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The Tragedy of Cambodia: Hun Sen’s Silent Dictatorship

August 24th, 2015

By Davis Florick – Junior Fellow

One sad fact that best characterizes the tragedy of Cambodia in the post-Khmer Rouge era is the Hun Sen regime’s continued survival over the last thirty years. From the ashes of the murderous Pol Pot government, Mr. Sen initially emerged as a reasonable partner in the Vietnam-supported government, yet has held onto power since 1985. Presumably to the surprise of many, when the Cold War ended, he was able to survive and even make himself indispensable to the international community’s reconstruction efforts in Phnom Penh in spite of his lackluster credentials. Making the travesty of his continued grip on power worse, the Hun Sen Administration has been able to leverage global donor goodwill – amounting to billions of dollars – as a funding resource. The generosity of its supporters abroad, combined with a lack of institutional accountability locally in Cambodia, is enabling the further cementing of the current regime. However, precisely because Hun Sen has found measures and mechanisms to promote the enduring standing of his rule, the international community needs to ask challenging questions in relation to what comes next regarding the national government. With the emergence of younger generations more connected to the outside, globalized, and liberalizing world, the risks of instability in Phnom Penh will only increase. With a view to appreciating the history of Cambodia over the last fifty years, prudence demands that the international community begins to address seriously what a post-Hun Sen state looks like.

The lasting effects of the Pol Pot era, which ran from 1975 to 1978, are undoubtedly still impacting day-to-day life for many in the country. A few key issues are of particular importance. First, the Cambodian people underwent tremendous emotional, mental, and physical strain for years before, during, and after the period. As a result, older generations are willing to accept a government that consistently underperformed compared to its regional contemporaries because it was better than what they are historically accustomed to. Second, the domestic economy was in shambles when the Khmer Rouge fell and a functioning middle class and intelligentsia were destroyed. Part of Pol Pot’s ideology was the need to destroy the middle class, because of the political threat this group could pose to his revolution. As a result, there were few people who could support a quick recovery toward any semblance of a modern state. Third, moral relativism emerged post-Pot as the government and people tolerated an environment in which those involved with the Pol Pot Regime were in many cases allowed to continue with their daily lives unimpeded. Specifically, turning a blind eye to the crimes of the past denied many Cambodians a chance for closure and, consequently, it assisted in promoting an environment in which the norm for government officials was pitiful. The willingness to sacrifice punishment in favor of reconciliation helped promote an atmosphere of corruption and fear that gripped many within Cambodia. The post-Khmer climate in Phnom Penh led to a pervasive environment in which the government institutionalized reconciliation almost regardless of the costs. In many ways reconciliation was self-serving given that Hun Sen and many other senior leaders were Khmer officials at one point. Pol Pot’s economic, governmental, and societal infrastructure deconstruction has had far reaching effects on Cambodia – reverberations that have continued up through today.

Indeed, the volatility of the Khmer Rouge created the opportunity for Vietnam’s invasion in 1978 and the insertion of Hun Sen and his cohorts as the state’s leadership. Leading up to Hanoi’s invasion, Phnom Penh made the fateful decision to conduct a series of purges within the government. In point of fact, Hun Sen, fearing that he would be purged, defected to Vietnam in 1977 with his compatriots in their army battalion. Pursuant to such actions, a number of other Khmer Rouge officials also sought refuge in Vietnam, defections which provided Hanoi with a ready-made alternative political leadership to install in Phnom Penh: Hun Sen himself would be appointed deputy prime minister and foreign minister immediately following the new government’s appointment in 1979. The relatively quick and successful invasion, however, was followed by a very difficult reconstruction. China’s staunch opposition to Vietnam’s unilateral action and the history of Hanoi’s war with Washington meant that it could not rely on international assistance to rebuild Cambodia. Faced with mounting obstacles, Vietnam backed Hun Sen’s rise to the premiership in 1985 due to his ability to work with Hanoi and manage domestic challenges.  Yet it proved to be Vietnam’s assistance, combined with weak domestic institutions capable of checking his power and a lack of international interest that allowed the isolated, fledgling government to survive and begin centralizing power.

The global community did not seek to make amends (of sorts) for turning a blind eye to the Khmer Rouge genocide until after the end of the Cold War. States the world over including China, Russia, and the United States (US) recognized the need to assist Cambodia in one way, shape, or form. Not only did billions of dollars pour annually into the state, but the United Nations (UN) also attempted to manage and rebuild it. This would come to be the most fervent and pervasive attempt at nation building since the end of the Cold War. But the reconstruction was beset by a lack of oversight and accountability. Consequently, there was little understanding and even less condemnation regarding how the Hun Sen regime allotted outside aid. As a result, the Cambodian government allotted international donor funds with little understanding and even less condemnation on the part of outside parties regarding how that regime made use of those monies.  In particular, this meant that the government could divert financial resources into the hands of corrupt officials at all levels of the state bureaucracy. Over the long term, the government in Phnom Penh has been able to bribe key stakeholders across the nation and abroad as necessary. Most disconcerting is the fact that, despite the increasing acknowledgement of government corruption by outsiders and Cambodians alike, the donor funding continues. In effect, the international community, even with the best of intentions, has financed the bolstering of the Hun Sen Administration.

