Hun Sen’s Homegrown Political Risk
June 27, 2013
There is a compelling case to be made that over the last several years, we have witnessed the front end of an “ASEAN spring.” Citizens and voters across Southeast Asia have told their governments about their new and rising expectations for empowerment, governance, and rule of law. Indonesia’s transformation from an autocratic regime under Suharto to a dynamic democracy today is the starkest example. But voters from Thailand to Malaysia, Singapore to Vietnam, and beyond have challenged their governments to either improve delivery of services and allow for greater participation, or see their mandates diminished and new competitors established.
Only a handful of ASEAN countries are bucking that trend, and at the top of the list is Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country since seizing power in a 1997 coup, is poised to win his fourth consecutive term as prime minister when Cambodians go to the polls on July 28. While his victory is assured, a bright economic and political future for Cambodia is less certain.
Unlike other Southeast Asian countries that are opening political systems created during the Cold War and investing in developing institutions by moving toward increasingly responsive and transparent regimes, Cambodia has not responded to similar signals. Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have not demonstrated that they will tolerate real political competition. Instead, there are signs that politically related violence, corruption, and nepotism are characterizing the run-up to national elections. These trends suggest that Cambodia is not moving forward with its ASEAN partners and instead is home to a political instability that should concern its neighbors and ASEAN partners, including the United States.
Earlier this month, the CPP stripped all 27 opposition lawmakers of their parliamentary status, rendering them ineligible to run in next month’s elections. The move is sadly consistent with other steps by Hun Sen and the CPP to undercut political rivals and thereby stunt the growth of a maturing political system in Cambodia.
The situation does not need to be this way. Hun Sen and the CPP have the opportunity to understand important lessons from their Southeast Asian neighbors. Through evolving political openness, empowering voters, and investing in building institutions that were sadly ignored or purposely kept weak during the post-colonial Cold War period, other governments are accommodating their increasingly discerning voters who have benefited from economic growth and now hunger for clean governance, rule of law, and a free flow of information. Regrettably, Cambodia’s leadership is sending increasingly clear signals that such lessons will not be applied there. This could have dangerous implications for Cambodia’s future.
It is possible that Hun Sen reads the situation differently. To be clear, Cambodia did not enjoy decades of strong economic growth like Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand from the 1970s until today. Cambodia was trapped in its own very real nightmare, characterized by vicious political violence and genocide and resulting in political and cultural paralysis.
That situation is changing, thankfully, and today Cambodians are enjoying a period of relatively high economic growth. Hun Sen may argue that he needs to ignore the signals of his neighbors until Cambodia builds economic momentum and establishes a foundation for political reform. But the case of Myanmar suggests that such ideas are anachronistic: Myanmar decided to move forward with political reform and at the same time pursue economic reform and growth.
Cambodia has enjoyed strong economic growth and increased foreign investment under the CPP’s rule. Annual growth in recent years has hovered near 7 percent. By the end of 2012, Cambodia boasted a per capita gross domestic product of $970, a tremendous leap from the country’s annual income of $270 a decade ago. Expected to maintain 7 percent growth in 2013, Cambodia is poised to reach the World Bank’s lower-middle-income threshold this year. Foreign direct investment has also boomed, albeit largely through massive infrastructure projects funded by China.
For these reasons, Cambodians are generally optimistic about their country’s future. A public opinion survey released in May by the International Republican Institute (IRI), a Washington-based democracy advocacy group, found that 79 percent of Cambodians felt their country was headed in the right direction, whereas in 2006 only 62 percent expressed confidence in the country’s direction. Many cited an increase in the building of roads and schools as reasons for optimism.
But many infrastructure projects have been opposed by Cambodians who have suffered from landgrabs, forced relocation, and economic disenfranchisement. These same sets of conditions afflicted Chinese-funded projects in Myanmar and prompted demands for change, demonstrated most spectacularly by the government’s cancellation in 2011 of the China-funded multibillion dollar Myitsone dam project.
The question, then, is whether Cambodians are sacrificing good governance and freedom to pay for economic success. The evidence suggests so. Violent landgrabs, extrajudicial killings, crackdowns on activists, and corruption have continued alongside Cambodia’s impressive economic performance. Regional history has shown this is a recipe for political instability.
Cambodia’s rankings in international surveys on perceived corruption, press freedom, and property rights have plummeted or remain dismally low. Land seizures have affected 400,000 citizens, including a 14-year-old girl shot dead by authorities during an eviction in Kratie Province in 2012. The 20-year jail sentence levied on media owner and activist Mam Sonando for coverage of the event—he was later released following strong international pressure—underscored the government’s increasing intolerance of criticism and dissent.
Cambodia is still one of ASEAN’s poorest and least developed countries. For now, the government’s generation of low-skilled jobs in rural areas and high-rise buildings in Phnom Penh will earn it more than enough votes in July. Earlier this month, Hun Sen ordered government officials to prepare for his victory, and recent announcements that sons of top CPP lawmakers will run for parliamentary seats indicate preparations for the next generation’s takeover in the coming years. The leadership’s confidence in continued CPP rule is understandable.
As it prepares for its victory, however, the CPP would do well to take note of what is happening in neighboring countries. The average ASEAN voter today is increasingly engaged and discerning. Malaysia and the Philippines saw record and near-record voter turnouts, respectively, this year. Cambodia is no different: a full 88 percent of respondents to the IRI survey said they intend to vote in the July national elections. A progressively younger citizenry largely explains the democratic frenzy. By 2020, half of the region’s population will be under the age of 30.
Yet there is more at work in the democratic undercurrent of the region. The political landscape in Southeast Asia is increasingly competitive. Voters are demanding more from their elected officials than sporadic public works projects and salary increases, as shown in national elections in Malaysia, local elections in Jakarta, and by-elections in the Philippines. The energetic, active ASEAN voter is calling for fair and clean governance, genuine economic opportunity, and the freedom to consume and produce ideas without interference. These demands are driving political competition and commanding better governance.
Eventually, Cambodia will also experience this shift. The extralegal intimidation of activists and journalists and disregard for free and fair electoral competition cannot continue indefinitely. A critical mass of Cambodians will, like their Southeast Asian neighbors, demand more. Entrepreneurs will call for the rule of law and the economic freedom necessary to create valuable, productive businesses. Fishermen and environmentalists will raise issue about the continuing impact of Chinese hydropower and coal initiatives on livelihoods and the environment. An increasingly connected and educated citizenry will become less tolerant of government crackdowns and control of opposing opinions.
Already, brave land-rights activists, journalists, opposition leaders, and farmers are drawing attention to these issues. Growing unrest about safety and wages at garment factories, which generate 75 percent of the country’s exports, underscores the need for improved regulation and rights for the country’s labor force. As in other Southeast Asian nations, these voices will become louder in the coming years.
The CPP will overwhelmingly win the July 28 national elections. Hun Sen is safe for now, but his sons would be wise to pay close attention to the trajectory of Southeast Asian politics. Strong-arming, corruption, intimidation, and a refusal to play by the rules will not secure votes forever, likely not even for long. Real leadership is about coupling political reform with economic empowerment. Cambodians deserve as much.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the June 27, 2013, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th & K Streets.)
Ernest Bower is senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Amy Killian is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair.
Commentary isproduced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.