Cambodia after the 2018 Election: The Issue of Legitimacy

An article published in IPP Review.

By Kimkong Heng

The year 2018 was no doubt a special year for Cambodia and Prime Minister Hun Sen. His ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), as expected, won the nation’s general election, and he has recently inaugurated a monument, called the Win-Win Memorial, to celebrate one of his greatest achievements — bringing peace to war-torn Cambodia.

Prior to the highly controversial national election that some commentators called a sham election and warned of Cambodia’s drift towards autocracy, there was a systematic crackdown on the political opposition, civil society and independent media. As a result, Hun Sen successfully led his unchallenged ruling party to a predictable landslide victory — winning all 125 parliamentary seats. Although the election was condemned by Western media and sanctions were imposed on the Cambodian government, little seems to worry the Cambodian strongman who will now continue to stay in power for another five years — making him one of the world’s longest serving prime ministers (he has been in power since 1985).

Following the election, a few key political developments were noteworthy. One was the promotion of Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s oldest son, to be Commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) — the second most powerful position in the nation’s military. Hun Manet’s promotion is perceived as a preparation for him to be a future successor to Prime Minister Hun Sen, although it remains to be seen how Hun Manet will garner support from Cambodians, particularly the CPP elites.

Another was the post-election release of Kem Sokha, leader of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Having spent a year behind bars on treason charges, Sokha was released on bail in September. The bail confines him to his residence in Phnom Penh and bans him from leaving his home and meeting with foreigners or former opposition officials. This move was seen as Hun Sen’s response to international pressure, a claim he has denied.

Despite Kem Sokha’s release, international pressure mounted for Hun Sen’s government. Responding to the perceived deterioration of human rights in Cambodia, for example, the European Union in early October 2018 issued a warning that it would withdraw the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preferences given to Cambodia, unless the current human and labor rights situation is improved. The EBA scheme provides duty-free access to European markets that Cambodia needs for its garment industry. Cambodia has, however, called the EU trade warning an “extreme injustice,” and more recently Hun Sen has threatened to retaliate against the opposition party if the EU withdraws its trade preferences from Cambodia. Thus, given that it would take almost two years to finalize the EBA withdrawal process, it remains to be seen how this issue will unfold in the months to come.

Politics aside, Cambodia’s economic growth remained robust, expanding at 6.9 percent in 2018. Textile and apparel exports, tourism, the construction and real estate sector, and the agriculture sector all have contributed to the growth which, for now, seems to show little sign of deterioration. However, considering the prolonged real estate and construction boom, the rapidly rising real wages, the crackdown on the opposition, and the potential withdrawal of the EBA, the future economic outlook may appear uncertain for Hun Sen’s government.

Hun Sen has to address many of the domestic issues and try to reduce the growing international pressure by improving the human rights situation, resuming the “culture of dialogue” with the dissolved CNRP, and reversing Cambodia’s perceived drift away from democracy.

Although the increasing inflow of Chinese investment into Cambodia is powerful, the US sanctions and the EU’s wish to suspend its trade preferences out of fear of Cambodia’s transformation into a one-party state have made the future of the Kingdom less certain. This is exacerbated by the perceived increasing anti-Chinese sentiment among Cambodians, caused by the growing dissatisfaction with violence and crimes involving Chinese nationals. This increasing anti-Chinese sentiment poses a great danger and may lead to large-scale violence, if not addressed early. In this regard, the Cambodian government should make efforts to improve law enforcement and seek to diversify its sources of foreign investment.

Despite the election, Hun Sen’s government faces a critical issue: legitimacy. Hun Sen needs both internal and external political legitimacy. Internally, he has to ensure that Cambodians continue to support him and his party, while externally, whether he likes it or not, he has to fight to prove his legitimacy in the face of pressure from the international community, particularly the US and the EU. Although he seems to have earned legitimacy from his people, his legitimacy still is at stake in the eyes of the international community.

There are options and measures Hun Sen can take to address this crucial issue. With respect to the EU preferential trade scheme, it is obvious that Cambodia cannot afford to suffer the consequences of losing the EBA status. Cambodia’s garment sector which employs about 800,000 Cambodian workers relies largely on duty-free trade access to the EU market. Withdrawal of the EBA preferences, as this author has argued in an article on IPP Review, would result in adverse consequences on the country’s entire textile industry. Despite this, Hun Sen has warned that he would put an end to the opposition if the EU suspends its trade preferences. This kind of comment is not helpful as it only increases tensions. Hun Sen and his ruling elites should instead seek ways to settle the differences with the EU through diplomatic discussions, dialogues, and negotiations.

To deepen popular support from Cambodians and enjoy real economic growth, Hun Sen has to address many burning social issues including nepotism, corruption, impunity, forced evictions, the lack of law enforcement, and the lack of a skilled labor force. Political willingness, change of thinking, and deep reforms involving the cooperation of all stakeholders in all sectors will be required. Although there have been some reforms, their effectiveness needs to be evaluated and appropriate adjustments made. Reforms in other key sectors such as health, public services, and the justice system will also be needed.

Adopting an omnidirectional foreign policy — not relying solely on China’s unconditional aid and loans — is the way forward for Cambodia to avoid falling within the Chinese sphere of influence at the expense of its relations with other countries. Cambodia should also reverse its deteriorating relations with the West. It is not a good idea to “unfriend” the US and alienate its allies while seeking to embrace Western values.

To enhance his legitimacy both at home and abroad, Hun Sen has to address many of the domestic issues and try to reduce the growing international pressure by improving the human rights situation, resuming the “culture of dialogue” with the dissolved CNRP, and reversing Cambodia’s perceived drift away from democracy.

The Cambodian people would surely not want to see their country at the center of a new Cold War in Southeast Asia. The four-decade-long civil war that Cambodians went through is more than enough. Currently the Cambodian political elites have all the power, ability, and responsibility to bring the Cambodian ship forward toward peaceful areas of the ocean where an island of peace, prosperity, harmony, and democracy is visible and reachable.

About the author

Kimkong Heng is a PhD student at the University of Queensland.

Published by Kimkong Heng

A student, teacher, educator, and researcher

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