Briefly touched upon earlier, but necessitating further discussion, is the unfortunate role corruption now plays in everyday life in Cambodia. Phnom Penh does not have a monopoly on bribery and the use of other techniques to achieve various objectives. With that being said, the endemic, far-reaching, and pervasive nature of corruption in Cambodia today has become crippling. In particular, the Hun Sen Administration has used bribery and coercion as a means to relegate opponents to impotent positions. This habit has meant that fresh ideas and perspectives have often been silenced because they might lead to criticisms of the regime, or worse. Furthermore, the use of such policies and practices has sustained the government even at the cost of the development of the state. Even from a purely political perspective, corruption has allowed Hun Sen and his allies to remain in office, leading to bureaucratic decay and all the problems that it comes with. Without intervention, the regime will be positioned to continue its authoritarian policies. If the status quo persists, the country’s leadership will continue with its current practices which will foster a climate with degraded opposition and poor economic and human growth.

More destructive than just the continued persistence of the Hun Sen regime is that of Hun Sen himself. Part of the administrative approach Vietnam took in Cambodia was predicated upon the idea that a coterie of former Khmer Rouge officials knew the land and people well enough to build a new government. In many ways, by the time Hun Sen emerged as president, he was the first amongst equals. Many of the other top officials in the regime had grown up with him in the Khmer Rouge movement, so there was a degree of both equality and cohesion. The men in senior positions in many cases had suffered the same tribulations and were betrayed by Pol Pot and his henchmen.  As a result, they were dedicated to their own success because failure could mean a reemergence of the Khmer Rouge. Under such circumstances, defeat might easily mean death.  More recently, though, as these various officials have aged, Hun Sen has begun to outlast a number of his contemporaries. Unfortunately, as his peers begin to fade away, the replacements lack the political legitimacy or clout to oppose Hun Sen’s ability to assume additional authorities. Cambodia’s political culture has engendered an environment that has allowed Hun Sen to gradually, almost glacially, acquire increased power.

Amidst all of the challenges to developing democratic institutions in Cambodia, there remains hope. The most recent presidential elections in 2013 stemmed the tide of increasingly dominant campaigns by Hun Sen, with the Cambodian people voicing their displeasure with the regime in Phnom Penh. Perhaps most importantly, a semblance of opposition has emerged in the form of the Cambodian National Rescue Party. Over two decades a variety of smaller groups have rallied around a platform focusing on the need to eliminate government corruption to form one entity in the hopes of finally amassing the votes needed to topple Hun Sen via the election process.  Unfortunately, such a disparate cross-section has struggled to maintain cohesion as Hun Sen has used bribery and coercion to encourage defections. Just months ago the face of Cambodia’s other political parties, Sam Rainsy, was seen celebrating the Cambodian new year with the same man who exiled him for most of this century, Hun Sen. This seeming about face raises serious questions about the CNRP’s most senior leader. Given the lack of leadership within the opposition, the most recent vote, in which the minority won 44.7% of the seats in parliament, is all the more surprising.  It further speaks to the likelihood that many in Cambodia are disheartened with the standing of their country. There is hope that this opposition will be more emboldened in 2018 when the next election is scheduled. The feasibility of this proposition lies in the Cambodian demographics.  The percentage of the population born after the Pol Pot era is constantly increasing. Youths in Phom Penh and elsewhere across the state do not remember how miserable life used to be. Consequently, they do not accept such a minimalist government when they see their Thai and Vietnamese neighbors doing so well. Quite probably, it will be the demographic disconnect between Hun Sen and his people that creates the opportunity for regime change in the coming years.

Into the emerging gap in Cambodia’s political conscience an opportunity may be arising for the international community to foster transformation. The most recent election speaks to the potential for an evolution in its internal politics. For years, the Hun Sen regime has relied on the historical record as a means to encourage general acceptance of conduct that might otherwise be considered unsatisfactory. At the same time, given that the evolution in Cambodian domestic politics is, to a great extent, driven by population changes, only limited means to change the state’s current course exist. Rather, the international community might approach Hun Sen with a combination of both positive and negative reinforcements. For instance, interested parties could offer developmental assistance to Cambodia, provided there is greater foreign oversight to ensure aid is spent dollar-for-dollar on assistance programs. To increase the likelihood Hun Sen would accept this agreement the international community could attribute the aid to the work of the government, thereby adding to his domestic credibility. By contrast, if he chose to resist international assistance, the wider international community could seek to fund opposition parties and begin speaking out against the corruption and dirty politics of the current regime in Phnom Penh. This approach would both empower the government’s opponents while weakening Hun Sen’s credibility with the more globalized youth. Eventually change will come to Cambodia:  The question is to what extent the international community is willing to assist in managing change to ensure the most peaceful and smooth outcome.

Since Cambodia was given its independence from France over half a century ago, it has gone through tremendous upheaval. Granted, fairness requires a concession that under Hun Sen’s reign the country has enjoyed its greatest period of relative peace and prosperity. One must place this in perspective though. Countries such as Vietnam and China have both experienced significant tumult of their own during the same period, yet their governments are regarded as better than Cambodia’s at the very least. Clearly, the relativist argument that Hun Sen’s corruption is better than King Sihanouk’s ineptitude, Lon Nol’s civil war, and Pol Pot’s genocide is no longer acceptable for people born long after these other leaders’ times in power. Rather, young Cambodians are beginning to recognize that their country need not be destined to be the weak link of Southeast Asia. The challenge moving forward will be ensuring that, even with limited credible leadership amongst the opposition, people have the choice to signify their disapproval with Hun Sen at the ballot box. The international community must help with this process for if the current regime chooses to continue with underhanded political engineering, the consequences could be dire.  Developing processes and procedures to improve the transparency and therefore the credibility of the Cambodian political process will be vital in turning the current tide of authoritarianism.

About Davis Florick

Davis Florick is a Senior Fellow in the Security and Defence division. He recently completed his master's in East-West Studies at Creighton University and is a member of the 2015 Nuclear Scholars Initiative with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His foreign relations areas of concentration include, East Asia and the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union.