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Cambodia 2014: The continuation of the Hun Sen-Sam Rainsy political duel and the surge in social conflict

  1. Introduction

In late 2013 and early 2014, a lengthy series of working class protests broke out in several Cambodian towns and violent clashes with the police were the order of the day. The most serious episode occurred during the demonstration on January 4, 2014, when four protesters were killed, a countless number injured, and 23 workers, trade unionists, activists, and monks were also arrested. The workers, who mainly came from the textile and garment industries, were demanding better pay and working conditions and also complaining about discrimination against their organizations and trade union representatives.[1] The police used disproportionate force to stop all these spontaneous and unauthorized marches and to curb the attempts to damage factories or street furniture.[2]

The protesters immediately received strong support from the main opposition party, the CNRP (Cambodian National Rescue Party), whose leader, Sam Rainsy, hoped to discredit Prime Minister Hun Sen and force him to resign.

The violence also gave the western press their chance to re-voice their complaints against the Cambodian leader, Hun Sen. At best, he was labelled as an «authoritarian leader»,[3] while in the worst cases, he was the «long-serving prime minister-dictator».[4] The Asian and national press opted for a more cautious approach and made use of milder sounding expressions such as «the strong men leader».

In recent years, the Cambodian Prime Minister has undoubtedly maintained stubborn control over the main nerve centres of power. The Cambodian power issue and Hun Sen’s iron-fist rule are amply discussed in Sebastian Strangio’s latest biography about Premier.[5] Moreover, evidence suggests that Hun Sen has actively lobbied to restrict freedom of information and to marginalize the opposition parties. Indeed, a number of reasons make it probable that Hun Sen will maintain his firm grip on the country for many years to come. First of all, he has placed his most trusted men – and his sons – in key positions in the armed forces, and his reform of the justice system also appears to have been designed to keep him in power. Furthermore, he has also recently managed to cut the hostile factions within his own party, the Kanakpak Pracheachon Kampuchea(Cambodia Peoples’ Party, CPP) down to size. And finally, in 2014, during the clamorous absence of the party chairman, Chea Sim, Hun Sen took over party leadership on the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the CCP.[6]

Nevertheless, already back in autumn 2013, after his narrow victory in the July 2013 elections, the Prime Minister had had to deal with strong parliamentary opposition from the CNRP, which could count on international political and economic backing, especially from the United States and European Union. The main opposition party started to actively support the major unions and the workers’ protests. No doubt, these protests were caused by the workers’ precarious working conditions; the CNRP, however, did their best to push these protests to the limit, less with the aim to improve the workers’ conditions than force Hun Sen to resign.

All in all, the workers did manage to get a pay increase, but little has changed as regards their working conditions in general. For their part, the opposition parties have never been able to dent the legitimacy of Hun Sen’s power. In fact, even during the difficult 2014 period, the Prime Minister could always count on two unquestionable advantages. First of all, the country was making clear progress and seemed to be in a phase of apparently unstoppable economic development, as shown by the exceptional reduction in poverty rates in the period between 2004 and 2012, which gradually went down from 53.2% to 18.6%,[7] and had already reached the threshold of the Millennium Development Goals in 2011.[8] In addition, even though 2014 was such a difficult year, there was a continuous growth in national and per capita wealth (GDP + 7.2%)[9].

A number of analysts have used these data to try and explain the relationship between economic development and the Cambodian authoritarian drift. Two main schools of thoughts have arisen regarding the issue: the first offers a culturalist explanation, while the other considers tradition as having little or nothing to do with the rise of authoritarianism. For the former school, the authoritarian regime is the result of Cambodia’s long history of monarchical tradition and centralized power,[10] which makes it difficult for democratic forms to develop within the Cambodian system. On the contrary, the latter group suggests that the regime has taken its present shape as this is functional to the in loco implementation of neoliberal policies.[11] In fact, this system has given birth to a development model, largely based on foreign investment and on export oriented manufacturing, which needs «order» and «stability» to be effective. In other words, investors must be able to count on an environment where production costs are low and there is little danger of social conflict.

With this introduction in mind, our analysis begins with the origins of the workers’ protests and the resulting consequences for Cambodian politics and society in 2014. The second part of the present chapter deals with international relations, with particular regard to Cambodia’s increasingly strong links with China. Finally, the tensions that arose with Thailand, after the coup of May 2014, and the differences with Australia, following Canberra’s decision to transfer political refugees to Cambodia will be discussed.

  1. The origin of the protests and the political consequences

There are basically two motives behind the protests carried out by Cambodian workers from Autumn 2013 onwards: the poor working conditions in the garment factories,[12] and the strong support the workers received from the main opposition party, after the July 2013 election campaign.

In order to illustrate just how these protest movements gathered momentum and eventually erupted in the epiphenomenal violence of January 2014, the first part of the present section studies working conditions in Cambodia, while the second part focuses on the political exploitation of workers.

2.1. The textile industries and social conflicts

From the mid-nineties onwards, in the aftermath of the peace agreements of 1991 and after the so-called UN-led peacekeeping mission in 1992-93, Cambodia became a political laboratory of neoliberalism. The government that was established in the post-Pol Pot era was headed not by one but by two Prime Ministers: Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen. Under the auspices of the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the WB (World Bank), and the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD), it set up an institutional framework that was capable of creating the perfect environment to attract foreign investment. As a result, over the next few years, the Cambodian government created several special economic zones, where many of the leading garment manufacturers based their factories.

Cambodia soon achieved a substantial FDI (Foreign Direct Investment), since it had a lot to offer investors, not least the low wages and practically non-existent trades unions. Then, there were numerous benefits and sizeable tax exemptions, as well as the liberalization of the country’s economy and its entry into the WTO (2004). Over 85% of Cambodian garment factories are controlled by overseas investors (Singapore, China, Malaysia, Taiwan)[13] and produce clothes for several major international brands.

In fact, any manufacturers who set up a company in Cambodia are entitled to tax exemption for the first five years. Most of these factories have either been built in the central provinces or near to the port city of Sihanoukville.

