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Cambodia 2015: 30 years of Hun Sen’s government and the progressive centralization of power

In 2015 Cambodia celebrated the anniversary of 30 years of Hun Sen’s government. This article argues that this anniversary coincided with a crisis of hegemony of both the leadership and the Hun Sen’s government. During 2015 Hun Sen tempted to face the crisis without a precise strategy. The most important was the so called «culture of dialogue» with the opposition coalition and its leader Sam Rainsy. In a first stage this dialogue was unexpectedly fruitful, but after a few months was interrupted and the two parties plunged in the traditional clash.

In terms of international relations, the Cambodian government has further strengthened its relations with China. The solid relationships with Beijing have allowed Phnom Penh an approach more assertive in respect of Vietnam and of others ASEAN members.

  1. Introduction

It is universally acknowledged that every anniversary is an opportunity to take stock and reflect on the past. For Cambodia, 2015 marked 30 years of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, 40 years since the beginning of the Pol Pot regime and 60 years since the Conference of Bandung.

The local and international press were most interested in the 30-year anniversary of Hun Sen’s government. In fact, Hun Sen is one of the most enduring prime ministers in the world and, given his young age, he seems to be set to rule for a long time. Such an anniversary presents a unique opportunity for us to take stock of past experiences. Due to the limited space of this article, we will confine our analysis to only some fragments of Hun Sen’s political biography.[1] The choice is limited to the elements that appear to be instrumental in analysing the recent political processes that are still in progress in Cambodia. Among these, we want to explore what appears to be the most important, namely the double crisis of hegemony of Hun Sen’s leadership and his party (Kanakpak Pracheachon Kampuchea, or Cambodia Peoples’ Party, CPP) – being «hegemony» defined in Gramscian terms.[2] The hegemonic crisis appears to have at least three specific elements. The first is the progressive damage to consensus, which was detected during the last elections of 2013 and brought the CPP to a loss of 22 seats in the National Assembly (the worst election result since 1998). The second is represented by the social conflict that, after years of alarm signals, exploded with great violence and virulence throughout the country after the elections of 2013. The government has responded with violence and repression. The third is the strengthening of parties and opposition movements, which has given voice to instances of democracy, employment protection, environmental protection and human rights, all of which have highlighted the criticality of the CPP.

On the basis of these elements, this article argues that Hun Sen tempted to face the crisis of hegemony of his leadership and his party without a precise strategy. In general, this is highlighted by his focus on strengthening and centralizing the control of the government and, above all, his party. In this way, Hun Sen became a single man in command, pursuing, although with varying results, a single objective: de-structuring that unity of purpose of labour, which, in latest years, has gradually taken place, although slowly and haltingly. The result was an alternation of openings, closures and repression against antagonists – parties, movements, politicians, activists, trade unionist or journalists. Reference is particularly made to the movements that, until a few years ago, were fragmented, spontaneous and amorphous, and that, in different forms, have reached moments of dialogue, cohesion and unity.

Hun Sen has attempted to face the crisis of hegemony by using the international lever. He has tried in every way to exploit China to show the positive economic impact that his government has achieved. The excellent relations with China, which are a source of unstoppable capital flow in Cambodia, have become a reason for triggering the daily rhetoric of the premier, which is always in third person, based on the «inalienability and indispensability of Hun Sen. Without Hun Sen, the country returns to civil war».[3]

In addressing the theme of the crisis of the hegemony of the leadership of Hun Sen and the CPP, in the first part of this article, we will analyse the internal dynamics of the party, the attempts of openness and Hun Sen’s dialogue with the different movements and opposition parties. In the second part, we will analyse the international relations, with particular reference to China’s great support. Finally, the last chapter will analyse the economic policy in the short and medium term.

  1. The renewal of the politburo of CPP after the death of the president Chea Sim

In June 2015, Hun Sen finally achieved one of his great political objectives – presidency of the CPP. On 6 June 2015, the president of the party, Chea Sim, died after a long illness. This certainly facilitated the turnover of Hun Sen and the renewal of the Central Committee of the CPP.

For a long time, analysts have discussed the opportunity to separate the roles of the government’s presidency and party leadership.[4] Hun Sen’s ascent to party leadership appeared to be obvious for two reasons. Firstly, he has never had full control of the CPP and has always experienced internal opposition factions, in particular those lead by the duo, Chea Sim and Sar Kheng. Secondly, at such a stage of the hegemonic crisis of CPP, the position of leadership, which was created by the death of Chea Sim, needed to be filled by a strong guide with control of the party. This was needed in order to manage the repositioning of the affiliates to Chea’s clan. Based on this premise, in the first part of this article, we will analyse the attitudes of Hun Sen within his own party, while, in the second, we will analyse the relations between the CPP and opposition parties.

2.1. Chea Sim, the main antagonist of Hun Sen

Historically, the CPP was composed of more cores, which were representatives of each broad clan, based on different territories. The two strongest clans were the one led by Hun Sen and the other led by Chea Sim. The third, which was led by Heng Samrin, the honorary president of the CPP and of the National Assembly, did not rival Hun Sen in the same way that Chea Sim group had.[5]

Chea Sim was born on 15 November 1932 to a peasant family in eastern Cambodia’s Svay Rieng province. In the early 1950s, he joined the Khmer Issarak[6], the revolutionary movement against colonial France. He was a cadre of the communist, Khmer Rouge, by the time it ousted a pro-American government in 1975.[7] In 1978, he abandoned the Khmers Rouges and fled Vietnam. In early 1979, he came back to Cambodia, following the Vietnamese troops, who had defeated the Khmers Rouges. Chea Sim was appointed Minister of the Interior of the Pro-Vietnamese Government, which was created in Phnom Penh. In this team, Hun Sen was Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Since 1979, Chea Sim built his power base in the northern region of Cambodia, in the province of Battambang. Here, his nephew, Ung Samy, acted as Secretary of the Party and, since 1987, as Governor of the Province.[8] Chea Sim also had other strong allies in the provinces of Siem Reap and Bantey Meanchey. However, one of his strengths was his control of the army – first, at the end of the 80s, through his close ally, Sin Song, Minister of the Interior, and, subsequently, through Sar Kheng, the current Minister of the Interior and Chea’s daughter’s husband.[9] The recruitment of the army of relatives, close allies and former paintings of Khmers Rouges guaranteed Chea Sim unparalleled strength in the party and government.

