Hun Sen’s power grab guided by Cambodian history
Leader's lurch to one-party rule may take some inspiration from China's example, but the more apt comparison is to ex-King Norodom Sihanouk's 'golden age' strongman era
Cambodia has entered a new phase of one-party authoritarian rule, marking an end to the Southeast Asian nation’s dalliance with democracy. While many sense the country is taking a page from China’s strong state model, a reading of Cambodia’s own one-party history is a more useful guide.
From the early 1990s onwards, after the United Nations briefly took over the country’s governance to end decades of civil-war and install rule by law, there was at least the pretense of competitive, multiparty democracy.
Official results released on August 15 showed the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), which has been in power since 1979, took all 125 seats in the National Assembly at last month’s general election. For the first time in modern Cambodian politics, no other party will have a voice in parliament.
The result, of course, was all but expected. In November, the country’s only viable opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was dissolved after being accused of trying to overthrow the CPP government.
Without the CNRP, which nearly won the 2013 general election and made a strong showing at local level commune elections in 2017, there is no longer any oppositional force in Cambodia’s politics. Indeed, Cambodia is now officially a one-party state, more akin to China and Vietnam’s Communist Party-dominated governments than any Western democracy.
While all of this may seem a natural byproduct of Cambodia’s growing and close relations with China, now its most influential ally and largest provider of aid, Cambodian history arguably provides more useful analogies for understanding the recent dramatic shift to one-party rule.
Prime Minister Hun Sen is a keen articulator of history and understands well its potency in politics. Since the 1990s, the CPP has reminded voters that it was the party that overthrow the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 and has asserted that if it falls from power the country could return to civil war.
The CPP’s accusation that the US government was abetting the CNRP’s alleged “color revolution” conspiracy, the stated reason for its dissolution, was intended for Cambodians who remember that the US did assist in the rightist Lon Nol coup of 1970. The failure of his US-propped government paved the way for the murderous Khmer Rouge’s eventual ascendency.
Before last month’s election, Hun Sen even referenced Sam Sary, the father of ex-CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who allegedly took part in the so-called “Bangkok Plot” to overthrow the Sihanouk government – again with possible US involvement – in 1959. Sam Sary was most likely assassinated afterwards.
“The father betrayed the country, and our King Father could not bear that, and the traitor finally died, and now his son became a traitor by calling the army to rebel,” Hun Sen said at a speech in December referring to Sam Rainsy’s call on the armed forces to resist Hun Sen’s consolidation of power.
But historical readings cut both ways in Cambodia’s context. China may be the CPP’s beau ideal, but an equally interesting analogy is that of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, a political party-cum-mass movement that dominated Cambodian politics between 1955 and 1970.
Over that period, Sangkum won all four elections and each time took every single seat in the National Assembly. It did so without much opposition: at the 1958 election the only competitor, the communist Pracheachon, secured less than 500 votes.
Sangkum was originally formed by a merger of four political parties and provided a vehicle for king-cum-politician Norodom Sihanouk, who abdicated the throne in 1955 to control and steer national politics. His party made a point of destroying all of its opponents, either through force or enticement.
Charles Meyer, a former adviser to the now deceased Sihanouk, described Sangkum in his 1971 book “Behind The Khmer Smile”: “The movement’s main objective was the [other] parties’ extinction,” he wrote, adding that its other objective was “the rounding up of their members within a big body in which personal loyalty to [Sihanouk] would serve as doctrine.”
The Democratic Party, dominant before independence in 1954, formally dissolved itself in 1957 after facing violent government repression. Pracheachon fielded a handful of candidates at the 1962 election, but dissolved itself afterwards. Its members either joined Sangkum or fled to the jungle to join the rebel Khmer Rouge.
Similar to Sangkum’s co-optation of other party leaders into its broad movement, Hun Sen said on August 15 that he wants politicians from some of the 19 smaller parties that failed to win seats to serve as secretaries of state and in advisory positions to his next administration.
He also raised the possibility of holding informal forums where unrepresented smaller parties can discuss their policy ideas with him. “I want this informal forum to bear fruits from each party for the contributions to national development,” Hun Sen said according to local media.
Like Sangkum, Hun Sen’s CPP also habitually manufactures political defections to strategic effect. For instance, after last year’s dissolution of the CNRP, the CPP said most of the banned party’s elected officials could remain in their posts if they defected. Hundreds are thought to have done so.