However, although the creation of these industrial districts has allowed Cambodia to increase its national wealth, it has also given rise to a number of social problems that the government has found difficult to control. For example, the country has to face the challenges of uncontrolled urbanization, the massive and sudden depopulation of the countryside, and also deal with a welfare system that offers no rights to workers when they stop working. The situation further deteriorated in 2008 and 2009, when the international economic crisis caused a slowdown in exports that led to the dismissal of 60,000 workers, while a further 30,000 had their working hours reduced. When one realizes that the number of workers employed in the textile/clothing industries in 2008 was just over 360,000, it follows that, in less than a year, a quarter of the workforce had been affected. Today, the garment industry remains a key pillar of Cambodia’s economy. There are approximately 558 garment factories, employing over 475,000 people.[14]More than 95% of the workers are young women, who send 30-50% of their wages home to their families, and hence it is estimated that about 1.7 million Cambodians depend on these industries.[15]

In such a context, it is easy to see that any export fluctuations or, more generally, any turbulence in international markets has immediate consequences for the workers. This was one of the reasons underlying the continual demonstrations by workers in the crisis years (2008/2009), which, by the way, were normally quite peaceful affairs (Table 1). Moreover, as mentioned before, the protests always brought the government to take some kind of perfunctory action in favour of the workers, although the minimal pay rises and the introduction of new legislation actually did very little to improve the welfare system.

Table 1

Number of strikes in the textile / clothing industry

year strikes
2008 105
2009 58
2010 45
2011 34
2012 121
2013 147
2014 86 till October 2014
Source: Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia


The data regarding the number of strikes provide a clear picture of the unrest in the country. This not only intensified in periods of economic crisis, like 2008, but also between 2012 and 2013, when production and employment levels were not really such a cause for concern. This suggests that the increase in outbreaks of trouble was linked to a worsening in working conditions. Although the figures in the table only refer to the period up to the month of October 2014, local papers reported that the protests continued until mid-November, when the government announced a new minimum wage increase to be effective from 1 January, 2015.

The news reports describing the Cambodian strikes reveal the numerous reasons behind the protests: the exhausting shift work; pressure from employers; forced redundancy for pregnant employees; the different terms of employment from factory to factory, and the general lack of decent working conditions. Furthermore, many problems were also due to the division in the trades unions, which was a repercussion of the split between the major political parties. Of the 362 garment factories monitored by the ILO, 29% had no registered union, 42% only one union, a further 17% two unions, 12% three or more unions.[16]

The workers’ protests and demands placed the Cambodian government in a difficult position.[17]Despite its willingness to take its seat at the bargaining table, it now had to deal with international pressure to guarantee the workers’ right to trade union representation, and also tackle the threats from the multinational corporations to outsource production.

2.2. CNRP mobilization against the CPP

The CNRP leader Sam Rainsy and his populist promises certainly conditioned the campaign for the 28 July 2013 elections, and, from this time onwards, the workers’ protests received backing from the opposition parties. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy had only returned to Cambodia on the eve of the election, after a time spent abroad to avoid serving a prison sentence imposed in 2010. During his exile, he had managed to gain the support of Catherine Ashton, the European Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, as well as the European Parliament, and the Congress in Washington. The moral suasion used by the great Western powers against the government in Phnom Penh resulted in an unexpected pardon for the opposition leader on 12 July 2013, and his immediate return to Phnom Penh. Although he had very little time to organize his campaign, Sam still managed to mobilize his supporters by making a series of electoral promises. These included the doubling of the minimum wage for all workers, a pension increase, reduced fuel, fertilizer, and electricity costs, and also medical care for the poor.

National and international observers monitored the elections on 28 July 2013, which were held in a peaceful manner. Hun Sen’s party was declared victor,[18] with 48.8% of the vote. However, this was less than a decisive victory, as the CNRP gained almost as big a share of the popular vote, namely 44.6%, which was a mere four percentage points less than the winner.

Immediately after the election, the CNRP questioned the validity of the vote. They denounced cases of electoral fraud and irregularities and staged a parliament walkout, calling on voters to take to the streets in protest. Meanwhile, on 23 September 2013, Hun Sen was asked by the King to form a new government, and, on 24 September, obtained the vote of confidence from the Lower House.

September 2013, therefore, marked the start of a long protest by the CNRP, who refused to sit in the National Assembly. They also did their best to instigate the workers to take to the streets to demand higher wages and force the government to resign. Demonstrations started to spring up in every town and especially in Phnom Penh, the scene of huge protest marches and ever-increasing tension between the police and the protesters. In December 2013, the CNRP announced that the protests would not end and that there would be non-stop demonstrations, with permanent sit-ins in the town squares, until Hun Sen handed in his resignation.[19] The various attempts on the part of the Prime Minister to meet with Sam Rainsy all came to nothing, until the tentative offer of the CNRP to sit down and negotiate with the CPP, on 1 January 2014.[20]

Over the next few days, the news was filled with reports of the army’s use of violence to repress the demonstrations and the deployment of a special fully armed unit to arrest protestors. Indeed, this was the first time the Special Forces Airborne Unit 911 had been used against demonstrators, when it arrested, among others, five monks.[21] In answer to the ensuing public outcry, a police spokesman said that the arrested protesters had been caught trying to destroy some factories.[22]

In the face of this violence, the CNRP refused to take part in negotiations with the CPP, and the political stalemate continued.[23] On 2 January, 2014 the workers returned to work, putting an end to a long and tiring week of strikes.[24] However, a large group of protesters continued to occupy Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, the scene of the permanent sit-ins, and they never stopped organizing protest marches or traffic blocks in all the main streets of the town. On 3 January 2014, the police attacked a march organized near a factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, and things came to a dramatic end. Three or four people were killed (although police sources give the number as being just one[25]), 23 activists were arrested, and a significant number of people were injured. The body of one wounded man now presumed dead has never been found.

2.3. The political stalemate after the violence

The days immediately following the violence were tension-filled. Several diplomats, including those from China[26] and Japan[27], asked the two conflicting parties to resume talks. On 4 January 2014, the army dispersed the permanent rally in Freedom Park and removed the protesters.[28]

The whole situation was extremely embarrassing for many of the big-name brands, whose clothes and shoes were manufactured in Cambodia, and they agreed to adopt major wage concessions.[29] This was also the period when thousands of activists, with the help of the social media, organized protests against Cambodian violence in all parts of the world (in Bangkok and Hong Kong on 10 January 2014, and in London on 13 January 2014).

