Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The rude health of Cambodia’s Hun Sen

Speculation about succession by Hun Sen’s eldest son is an interesting talking point – that could go on a while yet.

Cambodia’s Hun Sen at a 7 January ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime (Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy via Getty)
Cambodia’s Hun Sen at a 7 January ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime (Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy via Getty)
Published 8 Jan 2019 

Once again, “Victory Over Genocide Day” has been celebrated in Cambodia by the Cambodian People’s Party (CCP) government and its supporters. This year marked the 40th anniversary of the defeat of the Pol Pot regime by an invading Vietnamese army numbering around 100,000 and the small, Vietnamese-sponsored military forces of the Cambodian National Salvation Front on 7 January 1979.

Following the victory, the Vietnamese-backed Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP) government, then led by Heng Samrin, established itself as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), in which Hun Sen, now Asia’s longest-serving leader, was initially foreign minister.

The issue of how the Pol Pot regime was removed, and the part played by Vietnam, lurks as an unresolved issue in current politics.

And though the current regime has no desire to refer to the facts on the ground of that period, Vietnam, at least initially, was in total control of the PRK regime with its proconsul, Ngo Dien, telling American journalist Henry Kamm of The New York Times in April 1980 that the Cambodians heading the PRK were “below the level required by their task”.

Much has happened since then. By the time a Cambodian settlement was reached in 1991, followed by the elections overseen by UNTAC in 1993, Hun Sen had become the leading figure in what had become the State of Cambodia. He, and the KPRP reconstituted as the CPP, then refused to accept the results of the elections, aided by the failure of the international community to act against Hun Sen and his associates, so maintaining a dominant position in Phnom Penh – the CPP controlled the forces of order in a fashion that neutered their royalist opponents.

Hun Sen’s putsch of 1997 that effectively destroyed his supposed partners in government and his skilful opening of close relations with China set the scene for the CPP’s continuing hold of power to the present day. The CPP’s control over government has survived the challenges of the domestic political opposition and international criticism, particularly from the United States and the European Union, through judicial and legislative action, control of the armed forces and police, and a readiness to use them to overcome dissent. The result has been the effective establishment of a one-party state.

Despite this success and the celebrations linked to 7 January, the issue of Hun Sen and his party’s links to Vietnam remain as a potent cause for uncertainty in contemporary Cambodia. Indeed, it is fair to say that allegations that the CPP is in thrall to Vietnam are the stock in trade for the CPP’s political opponents the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). This claim that the CPP is effectively a puppet of Vietnam is made despite the vital role played by China as Cambodia’s most important political ally and most prominent financial backer.

As several thoughtful Cambodian commentators have suggested the issue of how the Pol Pot regime was removed, and the part played by Vietnam, lurks as an unresolved issue in current politics, even with the CPP’s contemporary dominance. This is a subject that was examined in detail by a Cambodian think tank, Future Forum, two years ago. The claim that the CPP is a Vietnamese surrogate remains important in immediately contemporary terms.

Is there any indication that this state of affairs might change? Realistically there seems no reason to think so. The CPP government has been ready to act swiftly and firmly against opponents, most notably jailing the leader of the opposition Cambodian CNRP for what it claimed was an act of “treason” in September 2017 – he has now been released but remains under house arrest awaiting trial. Discussion of whether the CPP leadership actually believes suggestions that members of the CNRP were planning a “colour revolution” are bound to be inconclusive.

What is beyond doubt is the fact that CPP strategists point to the fact that exiled CNRP politicians, and notably Sam Rainsy, seek support from the Cambodian diaspora, and in particular elements in that group are supported by members of the US Congress. And, once again, the claim of Vietnamese dominance over Cambodian decision-making is at the centre of opposition policies. At the same time, there are continuing indications of rifts at the leadership level within the CNRP.

The fact that Hun Sen was ready to oversee a judicial demolition of the opposition in 2017 and 2018 and so ensure that the CPP is in total domination of the parliament may be taken as an indication of his fear that his party might have been voted out of office in the July 2018 elections. Equally, it might be said that his government acted as it did because it was able to do so. In contrast to what happened in 2013, when there were riots against the government for claimed electoral irregularities, the total exclusion of the CNRP from the legislature did not result in any mass reaction. The knowledge that the CPP continues to have the backing of the forces of order may have played a part in the calculations of those who might have called for demonstrations.

So, if people’s power is not ready to act at this stage, what else might shift matters from their currently stalled political circumstances? The European Union is threatening the imposition of tariffs on Cambodian exports that currently are enjoying very favourable terms and similar proposals have been put forward in the United States Congress. Given Cambodia’s reliance on the exports from its garment factories, such trade barriers would be punitive. They would also cause disruption and unemployment for many hundreds of thousand workers and it is an open question as to whether opponents of the regime, domestic and foreign, would entertain this cost.

In any event, at the level of political gossip the issue that I heard most discussed in Phnom Penh two months ago was not the likely demise of the CPP government but rather whether Hun Sen was embarking on plans for the eventual succession of his eldest son, Lieutenant General Hun Manet, currently second in command of the Cambodian armed forces. Referred to as the “Singapore Model” the reference of this gossip is to Lee Hsien Loong’s succession of his father Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister of Singapore. Whatever its attraction as a talking point, it’s worth noting that Hun Sen, in apparent rude health, has repeatedly spoken of continuing in his present role and at 65 there is no reason why he needs to contemplate retirement. There seem, in fact, good reasons to treat this whole issue as of interest but not importance.

More to the point, and as I argued last year (What has gone wrong in Cambodia?), what has gone wrong in Cambodia is as much a result of actions not taken in 1993 by the United Nations and the West in particular as anything that has happened since. In short, it looks as though Hun Sen and the CPP will be with us for some time to come.

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