Hun Sen has always had a subaltern position against Chea. During the years of the first government, followed by the peace agreements of 1991 and the elections of 1993, the two leaders greatly clashed. Some U.S. diplomats’ documents, dating back to that period, reveal the resentment and tensions inside the CPP. These were so strong that Hun Sen was terrified by the news of a possible attack against him, which was published by a local newspaper. The Near-obsession, wrote that the U.S. diplomats had induced Hun Sen to establish a government commission of inquiry in order to discover a plot.[10] However, the prime minister had not entrusted the leadership of the commission to his Minister of the Interior, Sar Kheng, as it would have been natural to. Instead, he entrusted Co-Minister of the Interior, You Hockri, a member of the FUNCINPEC party (Front Uni National pour a Cambodia Indépendant, Neutral, Pacifique, et Coopératif).[11] This clearly shows that Hun Sen did not trust Sar Kheng.[12]

In 2004, after the 2003 legislative elections, there was great political conflict between Hun Sen and Chea Sim. In this period, the three parties that were most voted for – CPP, FUNCINPEC and Sam Rainsy Party  (SRP) – tried to reach an agreement in order to form a government coalition. Since Hun Sen did not commit himself to the FUNCINPEC, he proposed an amendment to the constitution, which would have allowed the vote of confidence to the government by show of hands, instead of in secret. In this way, he would have avoided any votes against the maverick party members of parliament. Chea Sim, as president of the Senate and acting behind the mandate of the King (who, in that period, was abroad) as head of state, had refused to promulgate the act, which greatly annoyed Hun Sen.[13] Chea Sim was forced to leave the country in order to take refuge in Thailand, although officially for a period of medical care.[14]

In the subsequent years, conflicts between the two clans continued. In 2011, the group of Chea Sim-Sar Kheng suffered a further setback, following a scandal involving a group of Chea Sim’s consultants. In the space of a few months, six members of staff were arrested, tried and sentenced for fraud and the illegal possession of arms and drugs.[15]

2.2. The Control of the armed forces by Hun Sen

Against the background of these events, we must not forget Hun Sen’s actions since the 90s to counter the hegemony that the Chea Sim clan has always had on the army. Legitimized by the overwhelming victory of the 2008 elections, Hun Sen made an important and significant move – the alternation of the commander in chief of the army, General Ke Kim Yan, whose daughter married the son of Sar Kheng.[16] In his place, Hun Sen appointed Pol Saroeun,[17] who had been his close crony since the 1980s. He also appointed six new generals, who were known to be close to the prime minister. His aim to control the army continued in 2012, when Hun Manith, his second son, was promoted to Brigadier General and Deputy Chief of Military Intelligence Unit (MIU).[18] In 2015, at the age of 34, Hun Manith, who was the country’s youngest four-star general, assumed the direction of the MIU.[19] Furthermore, Hun Sen’s eldest son, Manet, has also had a successful career in the armed forces. In 1999, he obtained his diploma in the prestigious U.S. military West Point Academy. Manet, who is currently Lieutenant Brigadier, commander of the 911 Airborne Brigade’s counter-terrorism unit, is regarded as one of the best candidates to succeed his father.[20]

Hun Sen has no chosen one of his sons to direct the intelligence in a period of political instability, marked by workers’ protests, tensions within the party and Islamic terrorism dangers.

Many of Hun Sen’s unprecedented announcements during 2015 have been in this context. The army was vigilant against such «coloured movements», which, displaying the principles of democratic alternation, want to overthrow the government.[21] In July, faced with an unprecedented audience formed by 5,000 members of the army and police, Hun Sen called on the armed forces to take immediate measures against any political group that was attempting to overthrow the «legitimate» regime.[22]

To complete the picture of the dynamics between the government and the armed forces, it is useful to cite a further element that was made public in 2015. Every year, the Royal Cambodian Armed forces receive financial backing from both local and foreign large companies. In a public discourse, the Minister of Defence, Tea Banh, stated that the number of companies that financed the armed forces had gone from 42 to 100.[23] Considering this admission, it is easier for us to understand why, during 2015, on many occasions, different chiefs of the armed forces openly guaranteed their loyalty to the CPP as opposed to the government. [24]

However, it is significant that at least nine deputy National Police commissioners, in addition to several powerful generals and military commanders – some of whom directly ordered crackdowns on political protests after the July 2013 election, were elected to the CPP central committee. These include Phnom Penh, Police Chief; Chhuon Sovann, RCAF Deputy Commander; Chief of the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit, Hing Bun Heang; and Phnom Penh Military Police Commander, Rath Sreang. [25]

2.3. The question of the Vice Presidency of the CPP

Immediately after the death of Chea Sim, Hun Sen was elected president of the CPP and Sar Kheng was elected vice president. It is important to note that Hun Sen did not wish for Sar Kheng to act in complete autonomy as vice president. He wanted Say Chhum, a faithful crony, to act with Sar Kheng.[26] Once again, this highlights how the prime minister did not trust Sar Kheng during the phase of transition and hegemonic crisis.

Say Chhum has been a crony of Hun Sen’s clan since the 1980s. After the death of Chea Sim, some political analysts maintained that he could be the next president of the CPP. Say Chhum was elected in the Kampong Speu constituency. In the 11th session of the first People’s Republic of Kampuchea, National Assembly on 25th July 1986, he was appointed Agriculture Ministry. In 1987, Hun Sen appointed him Deputy Prime Minister, together with Chhay Than, Minister of Finance; and Ho Non, Minister of Trade. In 1997, he was appointed Co-Minister of Interior and Secretary General of CPP. As a member of the Standing Commission of the Central Committee and chairman of the Organization Committee of the party, he has always played a role of mediation between the factions of the party, as well as between the CPP and opposition parties. Say Chhum was in the first row in the periods of political crisis, for example, in the period that followed the 1997 bomb attacks or after the elections of 2003, when he facilitated the dialogue with the opposition parties to find a coalition government agreement.

