Hun Sen’s power paradox

Op-Ed: EastAsiaForum

Hun Sen’s power paradox

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is continuing to push the limits of personal power consolidation. While his strategies have been highly successful so far, they are likely to result in greater political insecurity in Cambodia.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, the United States, 28 September 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz).
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, the United States, 28 September 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz).

Several concerning developments have emerged in 2018. Since the Supreme Court banned the main opposition party — the Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP — in November 2017, Hun Sen has further consolidated his power by appointing family members to top government positions.

Some of these promotions were of his children. For instance, in late 2017 Hun Sen appointed his third son, Hun Manith, as General Director of the General Directorate of Intelligence, a new intelligence unit designed to train spies for combat against terrorists and any suspected threat from ‘revolutionary’ forces. Hun Sen also promoted his son-in-law, Dy Vichea — former head of the Ministry of Interior’s Central Security Department — to Deputy Chief of the National Police. Most importantly, Hun Sen elevated his eldest son Lieutenant General Hun Manet as a General (four star) following his promotion to Deputy Commander in Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF).

These tactical moves are part of the Prime Minister’s long-term strategy to consolidate power, which has been in place since he removed his then co-prime minister, Norodom Ranariddh, from power in July 1997. Hun Sen has used coercive means to tighten political control over state institutions and co-opt loyal followers. Hun Sen now maintains tight control over the judiciary and electoral processes at both the local and national level and his party, the Cambodian People Party (CPP), dominates the bicameral legislature.

Why has Hun Sen carried out these tactical moves? For some commentators, they are simply a part of Cambodia’s entrenched political culture of authoritarianism, nepotism and patrimonialism. While there is some truth to this way of looking at Cambodian politics, it overlooks Cambodian leaders’ deep sense of insecurity, which drives them to weaken opposition forces by all means necessary. Hun Sen has been comparatively more successful than past Cambodian leaders in consolidating power, and is continuing to expand his domination of Cambodian politics after more than three decades.

Despite this success, Hun Sen still appears to feel insecure. His efforts to fill top government positions with family members are not simply about building a family business empire but rather about shutting down potential threats from within and without. This may explain why Hun Sen maintains a bodyguard unit of up to 6000 well-equipped and highly-paid troops.

Hun Sen’s sense of political vulnerability is also reflected in the words of Hun Manith, who reportedly said that the new General Directorate of Intelligence was designed to deal with ‘internal and external disturbance from a hostile and ill-intended group of people’ and that ‘the political and security situation and competition in the future will be more intense than in previous years’.

But Hun Sen is making the same mistake of the many Cambodian leaders before him: maximising political security by endlessly consolidating power. Hun Sen appears to believe that this strategy will continue to work for him. The problem with this strategy, though, may emerge from Cambodia’s external environment.

Hun Sen has taken advantage of the post-Cold War peace dividend and is also enjoying growing support from China. But he runs the risk of over-relying on Beijing’s support. The extent to which China is prepared to protect the CPP is difficult to determine, but what is clear is Chinese leaders’ long history of abandoning their allies when much was at stake. While Hun Sen may be aware of this possibility, his strategy to weaken domestic political challenges may increase his political insecurity.

Another problem with power consolidation through nepotism or patrimonialism is that it tends to invite resistance and opposition from both within the party and without. At some point, forces opposed to Hun Sen will grow stronger and nastier, especially if an economic downturn hits the country. And if Western democracies begin to impose sanctions on Cambodia, not only will ordinary Cambodians suffer, but the ruling elite will also face a legitimacy crisis. In this scenario, the CPP is likely to resort to even more repressive violence and may even end up self-imploding.

Current and future Cambodian leaders need to realise that security maximisation through unrestrained power consolidation is counterproductive and dangerous. Security does not necessarily result from others’ insecurity. But for this to happen would require CPP leaders to shift from a self-serving strategy to one that considers the security of others through effective dialogue and democratic power sharing.

Sorpong Peou is a Professor with the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, Toronto.

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Interview with Simon Springer, Author of “Violent Neoliberalism: Development, Discourse, and Dispossession in Cambodia”

Op-Ed: Network for Cambodia and Southeast Asia Study
Read Dr. Simon’s Latest Article on Klepto-Neoliberalism Authoritarianism

Interview with Simon Springer, Author of “Violent Neoliberalism: Development, Discourse, and Dispossession in Cambodia”

Courtesy: ncseas
Courtesy: ncseas

Simon Springer, Violent Neoliberalism: Development, Discourse, and Dispossession in Cambodia; Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (March 18, 2015); Pp: 236.

Simon Springer, author of “Violent Neoliberalism:

Courtesy: ncseas
Courtesy: ncseas

Development, Discourse, and Dispossession in Cambodia.” Courtesy of Simon Springer

“Neoliberalization in Cambodia has hindered the potential for social justice, exacerbated poverty and inequality, and is now increasingly thrusting thousands of Cambodians into a position of landless proletarianism.” This sentence is extracted from the Introduction section of a book entitled “Violent Neoliberalism: Development, Discourse, and Dispossession in Cambodia,” which was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015. The book explores the nexus between neoliberalism and violence based on a critical poststructuralist perspective with particular focus on Cambodia. 