Sam Rainsy, along with Kem Sokha, member of parliament and deputy chairman of the CNRP (an experienced democratic politician who founded the Human Rights Party in 2007), organized a number of sit-ins to commemorate the workers who had died in the struggles. However, it was not long before they were summoned to court on charges of inciting the protests and encouraging the use of violence against the police. Naturally enough, these accusations only served to increase tensions.[30]

While the government hastened to announce that 85% of the workers had returned to work,[31]the United States officially declared its outrage over the events. Furthermore, the Chinese government expressed its hope for a peaceful solution to the conflict between the two Cambodian parties.[32] In the days following the violence, despite several reports of a series of more or less secret meetings between Hun Sen and the opposition leaders, nothing concrete ever happened.

A situation of extreme tension between the government and the opposition forces came into being. On several occasions, the CNRP announced the organization of further sit-ins and protests, while the government’s answer was to close Freedom Park and ban demonstrations. The media, mostly in line with the government, tried to lighten the mood in the country, by highlighting news about other events that had nothing to do with the protest movements. For example, ample space was given in all the papers, both before and after his trip, to the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s two-day official visit from January 12 to 14. Then again, the benefits Cambodia would receive from the strengthening of bilateral relations with Vietnam, including the construction of a new bridge across the Mekong, close to the border, filled the newspaper, trying to convey a picture of everyday normality. Hun Sen used the National Bank of Cambodia’s announcement of an improved GDP growth rate of 7% in 2013 to remind the people that this increase was thanks to his government. Also, in most of his many public speeches, Hun Sen never failed to mention, among other things, the 69% increase in domestic and foreign investment projects, as compared to 2013, valued at 4.9 billion US dollars.[33]

As regards the clampdown on violence, Hun Sen declared on more than one occasion that he had no intention of relinquishing his mandate or resigning. At the same time, he accused the members of the CNRP of conspiring to destabilize the country.[34]

2.4. Small steps towards an agreement between the CPP and the CNRP

The stalemate between the CPP and CNRP parties became even more worrying in the next few months. Both groups seemed intent on pursuing a policy of brinkmanship, which would have gradually brought them to a point of no return. If they were to return to parliament, the CNRP required a series of their demands to be unequivocally met: vice-presidency of the National Assembly; their own TV channel; and a joint Committee on electoral reform.[35] But, according to unofficial sources – records of the meetings were never made public – any eventual concessions made by the CPP were continually met with further demands from the CNRP, with their ultimate request being for new elections, which was totally unacceptable to Hun Sen and his party.[36] At the same time, CNRP supporters continued to demonstrate, which led to the enforcement of crowd control measures and, in some cases, further episodes of police brutality.[37]

For his part, Hun Sen officially asked the UN to appoint a mediator to negotiate with the opposition and convince the CNRP to discuss reforms in parliament and not on the streets.[38] In the eyes of analysts like Kem Ley, Hun Sen’s request for a UN envoy was a politically risky move, because he did not involve the King.[39] From a constitutional point of view, the King was responsible for settling all disputes of a political nature.

On February 5, against an extremely complex backdrop, with the two parties unable to come to an agreement, Hun Sen promoted 29 officers to the highest rank of 4-star generals. This brought the Cambodian armed forces to count around 2,200 generals, and indicated Hun Sen’s desire to give further strength to the military leaders within the existing delicate political context.[40] In fact, the Prime Minister was sending a very strong message to the armed forces and all his possible opponents, following Sam Rainsy’s repeated attempts to induce the soldiers to side with the workers during demonstrations.[41] It is worth remembering that Hun Sen had only had full control over the army for a relatively short time; in fact, until 2009, the army had been under the command of the Generals who were close supporters of Chea Sim and Sar Kheng, two of Hun Sen’s leading opponents inside the CPP.[42]

This being the situation, the deadlock could not be broken. The CPP wanted to go beyond the other party’s call for early elections and, only if this hurdle could be overcome, were they willing to tackle the CNRP’s other requests, such as the reform of the NEC (National Election Committee), the body responsible for overseeing the legality of electoral processes.

Months passed before an agreement was reached on who should be part of the NEC, and the event was overshadowed by several disputes in the national and international courts. In fact, on 21 March 2014, around 20 Cambodian human rights groups and victims filed a complaint against Hun Sen at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.[43] On his part, on 7 April 2014, Hun Sen accused Sam Rainsy of having insulted the King, an offence which carried a year’s prison sentence.[44] Meanwhile, the demonstrations and workers’ protests went on, notwithstanding the ban imposed by the authorities. On 15 July 2014, the police dispersed the demonstrators, several people were injured[45] and seven members of parliament were arrested for insurrection, namely a charge which could carry up to 30 years in jail.[46]

Ultimately, when it seemed that nothing could break the impasse, July 22, 2014 saw the announcement of the historic agreement between the two parties and the CNRP ending its boycott of the National Assembly.[47] The CNRP obtained the release from prison of seven politicians and an activist,[48] Freedom Park was re-opened, and the ban on demonstrations was lifted. According to the agreement, Kem Socka, the No. 2 of the CNRP, became the first vice-president of the National Assembly, and his party obtained the chairmanship of five of the ten parliamentary commissions, including the one on anti corruption.[49] Finally, the two sides managed to agree on the composition of the NEC, with four members from the CPP, four from the CNRP, and another to be chosen by mutual agreement between the two parties. [50]

2.4. What the workers achieved

The long series of protest movements during these struggles brought the workers a small number of quite important benefits:

– Wage increases; [51]

– A government pledge to revise the minimum wage system;

– Suspension of union registration by the government;

– Renewed push for a trade union law;[52]

Wages: on May 1, 2013, when the electoral campaign was in full swing, Hun Sen’s government established the Labour Advisory Committee and set up a tripartite bargaining system to negotiate wages with unions and companies.[53] This led to a minimum wage increase equivalent to US$15 in 2013, which brought minimum wages up to the equivalent of US$80 a month; Moreover, a further increase in minimum wages, which brought them up to the equivalent of US$95 was assured starting with December 2013. The promise was maintained, and an extra $5 was added for health care benefits, to be effective as of February 2014. Despite this concession, the Ministry of Commerce’s statistics show that garment and footwear exports from Cambodia grew by $560 million or 12% in 2013.[54]