For these reasons, even before the elections of 2002, some of the press had declared that Say Chhum was one of the best candidates to challenge the premiership of Hun Sen, together with Sar Kheng, and Chea Sophara, Mayor of Phnom Penh. [27]

During the apparent renewal phase of the CPP, Say Chhum was confirmed to have taken the position of Secretary General, in addition to assuming the co-vice presidency.

2.4. The opening of the party to the young people

The Congress of CPP was opened in January 2015, a few months before the death of the party’s president, Chea Sim. The Congress was the ideal occasion to analyse the crisis of hegemony and identify the best strategies for addressing it. However, at least from what was officially reported, it addressed the need to rejuvenate the party and pay attention to the young people of the country. On this ground, the CPP is considered to have lost competition with the opposition’s parties and movements. Therefore, taking into account the fact that 68% of the population (14.8 million) is under 30 years of age, the party took into consideration the needs of young people. From this point of view, the party’s first act was to rejuvenate the Central Committee by adding 306 new members. This more than doubled the committee’s size to 545. Apparently, their goal has been achieved since 70 of these new members are under 50 years of age.[28] The second act was to entrust Hun Sen son, Many, with the task of creating a school of political formation for the young people. Besides arranging a delegation trip in China for the party’s young activists, it does not seem that Hun Many has organized any successful initiatives.[29] Furthermore, it is still not still known what modalities the CPP’s school of formation should operate and what themes will be addressed.

However, on closer inspection, the party’s opening to the young people appears to have been a populist announcement that has been devoid of effectiveness, especially in view of two important elements. The first element is related to the fact that the party’s crisis stemmed from their inability to represent the needs of an urbanized and poorly skilled young working class, as opposed to a generic category of an indeterminate class of young people. For a long time, the CPP have underestimated the strikes and demonstrations for better working conditions and in general to affirm a new subjectivity of the work and a social justice. Moreover, the recent period of violent repression of the world of labour and prohibitions of public protests and demonstrations have progressively pushed the party further away from the electorate.

The second element is at odds with the CPP’s new strategies – nepotism. This can be seen among the party’s elite and the government. In fact, at least a dozen of the party’s elders, in addition to the Hun Sen’s three sons, occupy positions of importance in all of the institutions.

  1. The «culture of dialogue»

Another difficulty of the CCP is Hun Sen’s attempt to converse with a multiplicity of political actors. These include large parties, like CNRP; his former friend-rival, Norodom Ranariddh; and small opposition movements such as Kem Ley’s Khmer for Khmer, Mam Sonando’s Beehive and Sourn Serey Ratha’s Khmer People’s Movement. [30]

At the beginning of January, Norodom Ranariddh announced his return to the guidance of FUNCINPEC. FUNCINPEC was founded by Ranariddh’s father, Norodom Sihanouk in 1981. In 2006, the party was expelled for the misappropriation of its funds. The royalist party almost entirely disappeared from the Cambodian political landscape. However, some members of the royal family have maintained a strong presence on the electorate. As such, Ranariddh seems certain to obtain strong support in the next municipal elections, which are scheduled in 2017. According to some analysts, the return of Ranariddh could be a move that was advocated by Hun Sen in order to create an alliance between the CPP and FUNCINPEC, in view of the parliamentary elections of 2018.[31]

In his tireless quest for consensus, Hun Sen has not only conversed with political actors but also, religious groups like the community of Muslims. It is estimated that the Islamic community in Cambodia accounts for about 600,000 Muslims. Consequently, it represents an interesting group of potential votes. On 31 May, in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen inaugurated the newest and greatest mosque in Cambodia during a ceremony that was participated by 1,000 people.[32] The following month, repeating an event that was started in 2014, the prime minister organized the iftar for 4,000 Muslims – the evening meal that breaks the fast of Ramadan.[33] Dialogue with the Cambodian Muslim community has allowed Hun Sen to establish closer relations with the South East Asian Muslim Countries such as Malaysia. It is worth noting that Hun Sen appointed Othman Hassan, President of the Cambodian Muslim Development Foundation, as State of Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, as well as Advisor to the prime minister.

However, the unprecedented dialogue that Hun Sen established with Sam Rainsy, the leader of the opposition coalition, had an even greater impact. This will be discussed in the next paragraph.

3.1. The Culture of Dialogue Between the CPP and CNRP

In April, during the celebrations for the new lunar year, after months of fighting, the CPP and the opposition coalition of CNRP started the so-called «culture of dialogue».[34] This political dialogue primarily focused on trying to find an agreement on a series of reforms. Among these were the electoral reform, the regulation of the trade unions and the regulation of the activities of the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). All of these reforms concerned very delicate subjects such as involvement in the world of labour and various categories of social actors, as well as international investors and the community of the donor countries. In the past, the government had attempted to deal with the rules of the trade unions and NGOs. However, on every occasion, there were local protests and international pressures to stop discussions in Parliament. In order to prevent any further criticism and avoid worsening the social conflict, Hun Sen wanted to enlarge the discussion boards by inviting the opposition parties and trade unions to negotiations.[35]

The regulation of NGOs (Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations – LANGO) that was strongly desired by the premier was the reform that immediately tested the culture of dialogue. In Cambodia, from 1991, after the intervention of the UNTAC, there was a growing organization. In 2015, there were about 5,000 local and international organizations and, on the whole, there were about 4,000 development projects operating with a total budget of approximately $600-700 million per year.[36] It is understandable that, with the substantial amount of money that the community of donors offer to Cambodia, there is a great interest in any intervention of the legislator on this matter.

The most controversial points of the draft law were related to the obligation that was imposed on the local NGOs to register at the Ministry of Interior and international at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In addition, organizations are required to regularly submit their work progress and financial reports.