This book is a major contribution to particularly the field of peace and conflict studies and human geography studies, and is of great interest to those who want to inquire more into how neoliberalism can be understood and how violence and economic development intersect in the era of neoliberal globalization, especially in the case of contemporary Cambodia.

Dr. Simon Springer is the author of the book. He is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Victoria, Canada. He also serves as a co-editor for ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies and Transforming Capitalism Book Series, Rowman & Littlefield. He has previously taught at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and the National University of Singapore.

A well-trained human geographer whose main research interests focus on geographies of neoliberalism, geographies of violence, anarchist geographies, and more importantly geographies of contemporary Cambodia, Dr. Simon Springer has produced several publications including authored books, edited books, book chapters, peer reviewed journal articles, etc. His journal articles have appeared in leading geographical journals such as Progress in Human Geography, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Antipode, Environment and Planning A, Political Geography, Area, Geoforum, Dialogues in Human Geography, Space and Polity, and Geography Compass. 

Dr. Springer has recently responded to NCSEAS’s inquiries about the book. His responses help those interested in reading the book understand about what the book is all about, and provide insight into particularly the relationship between neoliberalism and violence in Cambodia. While answering question about his vision for a better Cambodia, he asks “Is the consolidation of wealth into fewer and fewer hands desirable, or do Cambodians want to see a system where everyone is taken care of and has an equal opportunity to contribute to society?”   

What is the book mainly about?

“Violent Neoliberalism” explores the relationship between neoliberalism and violence through a critical poststructuralist lens. The book seeks to expose the supposed humanitarianism of what has become the world’s most dominant political economic model as a process of transformation that is shot through with a significant degree of cruelty. In making this argument I employ a series of theoretical dialogues informed by my ongoing research in Cambodia. In particular I seek to upset and disturb the ‘commonsense’ assumptions about  development and dispossession in the country by examining the discourses that are being deployed. In looking closely at these processes I argue that the ongoing patterns of neoliberalization have become engrossed with violence, not only in Cambodia, but beyond as well.

Why was this study important to undertake?

It is critically important to look critically at neoliberalism and the various ways it has been taken up across the globe. All we hear in mainstream accounts are positive messages about free markets and the opportunities they provide. What isn’t often depicted is the fact that while there undoubtedly are opportunities for the rich to make a lot of money off of things like real estate investment, the poor are left in the lurch as they bear the brunt of spikes in rents and forced evictions to make way for new developments. Cambodia has been particularly good at protecting the interests of an elite and wealthy class of well connected individuals, but the majority of Cambodians are still struggling with poverty, increasing debt, and economic marginalization, which has only been exacerbated over the last two decades of intensifying neoliberalization.

Why do you think this book is a must-read?

I don’t want to assume this is a ‘must read’ book. I certainly hope that it will be taken up and appreciated, but I recognize that books on Cambodia aren’t necessarily at the forefront of the world’s concern or interest. The appeal for scholars and students of Cambodia should be evident, and I think folks in the NGO community will also find something useful here too, but I hope the appeal extends beyond a country study as I’m trying to make a wider theoretical argument about the ways in which processes of neoliberalization are intimately connected, or at the very least have a capacity for profound violence.

The world is on a crash course, where intense capitalism, presently in the form of neoliberalism, is literally threatening our ability to survive on the planet. I’d like to think that my book contributes to a chorus of academic voices that are crying out in defiance of this trajectory. My specific contribution is to suggest that we are only heightening our capacity for violence by remaining complacent in the face of greater neoliberalization.

To your own definition, what is neoliberalism?

My short answer is that neoliberalism is violence. I’m being cheeky here given the focus of my book, but I also mean that quite literally. My longer answer is that it is very difficult to pin neoliberalism down.

To most scholars, the word ‘neoliberalism’ generally refers to a new political, economic, and social arrangement emphasizing market relations, minimal or deregulated states, and individual responsibility, but I think there is more too it than that. In particular I’m keen to emphasize its performative aspects. Accordingly, I consider neoliberalism as a discourse. It is a mutable, inconsistent, and variegated process that circulates through the discourses it constructs, justifies, and defends. This performative quality counteracts the mainstream assumptions about a ubiquitous and supposedly omnipresent ‘thing’ called neoliberalism that acts like a bulldozer. For me, I think we simply can’t neglect the internal constitution, local variability, and the role that ‘the social’ and individual agency play in (re)producing, facilitating, and circulating neoliberalism. This too is its discursive quality. The result is that we see neoliberalism play out differently in different contexts.

I take a lot of critique for calling Cambodia a neoliberal country, but I stand behind that assessment because those making that critique are typically not well versed in what neoliberalism is, thinking instead that it is a bogeyman type figure, rather than a discursive performance that is necessarily hybridized and mutated according to the context it is operating in. So neoliberalism in Cambodia, in a discursive reading, is never going to be the same as neoliberalism in Canada, Japan, Germany, or Turkey. It has it’s own unique formations that are contingent upon existing historical contexts, geographical landscapes, institutional legacies, and embodied subjectivities.

In short, neoliberalism is an ongoing performance that utilizes the idea of the market to justify and legitimize inequality and certain forms of violence.

Continue reading “Interview with Simon Springer, Author of “Violent Neoliberalism: Development, Discourse, and Dispossession in Cambodia””

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