The workers, who never completely put an end to their protests, managed to elicit a further 28% increase in November 2014, bringing the minimum wage to the equivalent of US$128, as of January 1, 2015.[55] In actual fact, this increase was not to everyone’s liking as some unions had asked for as much as $140. Moreover, the repression of the demonstrations in January 2014 led to the spontaneous formation of several unions, especially on the social networks. Many of these unions also have the backing of NGOs and international solidarity groups and have continued to pressurize the government to bring the threshold to $177. [56]

Apart from these wage increases, little has changed regarding the other parameters that measure the quality of the working environment and the recognition of workers’ contracts by the factories.[57] Furthermore, trade union legislation has yet to be discussed in Parliament.

2.5. Increased support for the CNRP and the budget

Urban workers and rural population continued their protests in the months following the agreement between the CPP and CNRP. The former group was intent on gaining further wage increases, while the latter challenged the state’s illegal expropriation of land. Then there were the CNRP supporters who never stopped lobbying the government to ensure that the agreements reached in July 2014 were put into force. The farmers whose lands had been expropriated staged a sensational protest at Phnom Penh airport on the eve of Hun Sen’s departure for the Myanmar summit of ASEAN countries. They turned up with huge banners that expressed their message of SOS to the whole world.[58] This was much the same protest as the one in 2012, when the US President Barack Obama came to the capital. Two years later, the problem of illegal expropriation had still to be solved.

Once again, in early November 2014, numerous activists, monks, and CNRP politicians were arrested for having taken part in unauthorized demonstrations or for resisting a public officer.[59]

From a political point of view, the 2014 protests undoubtedly allowed the CNRP to strengthen its status and brought about a democratic rebalancing in parliament. In fact, in November, the process of approving NEC regulations was set underway at the National Assembly, and a decree was issued that assigned a TV channel to the CNRP. The CNRP also played an essential role in the elaboration and approval of two important laws: an amendment to the constitution and the 2015 budget. The former elevated the country’s opposition party leader to a legislative rank on par with Prime Minister Hun Sen, and National Assembly lawmakers voted to allow Sam Rainsy to become the house minority leader with 102 votes in favour of the move from members of both the CPP and CNRP.[60] The second important matter was the approval of the 2015 budget, which the opposition’s votes helped to pass at the end of November. The new budget had a radically different allocation of expenses compared to the previous one. The overall 2015 budget amounts to $3.9 billion compared with the 2014 budget of $3.4 billion.[61] Some $536 million of the total budget will be allocated to defence and security, an increase of $68 million from this year’s $468 million. However, the main change in the budget regards the areas of Education and Health. Education will receive $453 million, an increase of $118million from the current $335 million, while the health sector will receive $324 million, up from this year’s $244 million.[62]

  1. International relations

When Hun Sen’s aspirations of getting a permanent seat on the UN Security Council went up in smoke in 2013, the Cambodian government’s international policy in 2014 was to follow two main directions. First of all, it adopted a policy of non-alignment with the major powers and the main donor countries (China, Japan and US), in line with a tradition that dated back to the policies of Norodom Sihanouk. Then, there was the attempt to further relations with the ASEAN countries and, in particular, with the reinvigorated CLV development triangle (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam).[63] Moreover, ever since 2014, when Cambodian foreign relations were at their weakest, on account of the international outrage over the violent repression of the workers’ protests, the country has always been able to count on increasing political and economic support from China. In addition, during the months of political deadlock, the country was also faced with two international crises. The first was caused by the difficult relations with the new Thai military junta which had seized power in Bangkok on May 22; the second was triggered by Australia sending its Rohingya refugees to Cambodia.

The following paragraphs will be limited to the analysis of the increasingly symbiotic relationship between Cambodia and China, the USA’s loss of appeal, and a description of the crises with Thailand and Australia respectively.

3.1. Relations with key donor countriesChina and the USA

2008 marked the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations with China and the event was celebrated in great pomp and ceremony. Ever since, relations between Phnom Penh and Beijing have been growing hand over fist. Indeed, China has become Cambodia’s top foreign investor and most generous donor. As a result, the strong ties between the Cambodian government and the United States, established back in 1991, were weakened and, indeed, the latter gradually lost all its former appeal.

In 2014, Beijing was not only ready to offer Hun Sen economic aid and investments, but it also provided constant political backing, especially during the months of political deadlock, when Cambodia was under such harsh criticism from the West. China had also sent political and financial aid to the Phnom Penh government when 1,500 Chinese refugees had sought asylum in Cambodia to escape the threats and violence they had suffered in Vietnam. The anti-Chinese demonstrations and protests against employers and workers had been sparked off in several Vietnamese provinces in May, after the Chinese government had chosen to erect an oil rig in disputed waters off the Spratly islands.[64]

From an economic point of view, Chinese FDI, which in 2012 amounted to US$263 million, went up to the US$427million in 2013.[65] It appears that Chinese aid and investment were still in place in 2014, although there is a lack of official data. Chinese aid and loans have been used by the Cambodian government to support both private investment, especially in the garment and in the land and resource sector, as well as state owned enterprises (SOEs) in the hydropower sector.[66]

Expectations for Cambodia in 2015 are even more optimistic. In fact, after Hun Sen’s brief official visit to Beijing in November 2014, China made the decision to allocate aid and loans to Cambodia amounting to between US$500 and 700 million.[67] The first part of this aid was formalized during Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi’s visit on 31 December 2014, with the allocation of 700 million yuan aid (about US$112.7 million) in grants and 200 million yuan (US$32.2 million) in interest-free loans.[68] The sum is further increased by the aid that China intends to provide for the building of infrastructures and for poverty alleviation in the Great Mekong Subregion.[69]

In addition, military cooperation between the two countries was further strengthened on May 12, 2014, when Cambodia sent more than 400 of its military officials to China to receive training.[70] A few days later, on May 18, Hun Sen flew to Shanghai to attend the 4th Summit of Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). The alignment between China and Cambodia became all the more obvious on 20 November 2014, when the Cambodian delegation at the UN abstained from voting a historic resolution encouraging international action on the abysmal state of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.[71]