Article 25 and 30 of the law states that any organization will be erased from the registration list if it fails to report to the ministries. Furthermore, it says that those that are not registered are «not allowed to conduct any activities» in Cambodia. Even if approved, «NGOs must be neutral towards all political parties» and the government can request full details of activities and finances if it deems it «necessary» to do so.[37]

The law proposal aroused numerous protests that stigmatized the desire of the government to impose a series of controls and restrictions on the activities of the NGOs, contemplating the closure in evidence of non-compliances and of serious violations.[38] Most of the NGOs – affirmed the opponents – are small associations that work in the countryside. Those in the countryside are more sensitive to the problem of land grabbing and, often, they do not have the expertise to meet all of the government’s requests.

Substantial amendments to the draft law were suggested by the UN, U.S. and EU. The parliament of the EU even threatened to freeze a sum of €700 million of aid to Cambodia in a case in which the law had been approved.[39]

In this context, the coalition of opposition and, in particular, Sam Rainsy, strangely remained silent. Sam Rainsy, who was trapped in the culture of dialogue, affirmed that: «The prime minister confirmed to me that civil society groups should not worry too much. Civil organizations that are in operation are not required to re-register. They will automatically be recognized.»[40]

On 13 July, the law was approved with some amendments, with respect to the initial draft, while the CNRP had not participated in the Parliament vote to protest. However, that same evening, when, on other occasions, opposition parties would have called a strong protest, Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy, together with their families, unexpectedly took dinner together. Pictures of the families of the two bitter enemies on the same table appeared on social media and aroused great international acclaim, in addition to discontent within the CNRP.[41]

3.1.1. Further cracks and the collapse of the culture of dialogue

Discontent inside the CNRP was repeated and made worst on 21 July, when 11 activists of the CNRP, who had participated in one of the numerous protests from the summer of 2014, were sentenced to seven years for fomenting an «insurrection», and 20 years for «leading an insurrection».[42] In the face of protests of the opposition parties and NGOs, Hun Sen stated that, to the contested offences, «The judges were far too lenient».[43] The premier also added: «It would have been appropriate also to arrest the other activists who had instigated the protest».[44] In fact, at the beginning of August, three more activists were arrested.

The day when the judgement was announced, Sam Rainsy was not in place to drive the protest, as expected by the militants, but left for France. Interviewed by a French newspaper on the condemnations, Sam still maintained low tones and stated that it was a gesticulation, namely the exaggerations of the judiciary. Sam also added that, in any case, the condemnations would not have undermined the culture of dialogue with CPP.[45]

After that particular interview, it was clear that the intolerance of the members of the CNRP in respect of their leader and the culture of dialogue began to emerge. A number of previous accusations from 2014 were repeated, for example, the base of the CNRP had shown discontent towards Sam Rainsy for having conducted negotiations with Hun Sen without having been involved. [46]

With the growing tensions between the CPP and CNRP, the situation progressed on 15 August, when a CNRP senator was arrested and charged with serious unrest. This accusation was based on a fake document that was posted on Facebook. This document claimed that an article of the 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Treaty was meant to dismantle, rather than simply define, the border between the two countries. Charged with forging a public document, the senator could carry a combined maximum prison sentence of 17 years.

At that point, the two political forces went back to their traditional conflict with reciprocal accusations of unreliability, dishonesty and betrayal, as had already been heard in recent years. At the end of October, there was a further escalation, characterized by a series of events. First, two members of the CNRP were attacked just outside the gates of Parliament. Dragged from their vehicles, they were assaulted by protesters and a group of CPP activists. The sit-in was organized against Kem Sokha, the first Vice President of the National Assembly, as well as the Vice President of the CNRP, for having criticized Hun Sen during a public discourse on the day before. Within a few weeks, it was ascertained that the leaders of the beatings were three policemen.[47]

As a result of this beating, the lower chamber voted a «citizen proposal» for the removal of the Vice President of the National Assembly, Kem Sokha. This was proposed by CPP’s supporters and signed by 300,000 citizens, in virtue of the inadequacy of the vice president.[48] Subsequently, on 11 November, the leader, Sam Rainsy, faced an arrest warrant in relation to a prosecution for defamation against the Foreign Minister, Hor Namhong, dating back to 2008.[49] Following the arrest warrant, the President of the National Assembly decreed the revocation of the parliamentary immunity of Sam, which decided not to return to Cambodia, while the CNRP decided, once again, to abandon Parliament.

Within a few months, Cambodia relapsed into a stalemate, as had happened after the elections of 2013, when the CNRP had refused to participate in the parliamentary work to protest against alleged electoral fraud.

  1. International relations

In the 30 years of Hun Sen’s government, the international relations of Cambodia were characterized by a policy of equal distance with the major powers, China and the US, in particular, and good neighbourly relations. This attitude has assured the country’s internal stability in addition to a continuous flow of investments and aid from both the western and Asian side. In the last decade, relations between Beijing and Phnom Penh have intensified and strengthened. This is due to a flow of capital that China provided for Cambodia in the form of investments, subsidized loans and donations. In addition to the economic benefits, according to Sebastian Strangio, the solid bond between the two countries ensured that the Cambodian government could exercise power on the level of internal policies. At the same time, it is important to note that foreign policies are affected by foreign «conditionalities».[50]

In fact, Hun Sen, has always suffered with «conditionalities» (respect for democratic principles and human rights), which were duly imposed by the western donors to the Cambodian government. In 2009, the U.S. Embassy noted: «Hun Sen frequently praises China for its ‘blank check’ policy on assistance, and criticizes other donors who to seek to condition aid on political and economic reforms in the country. […] Hun Sen lauded the Chinese for providing assistance with no strings attached, saying ‘they are quiet, but at the same time they build bridges and roads, there are no complicated conditions». [51]

However, on an international level, China also presented its conditionalities to Cambodia, so much so that the government of Phnom Penh, in the toughest issues relating to territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) and the demarcation of the Exclusive Economic Zones, is deployed securely to the side of Beijing.

