Tim LaRocco has put together a primer for those seeking a basic need-to-know understanding of the political situation in Cambodia
I recently asked my college students in the Introduction to Political Science course I teach to play word association with some of the world’s countries. When Cambodia came up, there were but two answers from the class: genocide and landmines. It is true that both subjects remain relevant and are inescapable when discussing Cambodia’s history, but the reality is that the contemporary political climate is much more complex and engrossing to observers.
If you live in Cambodia or are planning to visit, it serves to reason you should be cognizant of the social, cultural, and political sensibilities of the country. With that in mind, and while channeling my inner Gavinmac, these are seven things you should know about Cambodian politics.
1) Ethnic nationalism and identity politics
There are approximately 500,000 Vietnamese living in Cambodia today. The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and its leader, Sam Rainsy, used immigration as a primary wedge issue during last year’s election which was palpable in virulently xenophobic rhetoric towards Vietnamese. More recently, some Vietnamese shops have been torched and one man was killed by an angry Cambodian mob.
The sense of antipathy which many Khmer feel towards the “yuon,” the controversial word used to describe the Vietnamese, can be traced back centuries. Vietnam’s invasion and occupation of Cambodia in the late 1970s laid the groundwork for the current regime to assume political control which it has maintained almost entirely from the mid-1980s until today. However, both political parties have exploited this issue in order to score political points within their respective constituencies. Jeff Mudrick’s piece for Khmer440 should be mandatory reading on the subject.
2) The role of NGOs
After the calamitous Khmer Rouge era, Cambodia was a shambles: internationally isolated, industries in a state of disrepair, and its physical infrastructure was left severely wanting. Many educated civilians and qualified professionals, such as engineers, had been killed.
Cambodia has made considerable progress since then, thanks in part to an influx of foreign aid and capacity building non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Poverty remains a constant, however, and is often juxtaposed with the lavish lifestyles of NGO employees who jet across Phnom Penh in Hummers and Range Rovers to minister PowerPoint presentations to potential donors who bankroll their expensive accounts.
While absolute poverty has decreased with the influx of NGOs over the past two decades, there has been limited progress on issues such as good governance and human rights. Moreover, many of these so-called altruistic organizations have a proclivity of prioritizing their own sustainable models of operation before tangible benefits for Cambodians can be actualized.
3) Refugees from Australia
In recent weeks, the framework of a deal between the governments of Cambodia and Australia has been agreed to “in principle” that would see the former accept more than 1,000 refugees from the latter in exchange for unspecified financial compensation. It’s hard to imagine any destitute person leaving their own home and freely choosing to seek asylum in Cambodia, an underdeveloped, aid-dependent Third World country. Human rights organizations have been quick to condemn the agreement citing Phnom Penh’s poor track record in taking care of its own poor citizens.
The refugees, mostly from Nauru, will doubtless face myriad difficulties settling in Cambodia. The government does not provide essential services for those needing job training or language skills. Additionally, many Khmers already harbor feelings of animosity to other, non-Western immigrants. Refugee NGOs may be able to facilitate some assistance but are likely to be reticent when confronted with the scope and cost of such a project.
Incidentally, Australia has the resources and infrastructure to properly resettle the refugees but Canberra has indicated it will “pay almost anything” to rid themselves of this problem. Cambodia has accepted financial packages in the past in the form of friendly terms on trade deals as was the case when they illegally repatriated Uighur asylum seekers back to China for $850 million in 2012. Cambodia simply does not have the capacity to provide for these poor people, but short of a massive international campaign against this agreement, that isn’t likely to phase Phnom Penh.
4) Exploitation of the poor
Cambodia’s proletariat has often been the lowest common denominator when it comes to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) effort to attract foreign direct investment. One notable example occurred in early 2012 when some 300 families had their homes bulldozed in Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila district in order to make way for corporate development. The government had assured the families that they would be resettled in housing which was never built. Another example took place earlier this year when frustrated garment factory workers, egged on by the opposition CNRP, staged protests demanding a doubling of their salary from $80 to $160 per month. Three people were killed and dozens injured after the security services forcefully quelled the demonstrations.