In recent years, Cambodia has accepted Chinese aid with open arms, because of China’s declared policy not to interfere in other countries’ internal policies. From this point of view, the US and Western donors have found it extremely difficult to exercise soft power on Cambodia, on account of the conditionalities that they pose.[72]

The US economic crisis also led to a reduction in financial aid from Washington. The amount funded by the Americans was far less than Chinese economic support, and therefore utilized for far smaller (compared to the Chinese) cooperation programmes in various sectors. In particular, one of these projects was the LMI (Lower Mekong Initiative), a cooperation program launched and funded by the US in 2009 to create an alternative platform to the GSM (Greater Mekong Sub-region), in order to counter the growing dominance of China in the region.[73]

In July 2010, the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cambodia provided an occasion to try and restore the American image in Cambodia. Accordingly celebrations were held with great pomp and ceremony at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh. The US authorities were convinced that the political and cultural events which they had organized would show the Cambodians that America was still close to their country. Moreover, this was a chance to regain at least a small part of the appeal that the USA had gradually lost under the onslaught of massive Chinese aid.[74] In the words of the US Ambassador Carol Rodley, the goal at that time was to «enhance the investments in infrastructure and in human capital that the United States had made in Cambodia in the fifties».[75]

At the same time, however, the US continued to put pressure on Hun Sen’s government by continuously demanding the repayment of loans that the Washington government had made to Marshal Lon Nol’s government in 1970. There was a widespread belief that Lon Nol, whose coup had ousted Sihanouk in 1970, had seized power with the help of the CIA.[76] He had incurred debts with his American patrons, whose interest rates had caused to rise from an initial $162 million dollars in 2010 to $321 million.[77]

On the subject of returning these loans, Hun Sen has always tried to postpone and sideline the issue. During a meeting with US Congressman Eni Faleomavaega, on January 7, 2010, to celebrate the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, Hun Sen said: «Cambodia is delighted to cooperate with the US in various sectors and welcomes Obama’s new commitment in Asia». «However, – he warned –, if the question of debt were to be revealed to the general public, it could lead to a number of real risks. It would, therefore, be necessary to devise a plan under which any loans returned to the US could be entirely reinvested in Cambodian development projects».[78]

During the Cambodian political crisis in 2013 and 2014, the US continually condemned Hun Sen’s authoritarian government, and even went as far as to stop all military aid.[79] On the other hand, however, it has never failed to lend support to the CNRP, its leader Sam Rainsy, and to the Cambodian community in the US, which is particularly linked to Sam. In this regard, it is also important to recall that the resolution to recognize the Khmer and Lao/Mong Freedom Fighters for supporting and defending the United States Armed Forces during the Vietnam War made rapid progress through US Congress in 2104.[80] It goes without saying that this American initiative will do little to improve trust in the relations between the USA and the Cambodian government.

3.2. Difficult relations with the new Thai Military Junta

On May 22, following the coup in Thailand, relations between the Cambodian government and the Thai Military Junta became extremely strained. The two neighbouring countries had been at odds for years over the border near the temple of Preah Vihear and the offshore one in the gas-rich Overlapping Claims Area (OCA)[81]. A further source of tension was provided by the Cambodian illegal immigrant workers in Thailand. Both issues had caused several diplomatic clashes, ever since the military junta had come to power in Thailand, and Cambodia had accused the Thai troops of erecting new barbed wire fences in front of the Preah Vihear temple.[82] For its part, the Bangkok junta had immediately condemned the Phnom Penh government for hosting a number of Thai political leaders, with the alleged purpose of forming a government in exile. The news, which was immediately denied by Hun Sen,[83] continued to circulate for much of the year, being made credible by the long-lasting friendship that existed between Hun Sen on one side and the Shinawatra brothers and some members of their entourage on the other.[84] Whatever the case may be, just a few weeks later, another even more serious problem occurred, with the mass exodus of Cambodian workers from Thailand. Thousands of immigrants returned home, afraid of the Junta’s clampdown on illegal immigrants in Thailand. Unconfirmed reports also indicated the death of some workers.

On 13 June, 2014, Cambodian government funds had already helped 40,000 workers to return home.[85] This number was to increase so rapidly, that, after a few days, sources spoke of 150,000-250,000 repatriated workers.[86] The immense size of this exodus brought the Cambodian government to lodge an official protest with the Junta, complaining about the persecution of Cambodian citizens, whatever their legal status, and also and, above all, because Phnom Penh had never been consulted in the matter.[87]

The first official meeting between the two foreign ministers took place on 1 July, 2014, when the Thai Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Sihasak Phuangketkeow came to Phnom Penh to discuss the migrant situation. The negotiated solution was the issue of a temporary work permit to the illegal migrant workers (at a cost of 1,305 Bath, equal to about three months pay for a common labourer). This managed to put an end to the workers’ panic and an unknown number returned to Thailand. The agreement also foresaw the release of prisoners in both Cambodia and Thailand and a promise from Prime Minister Hun Sen to lend no support to the opponents of the Thai Junta.[88]

3.3. The difficult negotiations with Australia as regards political refugees in Cambodia

In May 2014, the Australian government started negotiations with the Phnom Penh government to bring around 1,100 Rohingya refugees from the camp on the Island of Nauru to Cambodia. Myanmar’s Rohingya are a Muslim minority, who, just like the Kaman, had never been recognized by the Myanmar government. In June 2012, both groups suffered persecution by the Arakanese Buddhists and 25,000-30,000 took refuge in neighbouring countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia. Many of them then tried to reach Australia by makeshift boats, but the Canberra government often denied them entry and made them disembark on the Island of Nauru, which became an Australian funded refugee camp in 2001.[89]

The news of these negotiations infuriated several human rights groups and NGOs for two basic reasons. First of all, there was the Australian government’s restrictive refugee policy and the fact that no illegal immigrants had been accepted since 2008. And then, it was also true that Cambodia was a poor country, which could certainly not guarantee adequate care and protection for any refugees sent there.[90]