The main stages that led to the Cambodian engagement with China and the regional consequences will be analysed in detail in the following paragraphs.

4.1. The enveloping embrace of China

Since the early 1950s, China had had a policy of aid to countries of the communist block.[52] After the conference of Bandung in 1956, it also granted financial and military aid to non-aligned or neutral countries. After the Korean War, the aim of both the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party was to rebuild its image and show that is a reliable and responsible player in the international arena.

Cambodia received much more aid from China than other countries (in that period, $6 million). This was because, in 1958, Norodom Sihanouk recognized the Beijing government and, at the same time, worked with great commitment in order to expel the Republic of China (Taiwan) from the UN.[53]

Despite not having any sympathies to the communist party, Sihanouk accepted their aid for both internal and foreign political reasons. From an internal point of view, Sihanouk restrained the opposition, in particular that of the leftist intelligentsia. On an international level, he avoided taking sides with one of the blocks and held a neutral attitude. In this way, Sihanouk was able to obtain two results. The first was to ensure that his country obtained financial aid by more countries such as the US, Japan and France. The second was related to the acquisition of a hedge, in the case where Vietnam became communist and China would have done the same via the region’s arbitrator and moderator. From 1964 onwards, the engagement with Beijing also provided the first military supplies.[54]

In 2008, the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Cambodia and China was celebrated with the signature of a financial aid programme to Cambodia ($256 million). This was intended for the construction of roads and bridges. This agreement was just a prelude to a renewed understanding that, in the subsequent years, it would converge a stratospheric amount of Yuan to Cambodia. In Washington, the U.S. Ambassador, Carol Rodley, reported such agreement between Beijing and Phnom Penh, stating: «Cambodia’s ‘Year of China’ looks to become its ‘Century of China’».[55] From that moment, China’s aid policy in Cambodia has never stopped, and has been a continuous source of projects and funding.

During the official visit in Phnom Penh on 23 December 2009, Xi Jinping, the then Vice President of PRC, formalized the granting of $1.2 billion (part non-repayable and part a subsidized rate) for the construction of infrastructures and technological assistance. In 2010, relations between the two countries were sealed by the signature of the comprehensive Strategic Partnership in December 2010. This was a five-year programme that guaranteed Cambodia a flow of Chinese investments for a total of $2.5 billion.[56]

Among the various projects that were financed by China in Cambodia, between 2011 and 2013, it is important to mention the construction of the new container port in Sihanoukville and the construction of an oil refinery, the first in Cambodia, with an investment of $1.67 million.[57] However, it is also worth pointing out that the infrastructure funded by the Chinese government, in most cases, ended up facilitating the activities of the Chinese companies.

It is estimated that, over the last 20 years (1994-2014), Chinese investment in Cambodia has reached more than US$10 billion. Furthermore, in November 2014, during bilateral meetings on the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) side-lines, Hun Sen was able to secure promises of at least another US$500 million in soft loans annually, on top of the US$2.85 billion that was secured between 1994 and 2014. [58]

In 2015, Hun Sen inaugurated six bridges, thanks to the financial support of China, and was repeatedly asked to be able to be part of the new belts and new «silk roads». [59]

4.2. The vision of Hun Sen over China

On one hand, the enveloping embrace of China has allowed Hun Sen’s government to ensure substantial financial aids and investments. On the other hand, the Cambodian alignment on the Chinese positions has caused problems for the traditional policy of equal distance with the major powers. Some frictions are highlighted within the regional for a, such as ASEAN, which are related to the CSC’s questions.

With reference to the ASEAN, the Sino-Cambodian alignment contributed to creating a fracture in July 2012, during the 45th Foreign Ministers Meeting. Here, Cambodia was deployed to openly support Beijing’s positions. China, in fact, had pressed in order to address the SCS’s disputes on a bilateral basis. Instead, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei asked that the issues of the SCS were discussed inside the forum. For the first time in 45 years, a forum of ASEAN ended without a joint statement and Cambodia, which, in 2012, had the presidency of the forum, was pointed out as being mainly responsible for the failure of the dialogue.

Three years later, the fracture has not yet recomposed, despite the fact that the presidency of ASEAN has alternated the Brunei, Myanmar and in 2015 Malaysia.

In reality, the problems of ASEAN are not solely due to the different positions on the issues of the SCS. Frictions in the regional forum also stemmed from the debate on the new medium and long term plans, which once closed the action of the Millennium Development Goals. The creation of an economic community, one of the advocated projects in early 2000s, still remains wrapped in uncertainties and requires a profound rethinking on the basis of the new regional equilibrium. Reference is made, for example, to the new Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP) agreement, which involves only two of the countries of ASEAN (Singapore and Malaysia), to the new security forums or the new international financial institutions promoted by China, or even the threat of the Islamic State. [60]

In this respect, it should be recalled that, in 2015, Cambodia was accepted «as partner in dialogue» of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This is the only country of ASEAN that accesses the forum.[61]

With regard to the tensions between Cambodia and its neighbours, reference is made to karstic matters on contended borders between Cambodia and Vietnam, which, once again, resurfaced during 2015. It is true that, in the past, the question of the borders of Vietnam was considered to be an internal problem concerning the criticism of opposition parties in respect of the common wire-Vietnamese CPP. Hun Sen, in fact, has always been accused by his detractors to have sold pieces of Cambodian territories to Vietnam. In July 2015, along the border of the province of frontier of Svay Rieng, there were continuous protests on the part of the Cambodians, following the creation of artificial pounds by the Vietnamese, whose waters invaded the Cambodian territories.

