September 24, 2017

Is Cambodia Really Becoming a Dictatorship?

Despite troubling developments, a little more optimism is warranted as the Cambodian people get ready to go to the polls.

The Diplomat, By David Hutt, September 22, 2017

“Descent into Outright Dictatorship.” So read the front-page headline of the final edition of the Cambodia Daily, an English-language newspaper closed this month because of taxation issues. This came the day after Kem Sokha, the leader of the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was arrested in his Phnom Penh home on treason charges. Now, the government is threatening other CNRP politicians with possible warrants for arrest, which, one assumes, would eventually lead to the party’s eventual dissolution. Still, this has yet to happen, and a vitally important general election is just ten months away.

Many people, journalists included, have nonetheless rushed to claim that democracy in Cambodia is now dead, or words to that effect. The Financial Times, on September 7, claimed that “Hun Sen’s Cambodia slides into despotism.” The Washington Post, a day earlier, opined that “Cambodia’s ruthless leader is stepping up his authoritarian game.” The latter, arguably, best sums up what is happening: an escalation, not an outright descent.

No doubt, many those who argue Cambodia is now a dictatorship and democracy dead hope that the international community will step in and sort out the matter. This is unlikely to happen. For starters, Cambodia, despite what has happened, remains relatively stable. There have been no major demonstrations or deaths, yet. And while foreign investment might drop, especially from the West, Chinese money continues to pour in.

More important, Cambodia is just one islet in a sea of repression. Vietnam, to its east, has never even promised to hold elections in decades but now is one of America and the European Union’s main partners in Southeast Asia. To Cambodia’s north, nominally communist Laos is in an even worse situation when it comes to freedom. To its west lies Thailand which has been under a military junta since 2014 and shows few signs of returning to democracy, in any meaningful sense of the word. And, further afield, the democratically-elected de-facto leader that is Aung San Suu Kyi, who the West invested heavily in making an icon, is today arguably an apologist for crimes against humanity.

The Rohingya issue no doubt is now taking up much of the time of Western diplomats, pushing Cambodian democracy further down the list of concerns. But even if the United States or the EU decides to punish Phnom Penh it will raise unwanted questions, among them why the West has been so generous to Vietnam or Thailand in recent years. And any sanctions imposed by Washington would be simply paraded as a sign that the United States is conspiring against the Cambodian government, as it now claims (Kem Sokha was charged with treason for working with Americans to overthrow the government).

Then there’s the fact that Donald Trump cares little about despotic nations. And the EU, long divided over human rights and interventionism, actually finds unity when it comes to its own financial matters, which would no doubt be harmed if punitive actions are taken.

So the CNRP is correct when it says only the Cambodian people can change Cambodia. “A legitimate government can only be born from the will of the people,” CNRP vice-president Mu Sochua told me some weeks ago. But saying that the country has descended into a dictatorship does a disservice to Cambodian voters. If it is a dictatorship, then why should they bother to turn out at next year’s general election, to be held in July 2018? If the country has already fallen, why care about changing politics peacefully?

At the moment, one might say what democracy Cambodia has left is in a perilous condition, as is free speech. But nihilism serves no one. Until the ballot is taken away from the people then there is always a chance that their votes can make their wishes felt. And until the CNRP is actually dissolved, even in its currently enfeebled state, it still stands in opposition to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

One ought not to forget that June’s commune election had the highest voter turnout in decades: 85 percent of eligible voters went to the ballot three months ago. In fact, at every election since its first real election in 1993 the number of people turning out to vote has tended to decrease, except in June. And, that month, the CNRP gained significant ground on the CPP, a rarity in local elections. What are we to make of this? Quite simply, it shows that Cambodians are either now more politically engaged or believe their vote actually matters.

Most are, however, not so naïve to think that an election will result in a peaceful transfer of power. As I have noted in my column on numerous occasions, the CPP is unlikely to back out of government willingly or peacefully. But optimism is better than nihilism if a democracy is to be born. And while the people still have the opportunity to tell their government that they don’t want it to rule, power is not solely in the hands of one person.

So what has changed since June? Well, an English-language newspaper has closed, as have radio stations carrying U.S.-funded Khmer-language programs; a U.S.-funded democracy-building organization has been ordered to cease working in the country; and the CNRP president arrested. The question, then, is whether these incidents are enough to stop Cambodians going to the ballot at next year’s general election.

Of course, as I noted in a previous article for The Diplomat, the ruling CPP has combined repression with “generosity.” The government has promised the 700,000-odd garment workers, long loyal CNRP voters, another raise in their minimum wage before next year’s general election. And more social welfare policies have been promised, as they have been promised in the past.