Ultimately, the issue of the Rohingya refugees reverberated on the already weakened Cambodian government, and Hun Sen came under further attack from the international press for his continued human rights violations and his inability to deal with the Vietnamese minority in Cambodia.[91] The police immediately suppressed the sit-in protest staged by a hundred Cambodians outside the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh, on September 27, 2014. The next day, September 28, Australia’s Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, and Cambodia’s Interior Minister, Sar Kheng, signed a Memorandum of Understanding stipulating that Cambodia was to resettle an unspecified number of refugees currently held in the Australian-run Nauru detention centre in exchange for an extra A$ (Australian dollars) 40 million (€ 27.49m) in aid over the next four years.[92] Negotiations between the two governments had been going on secretly for months, although the only news that transpired from a hastily-convened press conference was about the A$ 40 million the Cambodian government was to receive in return for its willingness to accommodate the refugees.[93] Eventually, under the relentless pressure from various human rights groups, during a bilateral meeting at the ASEAN summit in November 2014, Hun Sen and Prime Minister Tony Abbott signed an agreement that refugees would only be sent to Cambodia on a volunteer basis.[94]

Il 2014 in Cambogia è stato condizionato dall’acuirsi del conflitto sociale, alimentato dai lavoratori delle grandi industrie del tessile e dai contadini. I primi da anni portano avanti lotte per ottenere migliori condizioni di lavoro e garanzie sociali, mentre i contadini cercano, con difficoltà, di limitare il sistema pervasivo di espropri di terre da parte del governo, che vengono concesse alle multinazionali dell’edilizia o destinate alle culture intensive. Agli inizi dell’anno le proteste dei lavoratori venivano represse con la forza da parte dell’esercito e, il 4 gennaio, durante una manifestazione, alcuni attivisti rimanevano uccisi dalle forze dell’ordine e altri venivano arrestati. È stato questo l’apice di uno scontro politico tra il partito di maggioranza del primo ministro Hun Sen (CPP – Cambodian People’s Party) e quello di minoranza, CNRP (Cambodian National Rescue Party), guidato da Sam Rainsy, che era iniziato nel luglio del 2013 all’indomani delle elezioni legislative. Il CNRP, infatti, per contestare l’esito delle urne aveva deciso di non partecipare ai lavori parlamentari fino al momento in cui Hun Sen si fosse dimesso e si fossero decretate nuove elezioni. Di fronte a tali richieste, e per di più di fronte ai fatti luttuosi dell’inizio del 2014, lo stallo politico si è perpetuato fino al mese di luglio, quando i due partiti trovavano un insperato accordo. Gli operai, dal canto loro, riuscivano a ottenere, nell’arco di un anno, un incremento sostanziale dei loro salari, ma pochi miglioramenti dal punto di vista delle condizioni lavorative.

Anche nell’ambito delle relazioni internazionali, il governo di Hun Sen ha dovuto fronteggiare diversi elementi di crisi, ad iniziare dalle tensioni legate al colpo di stato in Thailandia, che ha deposto il governo amico di Shinawatra. In seguito alle minacce e alle pressioni della nuova giunta tailandese al potere, centinaia di migliaia di lavoratori cambogiani emigrati in Thailandia facevano ritorno in Cambogia. Tuttavia, Hun Sen, forte dell’appoggio politico ed economico del governo cinese, riusciva a trovare soluzioni diplomatiche per risolvere le tensioni e per instaurare con il governo militare tailandese rapporti di buon vicinato.


[1] The demonstrators also included low wage workers in petrol stations, transportation companies, brewery workers, and sanitation workers.

[2] On this more later.

[3] ‘Crack down in Cambodia’, The New York Times, 8 January 2014.

[4] ‘Cambodia Cracks Down on Protest With Evictions and Ban on Assembly’, The New York Times, 4 January 2014; ‘Crack down in Cambodia’, The New York Times, 8 January 2014.

[5] Sebastian Strangio, Hun Sens’s Cambodia, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014, p. XV. Sebastian Strangio, was a former reporter and deputy news editor for the English-language The Phnom Penh Post, one of the two newspapers published in English in Cambodia.

[6] ‘The slow demise of Hun Sen’s greatest CPP rival’, The Phonm Penh Post, 14 November 2014.

[7] The poverty rate in rural areas is still high, even though it has fallen from 59% to 22.2%, while it is extremely low in the towns. In Phnom Penh, for example, it affects 3.8% of the population. The poverty line is the cost of a food basket with a minimum amount of calories, plus an allowance for non-food consumption. Carlos Sobrado, Where have all the poor gone? Cambodia Poverty Assessment 2013, Phnom Penh: World Bank, February 2014 (

[8] The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is a development programme, elaborated by the United Nations in 2000. It has 8 objectives to be reached before 2015. The first of these was the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger (

[9] Enrique Aldaz-Carroll and Sodeth Ly, Cambodia Economic Update, October 2014, The World Bank (

[10] Among the scholars who favour the culturalist approach: Abdul Gaffar Peang-Meth, ‘Undemanding Cambodia’s political developments’, Contemporary Southeast Asia, n. 19, 1991, pp. 286-308; Stephan Heder, ‘Cambodia’s democratic transition to neoauthoritarianism’, Current History, n. 94, 1995, pp. 425-429. David Roberts, Political Transition in Cambodia 1991-99: Power Elitism and Democracy, Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2001; Alain Forest, ‘Pour comprendre l’histoire du Cambodge’, A. Forest (sous la direction de), Cambodge contemporain, Bangkok, Paris: Irasec, Les Indes Savantes, 2008, pp. 17-140.

[11] Among the scholars who see neo-liberal ideology as the cause for the slowing down of democracy: Caroline Hughes, The Political Economy of Cambodia’s transition, 1991-2001. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003; Simon Springer, Cambodia’s Neoliberal Order. Violence, authoritarianism, and the contestation of public space, London and New York: Routledge, 2010.

[12] Yoko Asuyama and Seiha Neou, ‘How Has the Cambodian Garment Industry Evolved?’, Fukunishi Takahiro (Ed.), Dynamics of the Garment Industry in Low-Income Countries: Experience of Asia and Africa (Interim Report), Chousakenkyu Houkokusho, IDE-JETRO, 2012.