In order to avoid repercussions on an inner level, by feeding the nationalist instances and anti-Vietnamese movements, Hun Sen acted immediately on an international level, involving different actors including the UN, France, the United Kingdom and the US. The UN and all of the governments requested copies of the geographical maps that were processed during the peace conference in Geneva in 1954, in order to locate the exact boundaries.[62] Once the government verified that the maps were sent by France and established that Cambodia had not surrendered the territories to Vietnam, the opposition parties were disarmed.[63]

However, as far as relations between Cambodia and Vietnam are always solid, it should not be underestimated the fact that, for the first time in 2015, the Cambodian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hor Namhong, officially asked Hanoi to put an end to the activities of the occupation of Cambodians territories.[64] In the past, when other violent protests of Cambodian villages near the border with Vietnam had inflamed nationalist Cambodian souls, Phnom Penh had never made such requests to Hanoi. Cambodia’s attitude is more assertive towards Vietnam, which brings to mind another curious fact that dates back to December 2013. During a visit to Hanoi, Hun Sen spoke to his audience in Vietnamese. Given the damage that this could do to his standing domestically, it could only be seen as a gesture of conciliation. It seems likely, as argued by some analysts, that the enveloping embrace of China to Cambodia has brought Hun Sen to a redefinition of the attitude towards Vietnam, which is no longer based on a position subordinate but rather, equal footing.[65]

  1. The Growing Economy and Worries for the Future

In the context of the hegemonic weakness of Hun Sen’s leadership and his party, in 2015, the public speeches by the premier were preoccupied with announcements related to the economic results that were achieved by his government. During his long experience of being part of a government that has faced difficulties in internal policies, Hun Sen has always supported the principle of the indispensability of his role due to the positive macro-economic data. Moreover, macro-economic data have been constantly positive and, in 2015, the growth of GDP was expected to remain at 7.3%, compared to the previous year.[66]

However, in 2015, for the first time, the government presented a new industrial development plan that provides for the diversification of industrial production. Next to rice and garments, which are the driving sectors of the economy, it aims to develop other activities that employ a higher cognitive level. In this way, the government intends to raise the share of GDP created by industry from 24.1% in 2013 to at least 30%.[67] This diversification can be done through the creation of a favourable environment to FDI and settlement of industries with higher specialization. Hun Sen argued that this would reduce taxation and improve the infrastructure and bureaucracy. Some analysts have pointed out that this programme’s complexity clashes with others issues (e.g., a lack of skilled human resources and very high production costs) and it can only be addressed by stages in the medium-long term. [68]

Considering this, it can also be assumed that the new industrial plan aims to counteract the negative effects that the agreements of the TPP and the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (both signed in 2015) could have in the field of Cambodian exports. [69]

Next to the new industrial plans, from an economic point of view, the activity of the government in 2015 was characterized by actions that were aimed at neutralizing the fuses of the social conflict. Among these, we can mention: the announced intention to reduce the price of electricity to the garment’s workers living in the industrial area of Phnom Penh;[70] the announced increase of the threshold of minimum income not taxable;[71] and the announced intention to remove taxes on motorcycles.[72] Furthermore, with the aim of alleviating the criticism of NGOs concerning the question of land grabbing and avoiding protests by farmers, the government has given great emphasis to the moratorium on new economic land concessions (ELC). Hun Sen already announced in 2012 and 2015 that, for the first time, the authorities withdrawn certain ELC to large companies for the lack of requirements.[73]

Finally, Hun Sen’s government has sought to defuse the aspects that are more incandescent, which could ignite social conflict inside the working class. The attempt to institutionalize the dialogue between the State, companies and trade unions, creating a model of tripartism, has not given rise to great enthusiasm, especially on the part of workers. Workers , in fact, repeatedly denounced that some trade unions taking part in the negotiations would be strongly influenced by the government and would not be representative of the workers. The main consequence of this is the slowdown of the question of minimum wage. [74]


[1] For Hun Sen’s biography and a long period analysis, please refer to the works of Sebastian Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia, New Haven & London: Yale University Press 2014 and Harish C. Mehta and Julie B. Mehta, Strongman: The Extraordinary Life of Hun Sen, Singapore: Marshall Cavendish International, 2013.

[2]  For those who are not cognizant of the Italian language, see Quintin Hoare & Geoffrey Nowell Smith (eds), Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, New York: International Publishers, 1971 (1st edn.), the pages listed at p. 480, under the voice «hegemony».

[3] ‘Cambodia strongman PM seeks 2018 re-election’, Reuters News, 29 April 2015.

[4] ‘The slow demise of Hun Sen’s greatest CPP rival’, Phnom Penh Post, 15 November 2014.

[5] Clan’s structure of the triumvirate of the CPP (Chea Sim, Hun Sen and Heng Samrin) has been reconstructed by Grégory Mikaelian, ‘Pour une relecture du jeu politique cambodgien: le cas du Cambodge de la reconstruction (1993-2005)’, in Alain Forest (sous la dir.), Cambodge contemporain, Paris: Les Indes Savantes, 2008, pp. 178-179.

[6] Khmer Issarak movement (Free Khmer) was created in Bangkok in June 1945 by a group of Cambodians in exile, with the aim of organizing an armed force that would be capable of opposing and overthrow the French protectorate in Cambodia. With the support of the Thai Government, the Cambodians wanted to take advantage of the Japanese occupation of Indochina, which had then put an end to French colonial rule. The movement was split up at the end of the 1940s because of different political ideologies. One group, supported by the Thai, was anti-communist; another, supported by the Vietnamese, had embraced the communist ideology. This second group had an important role in the Vietnamese war against the French, while the anti-communist group was further divided and dispersed in the North-West of the country. During the peace conference in Geneva, in 1954, the representatives of the Khmer Issarak presented a united front and sided with the Vietnamese delegation. However, unity at Geneva was not matched by unity in Cambodia, where a part of the movement sided with the Khmer Rouges. Many of those Khmer Issarak who allied themselves with the Khmer Rouges were later «purged» by Pol Pot between 1972 and 1973, because suspected to be pro-Vietnamese. Ben Kiernan, How Pol Pot Came to Power, London: Verso, 1984.

[7] David Chandler, ‘Chea Sim (1932 -)’, in Keat Gin Ooi (ed.), Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor, Volume 1, Santa Barbara CA: ABC-CLIO, p. 323.