Nonetheless, before the 2013 general election the party’s then-president Sam Rainsy had been in exile for years beforehand (he was allowed to return weeks ahead of the vote). And even without the figurehead in the country the CNRP still received only 300,000 fewer votes than the CPP. Today, with one leader in jail and the other again in exile in France, it still might not be enough to perturb voters from opting for the CNRP next year.

Moreover, the fact that more than three million Cambodians cast their votes for CNRP candidates in June, even after Sam Rainsy resigned as party leader and the party threatened with dissolution, is arguably a sign that threats don’t always work. After all, as CNRP voters have told me, the party gains its support for what it represents, not just who represents it. Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have not been forgotten and their names remain rallying cries, as does b’do (meaning change).


sam said...

Mr. David Hutt, what more do you need to convince you that the current government in Cambodia is a Dictatorship?
All three branches of government have been under the control of one man, is that not convincing enough?

hak um said...

I bet a dime of U.S.currency Hun
Sen is too coward to dare dissolving CNRP, but he might create some kind of insecurity in
Cambodia to postpone or cancel the
2018 general election. Watch out
folks and stay alert.

sam said...

Only one dime, hak um, heck the postage alone costs 44 cents. lol

KhmerBTB said...

The election will go on as schedule and Hun Sen has no plan to dissolve CNRP but to degrade so his Party will have the advantage . He knows that having the election without the involvement of the main opposition Party his government wont be legit and most countries of the free world wont recognize his government .

Narin Vong said...

Cambodia has evolved for the past decades from one regime to another. So far, as I have lived through it until today, there was never been any previous regimes combine can compare to today's Cambodia under the leadership of Hun Sen.

Just to be realistic, look at the country as a whole, we have everything not far behind the US. My business and others are operating as usual. My children and others are going through the colleges as normal.

On our days off, we enjoy traveling to other cities and going to the new Aeon Mall, to mention a few.

Cambodia is stabilized now and will be a free and capitalistic country because we have many educated new generation who will monitor and assist our way of life. Only a few handfuls hardliners who will always be bitter and negative no matter what because they cannot get things their way.

Being a strong leader. Must see all threats and take decisive actions to control them. No red or yellow shirt blocking the roads and kill each other just like in Thailand. No KKK, White Supremacists, Antifa, Black Lives Matter, etc., can start a war against the government either.

Yes, doesn't matter those few people say, Hun Sen, as I see it, he is a strong leader, and we are greatfull. We are now living in peace and prosperity, slowly and surely.

Bong Song said...


1. We have the vietcong for the last 4 decades.

2. We have Hun Sen, for over 30 plus years and he vow for another 10 years. Without winning any election free and fair. Was alway by cheating and killing.

KhmerBTB said...

Narin Vong , you compare Hun Sen's regime to Khmer Rouge . Why dont you compare it to Lon Nol or Sihanuk's regime while the country was peaceful ?

Narin Vong said...

As far as I can remember back to those days, French colonial period (1863–1953), to save Cambodia from being incorporated into Vietnam and Siam, King Ang Duong agreed to colonial France's offers of protection, there was never be peacefull until now.

Many of you had left the country after 1979, but we stay and help to rebuild the country from the ground zero. We know what has happened throughout these years, and we won't allow others to destroy Cambodia.

KhmerBTB said...

There was no peaceful in Cambodia until now ? You must have been taking too much chinese medicine . There is no freedom , no democracy and people are protesting and crying for justice everyday , is that what you called peaceful ? I have never seen any protest in Canbodia before Hun Sen was in power .

Narin Vong said...

Yes, you saw protests in the news but you were not here with us. Because there was incitement by the CNRP Party, now we know the truth caught on the tape, there was civil unrest.

I drove each day to Kompong Som, Koh Kong, and sometimes to Batdombong even to Rathana kiri, there are peace and safe driving. I see the whole country with my own eyes. I can tell you, don't listen to fake news and propaganda.

What is the Democracy? The law is being applied to everyone, including Kem Sokha. He is innocent until proven guilty. He needs a strong legal team to defend him and to refute all charges under Section 443.

There is now freedom and I can attest to it by living in it.

KhmerBTB said...

Pictures tell a million words .

Chun Sokha said...

A Vietnamese guy living in Cambodia illegally is pretending to be Khmer and fighting for Hun Sen . Thuy guy should have been kicked out of the country and sent back where he belongs .

sam said...