[13] Jeroen Merk, Report. Living Wage in Asia, 2014. Clean Clothes Campaign, p. 8 (

[14] CCHR, Map of Garment Factories and Supply Chains, data gathered from GMAC and local media, May 2013, (

[15] Better Factories Cambodia, ILO, The garment industry, 2013

[16] ILO, better factories Cambodia, Thirty First Synthesis Report On Working Conditions In Cambodia’s Garment Sector, 2014, p. 8.

[17] ‘Cambodian garment strikers victimised as unions enter talks’, World Socialist Web Site, 1 October 2010 (

[18] ‘Gambit by CNRP an «all-in» move, The Phnom Penh Post, 16 December 2013.

[19] Ibid.

[20] ‘CNRP, CPP set table for meet’, The Phonm Penh Post, 1 January 2014.

[21] ‘Cambodian activist decry crackdown on strikers’, Agence France Presse, 2 January 2014.  Some accounts related to the threats and violence against the demonstrators are given in Kouth Sophak Chakrya, ‘Ven Sreng’s voices’, The Phnom Penh Post, 6 January 2014

[22] ‘Monks, labor leaders detained as Cambodian troops quash protest at garment factory’, Associated Press, 2 January 2014.

[23] ‘Cambodia’s opposition party suspend talk plan with ruling party, Xinhua News Agency, 2 January 2014.

[24] ‘Cambodian garment workers return to work as factory reopen’, Philippines News Agency, 2 January 2014.

[25] ‘Cambodian premier steps on curbs on opposition’, The Telegraph On line, 5 January 2014.

[26] ‘China calls on Cambodia Parties to settle problems through «friendly» talks’, BBC, 6 January 2014.

[27] ‘Statement by the Press Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, on Clashes between Demonstrators and Security Authorities in Cambodia’, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 8 January 2014 (

[28] ‘Cambodian police disperse opposition rally’, Agence France Press, 4 January 2014.

[29] ‘Global Brands Urge Renewed Talks in Cambodia’, WWD, 8 January 2014 (

[30] ‘Leadership of CNRP digging in’, The Phnom Penh Post, 6 January 2014.

[31] ‘Cambodia: Cambodian garment workers return to work’, Thai News Service, 6 January 2014.

[32] House Foreign Affairs Committee News Release, Chairman Royce Responds to Reports of Violence in Cambodia, Congressional Documents and Publications, 5 January 2014 (

[33] ‘Cambodia attracts 4.9 bln USD of investments in 2013: PM’, Philippines News Agency, 13 January 2014.

[34] ‘I will not resign: premier’, The Phonm Penh Post, 15 January 2014.

[35] ‘Political deal on horizon’, The Phonm Penh Post, 14 January 2014; ‘Cambodia govt, rival «hold secrets talks»’, The Straits Times, 15 January 2014.

[36] ‘Key demands lingers: Rainsy’, The Phonm Penh Post, 23 January 2014.

[37] ‘Cambodian Police Clash With Protesters’, Newswire Dow Jones, 26 January 2014; ‘Cambodia police use smoke granade to break up rally’, Agence France Press, 27 January 2014.

[38] ‘Hun Sen Asks UN Envoy to Help End Cambodia’s Political Crisis’, Government Publications and Press Releases, 15 January 2014.

[39] ‘CNRP looks to UN, King’, The Phnom Penh Post, 20 January 2014.

[40] ‘CNRP eyes March for «final» push’, The Phnom Penh Post, 13 January 2014.

[41] ‘Cambodian PM promote 29 to Four Star General’, Governement Publication and Press Releases, 5 February 2014.

[42] Nicola Mocci, ‘La Cambogia di Hun Sen, tra le pressioni degli Stati Uniti e gli aiuti della Cina’, Asia Maior 2013, p. 278.

[43] ‘Anti-Hun Sen filings piling up in Hague’, The Phnom Penh Post, 21 March 2014.

[44] ‘Cambodian gov’t considers lawsuit against opposition chief’, Xinhua News Agency, 7 April 2014.

[45] ‘Cambodian police fire tear gas to break up protest clashes’, Agence France Press, 15 July 2014.

[46] ‘Six Cambodian opposition politicians charged with insurrection’, Agence France Press, 16 July 2014.

[47] ‘Cambodians Reach Deal to End Political Deadlock’, Dow Jones Institutional News, 22 July 2014.

[48] ‘Cambodian court frees 8 opposition politicians on bail after political deal reached’, Xinhua News Agency, 22 July 2014.

[49] Until this agreement was reached, only CPP members chaired the 9 commissions.

[50] ‘Sam Rainsy Defends Opposition Deal with Cambodia’s Ruling Party’, Governement Publications and Press Releases, 23 July 2014.

[51] Article 104 of the Labour Law contemplates that the minimum wage is designed to «ensure every worker of a decent standard of living compatible with human dignity». The Arbitration Council Resolving collective Labour Disputes, Minimum wage determination in Cambodia, 30 November 2014 (

[52] ILO, better factories Cambodia, Thirty First Synthesis Report On Working Conditions In Cambodia’s Garment Sector, 2014 (

[53] The Labour Advisory committee is a tripartite institution that is composed of 14 government, 7 trade union and 7 employer representatives.

[54] ILO, better factories Cambodia, Thirty First Synthesis, p. 3.

[55] ‘Cambodian garment workers get $128 a month minimum wage’, CBCnews, 12 November 2014.

[56] ‘Cambodian garment workers demand higher minimum wage’,

[57] Ibid., p. 5, Graph 5, 6, 7, Table 3.

[58] ‘«SOS» to PM this time’, The Phnom Penh Post, 14 November 2014.

[59] ‘CNRP official arrested, charged’, The Phnom Penh Post, 12 November 2014; ‘Hundreds Demand Cambodia’s Parliament Push For Release of 16 Jailed’, Government Publications and Press Releases, 14 November 2014.

[60] ‘Cambodian Parliament Votes to Create House Minority Leader Post’, Government Publications and Press Releases, 19 December 2014.

[61] ‘Cambodia’s parliament approves $3.9 bil. budget for 2015, Kyodo, 29 November 2014.

[62] Ibid.

