Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Cambodia: A humbled Hun Sen?

Cambodia: A humbled Hun Sen?
Published 8 Aug 2013 

Much of the external commentary on the Cambodian election results has had a distinct character of schadenfreude, with the Economist's take a typical example.

I have no doubt that Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party colleagues were surprised by the results, as I readily admit I was. I expected the CPP to lose seats, though not nearly so many to the Cambodian National Rescue Party opposition. But to suggest that Hun Sen has been humbled scarcely takes account of the Cambodian leader's personality, nor indeed of the statements he has now issued about the future course of politics in the country.

These observations are in no fashion a defence of Hun Sen and his policies; I have consistently criticised CPP rule. In Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History (2008), I said that Hun Sen's government 'brooks no challenge, in a system where rampant corruption, including at the highest level of government, is a daily fact of life'. In relation to the Rouge Tribunal (ECCC), I noted approvingly Lee Kuan Yew's judgment on Hun Sen and his colleagues as 'utterly merciless and ruthless, without humane feelings'.

So where do matters stand now? Hun Sen and the CPP have continued to claim victory with 68 seats in parliament to the opposition's 55. On 1 August, five days after the election, Hun Sen stated that under the constitution he and his party could convene and operate in parliament with a simple majority of the 123 seats even if the opposition refused to take up seats, as they have threatened to do. And he spoke of looking forward to five more years as prime minister. [fold]

Hun Sen and his colleagues have agreed to cooperate with investigations into claims of electoral fraud, but Sam Rainsy, as leader of the opposition parties, has said that the opposition will not participate unless the UN is involved. Sam Rainsy has also vowed to continue mounting protests against the announced results, claiming that the opposition in fact won the elections with 63 seats. As of 6 August there is no indication of the UN responding to Sam Rainsy's call for its participation in a review of the elections.

Perhaps Hun Sen will change his position in light of adverse comments from the US, the EU and organisations such as Human Rights Watch (China has been notably silent), but to do so would be out of character. Moreover, he retains control of the police and military as well as the majority of the public service, including the judiciary, and there is absolutely no sign that this control is slipping.

One possible compromise would be for Hun Sen to offer seats in the cabinet to opposition members. In the past, opposition members of parliament have shown themselves ready to change loyalties, so if offered cabinet positions, some could accept.

Whatever the future, and no matter how much foreign opinion is critical of Hun Sen, there is no sign that he is willing to cede power. Suggestions that the US might restrict or cut off aid to Cambodia have not moved him and would almost certainly lead to an additional injection of aid from China.

One important issue has received far too little attention. Sam Rainsy in particular, but his opposition colleagues generally, have targeted Hun Sen as a creature of the Vietnamese Government. Appeals couched in terms of criticising Hanoi have long been a feature of Sam Rainsy's political rhetoric and are provocative at very least, given Cambodia's complicated relationship with its much larger neighbour and a widespread ethnic antipathy between Cambodians and Vietnamese. As the thoughtful head of the Cambodian Documentation Centre, Youk Chhang, has commented, 'Cambodia is caught between the tiger, China, and the crocodile, Vietnam, and needs to find its own ground'.

What is happening in Cambodia has distinct echoes of developments after the recent Malaysian elections. Much foreign opinion was in favour of a win by the parties associated with Anwar Ibrahim, and their failure to topple the Barisan Nasional was greeted with dismay externally. Today, and despite court cases being mounted against the result, foreign opinion is largely silent as other issues garner attention.

Perhaps this fading of interest will not happen in Cambodia, but I am far from convinced that we will see Hun Sen bending to external pressure in a fashion that leads to his losing power.

You may also be interested in