Cambodia today is peaceful and a safe heaven for the Vietnamese but not for the true Khmer who have to leave the country and family behind in search of work just to survive, does this mass migration of looking for work happen anytime in the history of Cambodia except under the regime of this traitor Hun Sen?
No, and thanks to Hun Sen, the happiest people living in Cambodia now are the Vietnamese.
Hun Sen makes it possible for them to ‘quietly’ enjoy their first class citizen status. Whenever there are quarrels between the ordinary Khmer against the Viet the government sides with the latter. Where else in the world can we find such a stupid government in the post colonial era?
Khmer dignity is at an all time low in comparison to other citizen in the neighboring countries.
Unlike the Khmer the foreigner journalists over look the big problems of the out flowing of the Khmer and inflowing of the Vietnamese by the millions to replace the displaced natives. And as this trend goes on it won’t be long for the Vietnamese population to overtake the Cambodians’, then it is Kampuchea Krom all over again – among Hun Sen’s many other acts of treason the aforementioned is the main reason that Khmer don’t like this traitor to be their PM anymore.
Hun Sen is a good leader for the Vietnamese whose hypocrisy of praising him is abound until one day he is no longer useful to them like Sihanouk once was, he is not fit to be a Khmer PM.
A nation cannot enjoy peace without justice and dignity.

It’s ironic that Hun Sen wants Khmer to defend against the foreigners, and the foreigners who take land and sea from Cambodia are not his enemies but the ones who make him lose the peaceful election are his enemies.

There are Vietnamese spies roaming freely in Cambodia for the interest of Vietnam even here at KI, and their logics make sense only when we see them as Vietnamese.

A peaceful Cambodia, so why is this?

ompil kjey said...

Viet congs are living happily in Cambodia because Vietnam protects those beings through the use of its puppet called hun sen. For the past 40 years, Vietnam has committed numerous crimes, including the crimes of incitement, not to mention massive killings in the early 80s. Those Vietnamese pretend to be Khmers but they are deadly with their dirty tricks, just like the Vietnamese twisting truths in this forum.

He who praises or speaks for hun sen's crimes is a criminal.

Narin Vong said...

Yes, when you make a threat like Kim Jung Un, Donald Trump will destroy his regime just like Hun Sen arrested Sokha for threatened to overthrow him.

No question, my name is not Tran, Hue, or Nguyen. And I have no connection with Hun Sen. I am just an ordinary Cambodian who is trying to make a living.

Because you have been living in America too long, you already forgot to know the Cambodian's name.

Stop complaining, start to helping your own fellow Cambodian people who are having flood water surrounding their houses daily.

Remember one thing, when you don't light the fire, there will be no fire. Hun Sen has the right to defend himself and his country just like you and I. One day you will come here, please respect our law and our leader.

ompil kjey said...

A Vietnamese believes that only under hun sen people can make a living, and in other countries, they are not. There is no hun sen in Thailand, yet that nation is richer.

He who praises or speaks for hun sen's crimes is a criminal.

sam said...

Narin Vong you said, “My business and others are operating as usual. My children and others are going through the colleges as normal.”

So you are a businessman, can you tell me what kind of honest business are you in?
And I can prove that you are a liar, just try me.

tk said...

I told everyone all along. Narin Vong is a paid agent of Hun Sen. He is on Hun Sen payroll and he is getting paid by Hun Sen to praise Hun Sen. The dog has to defend the master or else there will be no food.

ompil kjey said...

There is no doubt that it is an agent paid by hun sen to praise him. If no one praises you sincerely, you pay someone to praise you. If no one gives you like, you go to Click Farm. It sounds like "Drgunzet," the mindless one that was deleted repeatedly by the admin for his/her obscene incitements in this forum.

Why would anyone capitalize the name hun sen? Only a proper noun can be capitalized, not a common noun.

Bong Song said...

Khmer couldn't betray khmer or kill khmer. Only the vietcong and hun sen himself who is also a vietcong.

What proof is there that hun sen is khmer? his wife and kids is viets, and he speaks viet.

sam said...

Like always when this Narin Vong/Vietcong is cornered he cowardly disappears to bullshit at another time.

My last comment was:

Narin Vong you said, “My business and others are operating as usual. My children and others are going through the colleges as normal.”

So you are a businessman, can you tell me what kind of honest business are you in?
And I can prove that you are a liar, just try me.

If he is true to himself, how hard is it to answer the above question?
I guarantee he sees it but he cowardly prefers not to respond.

Kohtral said...
This comment has been removed by the author.