Hun Sen’s Legitimacy Dilemma

An article published in IPP Review.

By Kimkong Heng and Veasna Var

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is facing significant challenges to his legitimacy amid mounting Western pressure. He appears to be in a dilemma over how to deal with measures taken by the European Union (EU) to suspend the Kingdom’s preferential access to the EU Single Market in light of the Cambodian government’s systematic crackdown on dissent in the lead-up to the general election in 2018. This is the most pressing concern among many Cambodians and the international community for the future of democratic development in Cambodia that this country, with the support of the United Nations, has earned since 1993

The EU initiated its Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme in 2001 to grant Least Developed Countries (LDCs) full duty-free and quota-free access to the EU market for all products except for arms and armaments. As a beneficiary country of the EU’s EBA scheme, Cambodia has immensely enjoyed its tariff-free exports to the EU. In 2017 the country’s exports to the world’s largest trading bloc were valued at USD 5.8 billion. Losing the EBA status would incur an annual cost of USD 676 million in taxes based on Cambodia’s export revenue in 2017.

The Cambodian garment industry, a sector that accounts for around 40 percent of Cambodia’s GDP, will be most affected, if the EBA status of this developing nation is suspended. The garment sector employs close to a million workers, the majority of whom are women. It is considered the backbone of Cambodia’s export-driven economy. Losing the EBA privileges would adversely impact on this industry, which would in turn have implications for the trajectory of Cambodia’s robust economy, having grown at an average annual rate of 7 percent for the past two decades.

Although there have been a number of reports trying to explicate that Cambodia will not really be impacted by the EBA withdrawal, common sense suggests that the country’s export-driven economy will experience setbacks, at least temporarily, if Cambodia can no longer export to the EU duty-free and quota-free. Thus, the EBA issue, particularly the uncertainty surrounding the consequences of the EBA withdrawal has presented Prime Minister Hun Sen with a dilemma.

On the one hand, Hun Sen probably fully understands that the suspension of EBA will have a damaging impact on his country’s competitiveness vis-à-vis other countries, especially those benefiting from the EBA scheme. However, he has persistently maintained that his country will not exchange its independence and sovereignty for foreign aid. The EU’s demands for the improvement of human rights and democracy in the country, according to the Phnom Penh government, are tantamount to acts of interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs. Cambodia regarded the EU’s withdrawal measures as an “extreme injustice”.

On the other hand, Hun Sen has been viewed to have employed all the resources at his disposal to suppress political opposition. The crackdown on the main opposition, the independent press, and the civil society prior to the 2018 general election clearly demonstrated that he faces a dilemma over his political legitimacy. If he had allowed the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to compete in the election, the results might have been different. The 2013 and 2017 elections saw substantial vote gains by the opposition, a change to the election results which used to be dominated by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Thus, Hun Sen and his CPP elites might have believed that eliminating the leading opposition party from the competition was an effective strategy that ensured victory. They did that and won all parliamentary seats in last year’s general election.

With growing influence from China, Cambodia’s Hun Sen now has the leverage ability to counter Western pressure by trying to “maintain some semblance of democracy”.

Although the ruling CPP secured a comfortable victory, extending Prime Minister Hun Sen’s mandate for another five years, his legitimacy this term is not as seemingly undisputed as that in the previous ones. International pressure led by the US and EU is increasing. Despite calmness within the country, there are many pressing social issues the government has to tackle. Real and meaningful reforms are therefore absolutely necessary, if the ruling government seeks to gain continued popular support.

Although there seems to be no overt public indignation against the government, there is no guarantee that the majority of Cambodians are satisfied and happy with the current status quo. Given the imminent negative consequences of the EBA suspension, everything seems to be at stake. This uncertainty, no doubt, gives rise to Hun Sen’s political dilemma.

While being aware of the negative impact that the loss of EBA status may have on the country’s economy in general and the livelihood of garment workers and millions of their family members in particular, Hun Sen and his ruling elites seem to concentrate their attention on their political legitimacy and domination. They condemn the EU’s EBA demands, considering them as an injustice and a decision that lacks “good faith” and “fairness”. The fact that almost one million garment workers, more than two thirds of whom are Cambodia’s rural women, will certainly be affected by the repercussions of the EU’s decision is seemingly not of great concern to them, as evidenced by their current responses to the EU.

Thus, Prime Minister Hun Sen is apparently facing significant legitimacy challenges. Unlike his long-time rival Sam Rainsy, acting president of the court-dissolved CNRP, who is facing a different kind of moral dilemma over his pledged return to Cambodia, Hun Sen is in a dilemma over his political legitimacy. He is now having to undergo a difficult period when his legitimacy is on the line. This forces him and his elite team to respond to Western sanctions in strategic and politically motivated manners which tend to be at the expense of many ordinary Cambodians who are likely to be affected by their leader’s approach to dealing with international pressure.

As the international community is now engaged in many geopolitical issues such as denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula and domestic politics in Venezuela, just to name a few, Cambodia’s democratic backsliding will more or less remain intact. In a new book, entitled “Cambodia: Return to Authoritarianism”, Kheang Un argued that Cambodia, at the helm of the CPP-led government, would continue to concede to Western demands only when such political pressure “permitted the CPP to maintain its domination”.

Moreover, with growing influence from China, Cambodia’s Hun Sen now has the leverage ability to counter Western pressure by trying to “maintain some semblance of democracy”. As long as China’s aid and investment keep pouring in, Western economic sanctions will less likely be able to reverse Cambodia’s democratic drift. But the question that needs to be asked is how much longer China is committed to continue to support Hun Sen and his government. As it now stands, Cambodia’s democratic health seems to rely on external than internal pressure. How the West and China will exert their influence on Cambodia and its democratic trajectory remains to be seen.

Although Cambodia is embracing China for the perceived legitimacy and protecting the country’s sovereignty through China’s no strings attached aid and loans, it would be hard if not impossible for Cambodia to get away from the West that has committed to bring about Cambodia’s realistic democratic development and economic prosperity. As David Hutt pointedly put in his analysis: “Like it or not, the CPP still needs the West.”

Kimkong Heng is a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland and a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship. Veasna Var is a doctoral candidate at the University of New South Wales, Canberra and a Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

Published by Kimkong Heng

A student, teacher, educator, and researcher

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