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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Cambodia: Parliament Approves Rules Allowing For Dissolution Of Opposition Parties

Cambodia: Parliament Approves Rules Allowing For Dissolution Of Opposition Parties

Op-Ed: Stratfor: Situation Reports

Already, CNRP pressure has managed to get CPP to move elections forward from July to February 2018. As the vote approaches, the pressure on the CPP will only mount. Cambodia’s economy is growing, a boon for the establishment, but its benefits have been felt unevenly. Moreover, the growth is leading to demographic and workforce changes that could prove challenging for the government to manage, creating new constituencies to please or neutralize. The majority of Cambodians now have no memory of the conflict period — or the Khmer Rouge — and have less tolerance for the abuses of power that come with a stabilizing strongman. Cambodia also has a large non-profit community and, with increasing Internet access, more awareness of international norms. More tangibly, the populations of Cambodia’s cities are growing and, with the industrial workforce concentrated in Phnom Penh, increasingly throwing their weight behind the CNRP.

But this framework of power has proved increasingly challenging to maintain, particularly as the peace dividend Hun Sen deftly exploited in the initial post-war era fades. Of the four general elections held since Hun Sen came to power, virtually all have been plagued by fraud allegations, contentious negotiations and government interference — the price of centralized rule. The biggest challenge to Hun Sen’s continued rule came three years ago. In the July 2013 elections, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won 55 seats in parliament, including 22 from the CPP — the strongest-ever performance for a Cambodian opposition party. Still, the vote was marred by irregularities, compelling opposition leader Sam Rainsy to stage massive protests in the capital of Phnom Penh. (Rainsy, a former finance minister and lawmaker, has been trying to unseat Hun Sen since 1998.)

VS

In fact, over the past five years, Hun Sen has further centralized the government around himself, chiefly by placing family members in key government positions. His oldest son, Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, is deputy commander of a powerful praetorian guard that rivals the national military. Two other sons have also risen to the rank of general. All have been touted as potential successors. Meanwhile, the CPP establishment elite is deeply entrenched in the political and economic system, with deep bureaucratic ties. Moreover, Cambodia is ethnically homogenous, without the major regional cleavages of Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam. With a strong grip on the military, rural electorate and bureaucracy, there have been no real institutional competitors to the CPP in Cambodia.

Hun Sen bio

Read details and make reference at Stratfor

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‘Bored’ of Advice of the West, Hun Sen Praises His Own Leadership

‘Bored’ of Advice of the West, Hun Sen Praises His Own Leadership

Hun Sen said his policies have moved Cambodia from a “planned economy” to a free-market one after decades of civil war, making it an attractive place for investors.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures as he delivers a speech during his presiding over an inauguration ceremony for the official use of a friendship bridge between Cambodia and China at Takhmau, Kandal provincial town south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Aug. 3, 2015.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures as he delivers a speech during his presiding over an inauguration ceremony for the official use of a friendship bridge between Cambodia and China at Takhmau, Kandal provincial town south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Aug. 3, 2015.

Hul ReaksmeyVOA Khmer
Prime Minister Hun Sen addressed a dinner of powerful businessmen Saturday night, claiming he could be a “professor” to Western leaders, who are beginning to bore him with their advice.

Hun Sen said his policies have moved Cambodia from a “planned economy” to a free-market one after decades of civil war, making it an attractive place for investors.

“I am really proud of the policies of the party, as well as my leadership, which has been responsible for the executive body for over 30 years,” Hun Sen told the attendant tycoons. “I understood clearly that you all would deposit your money abroad or would use your money to buy homes abroad, ignoring investments here.”

Instead, his policies have grown the wealthy class, increasing business activities, Hun Sen said. This has made him “bored” with advice from countries of the West, he said. That includes the outgoing US ambassador, William Todd.

U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia William E. Todd gives a speech during a repatriation ceremony to honor the recovery of possible remains believed to belong to missing U.S. military service members found in Kampong Cham province.

U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia William E. Todd gives a speech during a repatriation ceremony to honor the recovery of possible remains believed to belong to missing U.S. military service members found in Kampong Cham province.

“I met with the US ambassador before he left Cambodia,” Hun Sen said. “When he was talking with me, he talked a lot about change. I then said to him: ‘Don’t forget whom you are talking with. Your Excellency is truly talking with a professor who can teach you or the president of your country or other prime ministers on change.’”

“If I can’t discern change, or change the process, would I have been able to stay in power for more than 30 years?” Hun Sen said. “I’m bored with some of the advice provided by some countries to Cambodia.”

Continue reading “‘Bored’ of Advice of the West, Hun Sen Praises His Own Leadership”

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The Twilight of Social Fabric of Cambodian Society

Social fabric of Cambodian society is one of the rewarding studies on how to establish “strong institution of Cambodia”. According to a dictionary, social fabric means “The demographics of an area that consists of wealth, A Social fabricethnic composition, level of education, rate of employment and regional values that are combined to create this social fabric.” But according to generalized concept, social fabric is the primary foundation of society bonding or society cohesiveness. Primary foundation of Cambodia doesn’t refer to the past foundation, but the present cultivating phenomena of this state crafting. Many puzzling questions have evolved within Khmer mentality that who are responsible for the cracking, demolishing, revitalizing and reinventing of this society?