[8] In 1993, UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia), before the elections, had requested the removal of Ung Samy, following the accusation of having participated in the killing of members of the opposition parties. Furthermore, documents demonstrate its involvement in the group of Khmers Rouges that ruled the security prison 21 (S-21). ‘A hard soldier and man of few words’, Phnom Penh Post, 13 December 1996.

[9] Evan R. Gottesman, Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge: Inside the Politics of Nation Building, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, pp. 331-32.

[10] ‘Secret. Further Evidence of Hun Sen’s Mental State’, Wikileaks, 14 November 1995.

[11] From 1993 until 1997, the Cambodian government was ruled by an unprecedented coalition, formed by the CPP and FUNCINPEC, and by two prime ministers: Norodom Ranariddh (first prime ministry) and Hun Sen (second prime ministry).

[12] ‘Secret. Further Evidence of Hun Sen’s Mental State’, Wikileaks, 14 November 1995.

[13] Chea Sim took over the presidency of the CPP, since its birth in 1991, and was president of the Senate from 1999. He was also the head of the provisional status in 1992-93, as Chairman of the Council of State, before Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy. He also stepped in briefly as head of state for the King in 1994 and 1995. Chea Sim was acting as head of state again for a week after Sihanouk’s abdication until Norodom Sihamoni became King on 14 October 2004.

[14] The details concerning the conflicts of that period were reconstructed by Sorpong Peu, ‘Consolidation or Crisis of Democracy? Cambodia’s Parliamentary Election in 2003 and Beyond’, in Aurel Croissant & Beate Martin (eds.), Between Consolidation and Crisis. Election and Democracy in Five Nations in Southeast Asia, Berlin: Lit verlag, 2006, pp. 41-84.

[15] ‘Chea Sim bodyguard chief seized’, Phnom Penh Post, 15 August 2011. After the imprisonment of Chea Sim’s staff members, Hun Sen took advantage of the scandal to appoint his crony friend, Yim Leang, as the head of the guards of the President of the Senate. Yim Leang, who was appointed General in 2001, at the age of 28 years (the youngest general in Cambodia), is the son of Yim Chhay Li, the deputy prime minister  of the last two governments of Hun Sen. Moreover, the sister of Yim Leang, is married to Hun Many, Hun Sen’s third-eldest son.

[16] Pol Saroeun, appointed Secretary of the CPP in Takeo Province in the mid-80s, had contributed to the removal of Heng Samrin from the leadership of the PPC and the subsequent appointment of Hun Sen to vice-presidency. ‘One big happy family in Cambodia’, Asia Times online, 20 March 2007.

[17] ‘Party factionalism looms behind Ke Kim Yan sacking’, Cambodia Information Center, 21 febbraio 2009.

[18] ‘Hun Sen’s second son in meteoric rise through RCAF ranks’, Cambodia Daily, 30 January 2012.

[19] ‘Hun Manith New Head of Military Intelligence’, Cambodia Daily, 23 October 2015.

[20] ‘On Australian TV, Hun Manet Lauds Father’s 30-Year Reign’, The Cambodia Daily, 19 October 2015.

[21] ‘Military’s role to help Government, PM says’, Phnom Penh Post, 5 March 2015.

[22] ‘Hun Sen calls on police to be loyal’, Phnom Penh Post, 24 July 2015.

[23] ‘In praise of RCAF Inc’, Phnom Penh Post, 30 July 2015.

[24] Reference is made in particular to the statements pronounced during an interview by General Chea Dara, RCAF Deputy Commander-in-chief, who said the military’s role was to secure the position of the ruling CPP ‘Cambodia’s Well-Heeled Military Patrons’, The Diplomat, 10 August 2015.

[25] ‘CPP Bigger, not better, say Foes’, Phnom Penh Post, 3 February 2015.

[26] Jacques Bekaert, Cambodian diary, a long road to peace 1987-1993, Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 1998, p. 59.

[27] ‘Hun Sen Nominated as CPP Premier Candidate for Next Term’, Kyodo News, 16 December 2002.

[28] ‘CPP leadership sees influx of new blood’, Phnom Penh Post, 2 February 2015.

[29] ‘Large-scale Cambodian Youth Delegation to Visit China’, Xinhua News Agency, 20 June 2015.

[30] ‘Cambodian politics: Hun Sen manoeuvres for power as younger voters rise’, Nikkei Report, 30 January 2015.

[31] ‘Cambodia’s Political Prince Makes Comeback, Claims PM’s Support’, Reuters News, 5 January 2015. The announcement of the return to politics issued by Norodom Ranariddh has caused a great stir in Cambodia because of its controversial past. Inter alia, the police have begun an investigation on the automobile accident in which he was involved in the month of April 2015, since this would not be an accident but an intimidating terrorist act. ‘Ranariddh in Car Accident’, Phnom Penh Post, 27 April 2015.

[32] The Alserkal Grand Mosque was built on Phnom Penh’s landfilled lake, Boeung Kak, with a 2.9 million dollar donation from the UAE national Eisa Bin Nasser Abdullatif Alserkal. ‘PM Opens Mosque, Praises Religious Tolerance’, Khmer Times, 27 March 2015.

[33] ‘Cambodia’s Largest Mosque Opens in Phnom Penh’, Bangladesh Monitor, 31 May 2015. ‘Cambodian PM Hosts Ramadan Iftar Dinner for Over 4,000 Muslims’, Xinhua News Agency, 26 June 2015.

[34] ‘Cambodian PM, Opposition Leader Jointly Open Angkor Sankranta Festival for Khmer New Year Celebrations’, Xinhua News Agency, 14 April 2015.

[35] ‘Labour day: Unions, CPP promote factory ties’, Phnom Penh Post, 20 April 2015.

[36] The number of NGOs working in Cambodia has never been established precisely because of the lack of an official register, in addition to the volatility of the associations. The government sources do not offer official data in this regard while press agencies offer different vague data.

[37] ‘NGO Law a «disaster»’, Phnom Penh Post, 10 June 2015.