Cambodia is a very poor country, both in relative and absolute terms, and one of the only ways it can allure foreign investment is by keeping its labor conditions deregulated. Salaries are low for workers in many sectors across the board from sweatshops to the classrooms where Khmer teachers are paid little more than meal money. There is a small, slowly growing middle class in Cambodia, but many people are still left behind. When these individuals attempt to express their grievances, the government response is often aggressive and violent.
5) Khmer Rouge tribunal
The Khmer Rouge regime was ultimately responsible for the deaths of approximately 1.5 million people. Legal experts posited that the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), created in 2003, would be “seen as a model of international justice and reconciliation for mass atrocities like genocide.”
But as of today, only five Khmer Rouge cadres have been indicted by the tribunal. Only one of them, Kang KekIew, alias Comrade Duch, has been convicted of crimes against humanity for his role as director of the infamous TuolSleng prison; he was sentenced to life in prison. Of the four others, one (IengSary) has died and another (Ieng Thirith) has been declared unfit to stand trial due to mental illness. NuonChea, alias Brother Number Two, and KhieuSamphan remain on trial.
While popular support for prosecution amongst survivors remains high, political pressure from Phnom Penh has curtailed the extent of the court’s pursuance mechanisms. More trials, the government has argued in the past, will serve only to destabilize the country.
6) China and Cambodia: the special relationship
As chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2012, Cambodia was charged with setting the agenda for the regional organization’s annual summit. But while there was the usual talk of broadening free trade zones and greater economic integration filling the conference rooms, one issue of particular note omitted was the row over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines also claim sovereignty over the disputed territory in addition to China.
It was perhaps an unsurprising development after Chinese Premier Hu Jintao held closed door talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen a few days before the conference and guaranteed economic and military aid packages a few days after it to the tune of $2.7 billion. These “soft loans” come with no strings attached to conditions such as democratization or respect for human rights the way Western loans are typically designed.’
Cambodia is China’s closest ally in Southeast Asia, a special relationship which dates back decades and which has continued to irritate some of Phnom Penh’s neighbors. Beijing was one of the primary bankrollers of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, and has remained influential with the current regime through the years despite coup attempts, dubious elections, and widespread corruption.
Chinese investments in Cambodia range from the textile industry to hydroelectric power. This investment has created jobs, moderately improved the country’s infrastructure, and provided much needed energy. However, in doing so, it continuously exploits labor and has caused significant environmental damage as well.
7) Monarchy minimized
Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy and from independence in 1954 to his second abdication in 2004, the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk played a pivotal role in the nation’s political system. Even after his death in October 2012, Sihanouk remains a controversial figure: many Cambodians remember him as liberator from French colonial rule while others recall his tacit and sometimes explicit support of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Without any other practical alternative available to him at the time, the King essentially had to ally with them.
His son, King Norodom Sihamoni, is significantly less bombastic, partly due to his persona, partly because Hun Sen has relegated the monarchy to little more than a figurehead. The royalist political party Funcinpec is all but irrelevant following last summer’s National Assembly elections, and Sihamoni harbors no tangible political ambitions. He remains unmarried, and has been described by some observers as “sad, lonely, [and] abandoned.”
With Sihanouk’s death, the role of the monarchy has been acutely minimized and many Khmer feel a sense of apprehension at the power vacuum which that has created. In effect, such an impotent monarch has created a unified opposition against the current ruling class, the consequences of which could have long-lasting and profound effects.
The narrative which emerged in the weeks leading up to last year’s vote was one of political change, manifested by scores of mostly young Cambodians taking to the streets on motorbikes, brazenly hoisting the CNRP flag and shouting “doh,” the Khmer word for change. Clearly there is a burgeoning movement spearheaded by the nation’s urban working class and youth demographic clamoring for more opportunities and better institutions.
Political change implemented too fast, however, can wreck the social order, which is especially true for a country with Cambodia’s history. The ruling CPP has many faults, partially highlighted above, but if the CNRP’s xenophobic rhetoric, genocide denial, and empty promises are any indication of its potential platform, it would be naïve to believe that the change it wants would have a positive impact.