The reality that all Khmers must realize

Since the post-cold war, Cambodia at least has been traumatized by three social failures: the swift change from monarchy to republican during the Lon Nol regime which was trembled by the conflict between democratic bloc of USA and communist bloc of China, the Khmer Rouge regime of absolute violence power between 1975 to 1979, and the Cambodia socialist regime under Vietnamese occupation between 1979 to 1989. The syndromes of this traumatic reality are the visible dividing between supporters of monarchy and republican, the violence-embedded behavior of the Khmer Rouge and post-Khmer Rouge, and the nondetachable anti-Vietnamese sentiment. The reality of this divided social pattern is displaying in our daily sight of at least one Cambodian has carried one of these syndromes or two or all three together indistinguishably.

Institutionalizing political norm

A Neilson Mandela CambodiaOne of the important resources to build a strong institution is to look at how effective communication between the state and society can respond to its realism, pragmatism, practicality and procedural-legal responsiveness. New sight of political culture of Cambodia at the present is the emergence of two-parties state and the political will of the top leaders of both CNRP and CPP. The agreement to settle down the confrontation on the street to paving way for the debate in the parliament through the reforming of National Election Committees (NEC), re-regulating the internal rules of the assembly which major voice can respect lesser voice, and lesser voice and respect major voice, and the resuming check and balance of democratic power, are all responsive.

As the ninth member of the NEC has been chosen, Dr. Pung Chiv Kek of LICADHO’s founder, the next step of NEC reform is on public blinking eyes. But Cambodian people are still reluctant to predict good outcome from this move especially their doubts fall upon Hun Sen who is well-known for his great ability of tactician to advance his political career through means of undemocratic past. Like recent handcuffing and jailing of 7 MPs-elect of CNRP without fair trial, Hun Sen can utilize all his existing means to defeat, defame, or demolish his rivals. But this time, through the recent waking-up call of anti-Hun Sen voting and demonstrations, he has possibly surrendered himself by putting aside his past great techniques to embrace new way of competing through fair ballots and public participation. Sam Rainsy has also said that Hun Sen has embraced his new leadership style. Hence, the Cambodian people are still not quickly believing on this swift change. Hun Sen said before about his tactic of allowing balloon to be inflated to its apogee as he can deflate it to the eternal nonexistence.

However, it seems arguable that his leadership has been changed by the new realization of young leaders or pragmatist clout from both CPP and CNRP. Those has silently demanded leadership change to embrace principles rather than stick on 3 kingdoms of Chinese legendary movie.

Other thing is the non-cornering approach of the opposition leader. At the first party’s convention on July 27, 2014, top leader Sam Rainsy stated clearly on his non-supporting on the culture of “ant and fish tradition” by “embracing genuine national reconciliation of non-violence, non-revenge, and pursuing full heuristic political will to solve the problems of the nation”.

If the 7 points agreement shall be implemented without changing or obstructing, the hope for strong institutionalizing of Cambodia politics will pave a strong primary foundation to tackle all three mentioned social syndromes and it will become the comprehensive method of building social fabric of Cambodian society.

The Buddha’s teaching of non-violence, compassion and  wisdom

A Lotus FlowerCambodian Buddhists are representing 95% of the total population in which there are about 4000 temples residential of more than 60,000 Buddhist monks. Through this density of moral population plus the strong cultural and traditional belief, the Buddhism has played important role to invent new social fabric of Cambodian society. We can say nothing in this world can hide itself from the “truth”, the “moon” and the “sun” or it is the “wisdom”, the “compassion” , and the “non-violence”.

CNRP has apparently embraced this policy and it is one ultimate answer to bring back the Cambodian value is of the “Non-Violence”. Top leader Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha and well-known women wing Mu Sochua have claimed this same value “non-violence”. Mu Sochua has always carried “lotus flower” as symbol of compassion, non-violence and wisdom. Since her daily routine to free the freedom park to the latest event of her release from Prey Sor prison, lotus flower has become her attire for public attention.

The non-violence mean can defeat the culture of violence and division, the compassion mean can renege the politicians from fear of revenge when they are out of power, and the wisdom mean can produce large capital for sustainable democratic development. These three strategic means can surely spell out dividing, violence and Vietnamese ethnic sentiment in order to pave a new social fabric of Cambodian society.

Cambodian political leadership is a home made one

Once, a journalist asked me what democratic country that Cambodia should copy to develop its democracy? I respond that none. Cambodia can create their own democracy through the blending of universal value of democracy, Cambodian culture and Buddhism. With this argument, democracy itself has a lot of flaws. But Cambodia democracy will ensure that all Cambodian people can enjoy both physical and mental well-being. Many democratic countries advanced their politics and economic to the edge of materialistic achievement while the people are still shortcoming mental strength.

After reconciling all the three suffering syndromes, the new social fabric of Cambodian society should be enriched by both physical and mental well-being.

By Sophoan Seng

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