The Latest on Southeast Asia: March 1, 2024

On February 25, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 55 of the 58 seats in the Cambodian Senate. The Senate was voted in by the 125 members of Cambodia’s National Assembly and the country’s over 11,000 local commune counselors, all dominated by the CPP, making the sweep a foregone conclusion. Though CPP control over Cambodian state institutions is typically a given, this election notably featured the return of a longtime Cambodian politician: former prime minister Hun Sen. 

As the current CPP party president, Hun Sen is the presumptive senate president, a ceremonial role that presides over the assembly and ratifies measures. Moreover, the senate president serves as a deputy head of state if the monarch is out of the country. His return to an official government capacity lends him legitimacy, further entangling him in Cambodia’s domestic and international affairs.  

Despite stepping down as prime minister last year in favor of his son Hun Manet, Hun Sen remains influential in Cambodia as he maneuvers his family and its connections throughout the upper strata of Cambodian politics and business as a means of self-preservation. The Hun family consolidates its power over Cambodian institutions through dynastic marriages and the strategic positioning of family members. The longer the family remains in power, the safer Hun Sen and his legacy remain. The more redundancy built into the system, the safer the family will be—and the Huns can only trust family. As such, Prime Minister Hun Manet recently appointed his brother, Hun Many, as deputy prime minister. 

Continued CPP and Hun family dominance in Cambodia darken the country’s prospects. As such, Hun Manet has embarked on an international charm offensive. Intending to make Cambodia a high-income economy, he has worked to promote Cambodia as a promising destination for foreign investment. With his Western education and fluent English, he aims to brighten his own and his country’s image throughout Europe and the United States. In the past few weeks, he has also shored up relationships throughout the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), visiting Thailand on February 7 and Malaysia on February 29. 

Despite efforts to charm the international community, Cambodia’s troubled democracy and continued human rights violations paint a different picture. Though Hun Manet presents as a genteel, westernized face for the country abroad, political repression continues in Cambodia just like it did under his father. Extraterritorial persecution of Cambodian opposition activists continues across international borders; moreover, Cambodian scam centers continue to ensnare thousands of citizens from throughout the region.

The CPP’s sweep of the Senate and the further elevation of senior Hun family members to top government positions will continue to marginalize the opposition. Opposition parties, such as the Candlelight Party, are imperiled every time their popularity poses a threat to the ruling regime. Banned from participating in elections, major opposition parties are afforded very little room to navigate. This leaves them no choice but to operate as token opposition in local and national assemblies overwhelmingly dominated by the CPP and Hun family loyalists. 

Japhet Quitzon is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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