What's happening at the
Saturday 23 Mar 2019 | 04:17 | SYDNEY
Saturday 23 Mar 2019 | 04:17 | SYDNEY

Cambodia: A period of calm



4 September 2014 14:23

With opposition deputies having taken their places in the National Assembly after a prolonged boycott, calm pervades Cambodia's domestic politics, at least for the moment. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy's ambition to lead the country is undiminished.

On the other hand, in the perceptive observation made to me earlier this week by the head of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, Youk Chhang, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was lucky not to have won last year's elections. If it had done so, the problems of implementing its populist economic and financial measures would have been exposed; there is simply no way the country can afford the CNRP's age-pension plan, while the proposals for a greatly increased minimum wage would have been firmly resisted by the owners of the garment factories on which the country relies for the bulk of its export earnings.

Yet none of the present (and probably temporary) calm means that endemic major problems have been addressed. Land grabbing by powerfully linked commercial interests continues. Illegal logging is rampant with no evidence the Government is prepared to address the environmental degradation that accompanies clear felling, and the loss of state revenue. Corruption on a massive scale also continues as a leitmotif of contemporary Cambodia.

A striking feature of the contemporary scene is the way which delegations of provincial protesters come to the capital on a regular basis to lay their complaints before the Government. This echoes a form of protest that existed in both pre-colonial and colonial times. But the protests seldom if ever have an effect, as the protesters against the Lower Se San 2 dam have found. This dam, now under construction in Stung Treng province in northeastern Cambodia, is slated to produce 400MW of electricity when completed. It is already resulting in displacement of villagers from the dam site and is expected to have a serious effect on fish stocks in the Mekong River. Although the Government rejects the assessment, there are good reasons to accept modelling that indicates the loss to annual fish catches as the result of the dam could be in excess of 9%, serious indeed in a country in which 80% of the population's annual protein intake comes from fish caught in the Mekong and its tributaries.

Against this domestic background, Hun Sen's government is showing more skill in managing its foreign relations than many observers recognise.

Relations with China, Cambodia's largest aid donor and foreign investor, continue to be at the heart of policy. Yet the Government must find a way to balance this relationship with its continuing concern for good relations with Vietnam, a concern made more complicated by Sam Rainsy's attacks against the Vietnamese for alleged illegal immigration into Cambodia and his readiness to play the irredentist card in relation to Cambodia's lost sovereignty over territory in southern Vietnam. (Despite the claims of some leading local politicians, Cambodia lost control of this territory before the onset of French colonialism in the 1860s.)

The Government has proved capable of maintaining good relations with both China and Vietnam. One reason this has been possible is the presence in the Vietnamese politburo of a pro-China faction, which means Cambodia's balancing act is understood rather than being a cause for criticism.

Developments in Thailand since the May coup had a short-term effect, as many thousands of Cambodian migrant workers flooded back home, fearful that their jobs might be lost in a military crackdown. When this fear proved unfounded most of them returned and both governments worked together to make sure that there was no major disruption of an arrangement that is beneficial to both countries: Thailand is assured of cheap labour and Cambodia benefits from the remittances.

The heat has gone out of the Preah Vihear dispute for the moment and a well-placed source told me that the Cambodian commander at the temple is under strict instructions not to engage in any activity that could provoke a Thai military reaction. From the Thai side, there appears to be a similar concern to prevent this long-standing issue from once again causing dangerous exchanges between the two countries.

Although deposed Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is said to maintain a residence in Phnom Penh, there has been no evidence that Hun Sen is anxious to make his previous association with Thaksin a feature of contemporary policy. His assessment appears to be that the new military government in Bangkok is there to stay for the immediate future, and that it is in Cambodia's interest to work with it.

Photo by Flickr user Karen.

You may also be interested in...