Now, some analysts think the members of some of the smaller parties that failed to win seats at the July 29 election will also defect to the CPP with the promise of patronage positions.
Also similar to Sangkum, “the CPP under Hun Sen makes no secret of its aspiration to transcend party politics and dominate all political institutions,” says Astrid Norén-Nilsson, who teaches Southeast Asian affairs at Lund University in Sweden.
“The 1955 elections paved the way for an authoritarian political order with no real opposition – what seems to hold true for Cambodia also today,” she added.
Several senior military and police officials competed in last month’s election under the CPP’s banner, indicating a further politicization of the security apparatus, analysts say.
Politicization of the security forces had until now been largely informal, with a distinction between the party and military in terms of organization. But with senior military and police officials soon to be sworn in as CPP parliamentarians, this distinction will be gone.
Meanwhile, the heads of the judiciary and most civil service branches are members of the CPP’s internal committees. Dith Munty, the Supreme Court president who presided over the CNRP’s dissolution case, sits on the CPP’s elite permanent committee, while other senior judges are on its less powerful central committee.
Compared to 20 years ago, when the CPP was composed of several jostling and competitive leaders, Hun Sen is now firmly at the apex of the party’s hierarchy. Some analysts think recent political developments could be designed to facilitate a dynastic succession, with power eventually given to one of Hun Sen’s sons.
He is clearly building the case for dynastic politics. Hun Sen has spent considerable time and riches resurrecting the image of Sdech Kan, a 16th century ruler known as the “peasant king” who ascended to the throne through force.
“In recent years, the story has been revived by a new official cult extolling Kan’s achievements and linking them with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who, by subtle implication, is presented as the reincarnation of the lost king,” writes Sebastian Strangio in his book “Hun Sen’s Cambodia.”
The noted historian David Chandler says the CPP’s main doctrine appears to be “staying in power as an organization with Hun Sen at its head.” In his seminal “A History of Cambodia”, Chandler writes that Sihanouk treated “Cambodia as a personal fief, his subjects as children, and his opponents as traitors.”
Sihanouk closed down critical newspapers, intimidated voters and harassed opposition politicians, Chandler notes in his book. He characterizes the Sangkum period between 1955 and 1970 as “Sihanouk’s monopoly of political power.”
Again, the analogy to today’s Cambodia is clear. But can history inform about where Cambodia’s new one-party state might be headed?
For some, the Sangkum period marked Cambodia’s “golden age,” a time of peace, modernization, substantial infrastructure-building and a broadening culture of arts and education. The future historian looking back at present day Cambodia might come to the same conclusion.
Sihanouk’s Sangkum government was eventually ousted in a 1970 coup by his former loyalist Lon Nol. Chandler writes that the Sangkum era “unwittingly” set the agenda for the “chaos of the Khmer Republic, the horrors of [the Khmer Rouge], and the single-party politics of the post-revolutionary era.”
There are also salient differences between the Sangkum and CPP, whereby any analogy must also consider the “communist roots of the CPP,” says Norén-Nilsson.
Indeed, the political realities of today’s Cambodia were substantially shaped after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and during the Vietnamese-backed socialist government – controlled by the CPP, but under a different name – of the 1980s. It was then, not within the last few years, that the party’s tentacles stretched out to grip all areas of politics and the bureaucracy.
In the early 1990s, the UN was unable to disentangle the CPP from the military, the civil service and government agencies, leaving Cambodia with a nomenklatura state gilded by the free market and semi-regular elections. The CPP’s tentacles have only stretched out further since the 1990s.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that political developments over the last decade, when many thought democracy and oppositional politics were taking root, were misinterpreted by short-sighted optimism or merely a facade. But taking the country’s longer historical arc into consideration, Cambodia’s reversion to a one-party state was perhaps predictable, though not determined.
In 2009, Sihanouk himself described the CPP as the “younger sibling of Sangkum.” Almost a decade on and with Sihanouk’s death, the CPP has arguably transcended and outgrown Sangkum’s example.
According to Norén-Nilsson, the CPP has in fact gone even further than Sangkum in its domination of politics, saying that “the reach of Sihanouk’s power cannot be compared to that of the CPP today.”
“During the Sangkum [era], dissidents could if need be join the maquis [movement]. Today, there is literally is no forest to hide in. The CPP has established complete nationwide control, preempting online and offline dissent through every corner of the country.”