[38] ‘Cambodia Scolds UN Reps Over NGO Law Criticism’, Government Publications and Press Releases, 21 May 2015; ‘Activists against anti-NGO law march in Cambodian capital’, Xinhua News Agency, 30 June 2015.

[39] ‘European Parliament resolution on the situation in Cambodia: draft laws on the NGOs and trade unions (2015/2756 (RSP))’

[40] ‘Cambodian Civil Society Groups Protest Against NGO Draft Law’, Voice of America Press Releases and Documents, 29 June 2015.

[41] ‘My dinner with Rainsy’, Phnom Penh Post, 13 July 2015.

[42] ‘Freedom Park 11 jailed’, Phnom Penh Post, 22 July 2015.

[43] ‘Cambodian PM says he has no rights to free opposition prisoners’, Xinhua News Agency, 27 July 2015.

[44] Ibid.

[45] ‘Le pouvoir cambodgien fait tout pour diffuser la peur’, Liberation 23 July 2015.

[46] Stéphanie Giry, ‘Autopsy of a Cambodian Election: How Hun Sen Rules’, Foreign Affairs, 1 September 2015, Volume 94; Issue 5, in particular §5-6.

[47] ‘Three RCAF members charged for beatings’, Phnom Penh Post, 5 November 2015.

[48] ‘Sokha stripped of National Assembly Vice Presidency’, Phnom Penh Post, 30 October 2015.

[49] ‘Arrest Warrant Issued for Cambodian Opposition Leader Sam Rainsy’, BBC News, 13 November 2015. The French Supreme Court had already addressed the case suit relating to defamation. This Court determined in Paris in 2011 that Sam Rainsy was not liable to any condemnation.

[50] Sebastian Strangio, ‘Evolving Diplomacy: Amid Cambodia-Vietnam Border Tensions, a «Special» Relationship Evolves’, Nikkei Report, 30 July 2015.

[51] ‘Confidential. A Grateful China Rewards Cambodia’, Wikileaks, 22 December 2009, §6.

[52] Among these, had received aid: North Korea, North Vietnam and Inner Mongolia since 1953. Peter Andrews Poole, ‘Communist China’s Aid Diplomacy’, Asian Survey, Vol. 6, No. 11, Nov. 1966, pp. 622-629.

[53] Touch Siphat, ‘Patterns and Impacts of Chinese Assistance in Cambodia’, in Yos Santasombat, Impact of China’s Rise on the Mekong Region, New York: Palgrave 2015.

[54] Alain-Gerard Marsot, ‘China’s Aid to Cambodia’, Pacific Affairs, Vol. 42, No. 2, Summer 1969, pp. 189-198.

[55] ‘Confidential. Cambodia’s Year Of China’, Wikileaks, 25 December 2008.

[56] ‘China, Cambodia Agree to Build Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’, Xinhua News Agency, 13 December 2010.

[57] ‘China to Finance Refinery for Cambodia’, The Wall Street Journal, 16 October 2013.

[58] ‘A mountain to climb’, The Edge Financial Daily, 6 January 2015.

[59] ‘Cambodian PM’s Trip to China Concludes with Fruitful Results: Official’, Xinhua News Agency, 17 October 2015. According to the Chinese Ambassador in Cambodia Bu Jianguo, so far, China has provided financial aid to Cambodia to build roads in the length of 2,669 kilometres, representing about 35% of Cambodia’s total roads. Some 1,437 km have already been constructed, as 821 km are under construction and 411 km are planned to start construction. ‘Cambodia Breaks Ground on China-funded Road to Connect Thailand’, Xinhua News Agency, 4 May 2015.

[60] The debate on the priorities to be addressed in future visions of ASEAN have emerged in the meeting of 2015 chaired by Malaysia. ‘What Did the 26th ASEAN Summit Achieve?’, The Diplomat, 28 April 2015.

[61] ‘Cambodia Becomes Dialogue Partner in SCO’, Tass Russia News Agency, 24 September 2015.

[62] ‘Hun Sen asks UN for help on Vietnam problem’, Phnom Penh Post, 6 July 2015; ‘Cambodia Asks U.S. for Old Maps to Settle Border Dispute with Vietnam’, RFA, 15 July 2015.

[63] Cambodia’s Border Demarcation Map Indistinguishable from France’s, Vietnam News Agency Bulletin, 3 September 2015.

[64] Sebastian Strangio, ‘Evolving Diplomacy: Amid Cambodia-Vietnam Border Tensions, a «Special» Relationship Evolves, Nikkei Report, 30 July 2015.

[65] Ibid.

[66] ‘ADB Sees Robust Growth for Cambodia’s Economy’, Cambodian Business Review, 31 May 2015.

[67] ‘Cambodia Launches Industrial Development Policy for Next 10 Years’, Xinhua News Agency, 26 August 2015.

[68] ‘Cambodian Gov’t Passes Industrial Development Policy for Next Decade’, Xinhua News Agency, 6 March 2015.

[69] ‘TPP puts Cambodia’s trade, investment in the Spotlight’, Phnom Penh Post, 7 October 2015.

[70] ‘Workers set to get EdC deal’, Phnom Penh Post, 15 January 2015.

[71] ‘Reforms raise income tax floor to $200’, Phnom Penh Post, 8 January 2015.

[72] ‘Cambodia to Eliminate Road Taxes on Motorcycles: PM’, Xinhua News Agency, 22 October 2015.

[73] ‘Major tycoons added to concessions watchlist’, Phnom Penh Post, 9 March 2015. The withdrawal of some concessions, relatively to a few hundred hectares, hides much more consistent data. In 2013 alone, 230 companies were granted ELCs with a total size of almost 2 million hectares. Over 1.3 million hectares were granted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forests, and Fisheries to 122 companies, while 618,500 hectares were granted by the Ministry of Environment to 108 companies, the report said. Directive 001 (also known as Order 01BB) on ‘Measures to strengthen and enhance the effectiveness of management of economic land concessions (ELCs) (

[74] ‘Walkout at wage talks’, Phnom Penh Post, 8 October 2015.


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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