[63] ‘Eighth CLV summit affirms determination to enhance links’, Vietnam News Summary, 26 November 2014.

[64] ‘Anti-Chinese Violence Convulses Vietnam, Pitting Laborers Against Laborers’, The New York Times, 15 May 2014; ‘Factories burned in anti-China protest in Vietnam’, The Washington Post, 14 May 2014.

[65] ‘Chinese investment in Cambodia up in 2013’, Xinhua News Agency, 18 January 2014.

[66] For an in-depth analysis of the investment strategies of Chinese companies in Cambodia, see Daniel O’Neill, ‘Playing Risk: Chinese Foreign Direct Investment in Cambodia’, Contemporary Southeast Asia, 36, 2, August 2014, pp. 173-205.

[67] ‘China doles out more loans’, The Phnom Penh Post, 10 November 2014.

[68] ‘Chinese state councillor meets Cambodian PM, pledges continued support’, Xinhua News Agency, 31 December 2014.

[69] The offer includes 1bn U.S. dollars for infrastructure inter-connectivity, 490m dollars in grant for poverty alleviation and 1.6 bn dollars in special loans for China’s production capacity export. ‘China pledges 3bn-dollar aid to neighbouring countries at Mekong summit’, BBC Monitoring Asia Pacific, 20 December 2014. The Greater Mekong Subregion is a development project launched in 1992 by the Asian Development Bank, and includes the six countries bordering the Mekong river: Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and China.

[70] ‘Chinese training for Cambodian soldiers’, The Phnom Penh Post, 12 May 2014.

[71] ‘Kingdom abstains on NK vote’, The Phnom Penh Post, 20 November 2014.

[72] Julie Walz and Vijaya Ramachandran, Brave New World: A Literature Review of Emerging Donors and the Changing Nature of Foreign Assistance, Center for Global Development, Working Paper 273, November 2011

[73] LMI includes Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and US to cooperate in six pillar areas: agriculture and food security, connectivity, education, energy security, environment and water, and health (

[74] WikiLeaks, ‘Commemoration Of The 60th Anniversary Of U.s.’, 26 febbraio 2010.

[75] Ibid., §4.

[76] Alain Forest, ‘Pour comprendre l’histoire du Cambodge’, pp. 77-83.

[77] WikiLeaks, ‘Scenesetter For Senator Jim Webb Visit To Phnom Penh’, 11 agosto 2009; WikiLeaks, ‘CODEL Faleomavaega discusses debt, trade and future relations with cambodian leadership’, 19 gennaio 2010.

[78] Ibid.

[79] US Congress, ‘S.Res.271 – A resolution expressing the sense of the Senate that United States military assistance for Cambodia should be suspended until an independent and credible investigation occurs into the July 28, 2013, parliamentary elections, and election reforms are being implemented by the Government of Cambodia’, 16 October 2013 (

[80] US Congress, ‘S.Res.462 – A resolution recognizing the Khmer and Lao/Hmong Freedom Fighters of Cambodia and Laos for supporting and defending the United States Armed Forces during the conflict in Southeast Asia’, 24 July 2014 ( The ‘freedom fighters’ referred to US Congress resolution were the khmer and lao forces, who had been trained in the USA to fight against the Viet Minh, during the Vietnam war. In fact, to avoid being bombed by the Americans, the Viet Minh made use of the famous Ho Chi Min trail, which ran through the Laotian and Cambodian forests, to supply the troops fighting in South Vietnam.

[81] For details on Cambodian-Thai border dispute over the Preah Vihear temple, please refer to Charnvit Kasetsiri, Pou Sothirak, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Preah Vihear: A Guide to the Thai Cambodian Conflict and its Solutions, Bangkok: White Lotus, 2013.

[82] ‘Cambodia army asks Thailand to remove new barbed wire near Preah Vihear temple’, Xinhua News Agency, 2 June 2014.

[83] ‘Hun Sen: No Thai Shadow Government in Cambodia’, Thai News Service, 29 May 2014.

[84] ‘Cambodia – Hun Sen denies hiding reds’, Bangkok Post, 27 December 2014.

[85] ‘Thailand repatriates 40,000 illegal migrant workers back to Cambodia: official’, Xinhua News Agency, 13 June 2014.

[86] ‘More than 150,000 Cambodian flee jobs in Thailand post coup’, Agence France Presse, 16 June 2014.

[87] ‘Thai-Cambodia relations unlikely to improve under military rule, resolution on disputed offshore gas blocks also unlikely’, IHS Global Insight Daily Analysis, 24 June 2014; ‘Over 250,000 Cambodian migrant workers flee Thailand in fears of junta’s crackdown: PM’, Xinhua News Agency, 26 June 2014.

[88] ‘Cambodia promises not to support opponents of Thai junta’, dpa International Service in English, 2 July 2014.

[89] ‘Rohingya Refugees Ponder Future Minus Australia Option’, The Irrawaddy, 14 October 2014 ( The refugee camp on the Island of Nauru was set up in 2001, as a result of the Australian policy that came to be known as the «Pacific Solution». In this period, Howard’s government had intended to negotiate with the Pacific Islands to set up camps for refugees and asylum seekers who attempted to land on the Australian coast. In exchange for economic aid, the governments of Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Kiribati, Fiji, Palau, Tuvalu, Tonga and France (in relation to French Polynesia), had built structures, which all too often were ill-equipped to meet the numbers and needs of the refugees. Parliament of Australia, The «Pacific Solution» revisited: a statistical guide to the asylum seeker caseloads on Nauru and Manus Island, 4 September 2012. (;fileType=application%2Fpdf).

[90] ‘Cambodia is willing, but history shows it’s not able’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 May 2014 (

[91] ‘Concerns exist with Human rights in Cambodia’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 May 2014 (

[92] ‘Australia offers new home to its would-be migrants in…Cambodia’, The Independent, 28 September 2014 (

[93] ‘Refugee deal to bring $35m in aid’, The Phnom Penh Post, 26 September 2014.

[94] ‘Hun Sen and Tony Abbot affirm deal’, The Phnom Penh Post, 14 November 2014.


Giorgio Borsa

The Founder of Asia Maior

Università di Pavia

The "Cesare Bonacossa" Centre for the Study of Extra-European Peoples


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