corrupt official who caused an international incident on the Vietnamese border in the autumn of 2009. The idea that this former investment banker, who currently lives in a posh, million dollar penthouse in Paris, could inspire some of Cambodia’s poorest people to rise up and ignite an Arab Spring type of revolt is pure folly. Indeed, his Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) was trounced in the commune elections. While Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) controls roughly 1,600 out of the 1,633 communes, the SRP controls 22. I know revolutions can sometimes be started by one person, but in Cambodia there is a better chance of walking down a street and not being harassed by a tuk tuk driver than a revolution happening.

Based on what you’ve observed, what are the chances for an Arab Spring-like uprising in Cambodia?

I think you have raised some fair and interesting points in your recent article. But no two countries are alike. While several Arab countries fell like dominos, Cambodia is a different part of the world with different priorities for its people and a recent history as dark as anywhere in the world.

I remember talking to a man about 60 years old from Mozambique one time who supported the ruling Frelimo Party and I asked him, “Frelimo has not done much for the people since talking over 20 years ago. Why do you still support them?” And his response was to the effect of, “Young man, I remember before Frelimo. We were at war. I don’t care if I am not rich and I don’t care if Frelimo takes all the money. As long as I have my family with me and my country is at peace I will support them.”

No two countries are the same, but we can always draw parallels. It’s my opinion not to expect anything but the status quo in Cambodia for a long time.