Half way through writing this piece, the perfect encapsulation of the points I was intending to make was provided when Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen spoke to a group of 18-year-old high-schoolers on Wednesday. At the Hun Sen Bun Rany High School, named after himself and his wife, he asked: “You have been learning under the schools of samdech; how come you don’t vote for samdech?” (referring to his royally bestowed title that translates roughly as “lord”). He added: “How can you vote for the others when they have never built schools for you? Please help to tell your parents, too.”
Where to begin with such a remark? First, Hun Sen was breaking his own government’s law banning political propaganda at academic institutions. This isn’t the first time, though; in June, students in Pursat province were handed t-shirts bearing the words: “I love the Cambodian People’s Party.” Second, after breaking his own rules, which were reinforced by Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron only a month earlier, the CPP’s spokesman Sok Eysan justified his actions by saying that Hun Sen is above Hang Chuon Naron, the insinuation being that all decisions certainly do lie with the boss. Third, and by far the most significant, his comments reveal the synonymous nature of the Cambodian State and the CPP.
Not unlike the reign of Norodom Sihanouk, or the Angkorean “god-kings” of earlier centuries, the current Cambodian system operates on the basis of noblesse oblige. The vision of society is one where education, health, roads, and other basic services are not provided by the State (as they are, or, arguably, should be, in most modern democratic countries) but by the CPP. Since 2003, there have been more than 4,000 schools built across Cambodia using private funds, and named after the prime minister or his wife. These are the so-called “Hun Sen schools.” The same goes for hospitals, roads, bridges, and other services and infrastructure. Many have been built from donations made by CPP-aligned oknhas. Traditionally the title given by the king to nobles, since a sub-decree in 1994 resurrected the honorific the number of oknhas has swelled, from 20 in 2004 to an estimated 700 in 2014. To become a member of this semantic club, one must donate $100,000 to the “greater good,” often basic infrastructure projects, and in return is granted material gratitude, and the turning of a few blind eyes. The Buddhist concept of merit no doubt has history here, though in the modern day it can be greatly exaggerated. Rather than karma, capital and power fuels the system.
The CPP has not only attempted to usurp many of the functions of the State, it has also enmeshed the entire political and social system of Cambodia under its “benevolent” hegemony. Here is what Sebastian Strangio had to say in his book, Hun Sen’s Cambodia:
“The communes had been under firm CPP control since the 1980s and played a huge part in the lives of ordinary people. CPP commune authorities appointed village chiefs, who together controlled everything from land transactions and marriage licenses to the registrations of voters at election time. This gave many rural Cambodians the impression that it was the party that provided them with basic services, rather than the government… The result was a program of rural construction which recycled crony money into schools, roads, wells, and Buddhist temples that were presented as gifts from Hun Sen and other senior officials… The fact that infrastructure projects were often built with international aid money was generally irrelevant. If Hun Sen cut ribbon on a project, it became a ‘Hun Sen project.’”
This populist, patronage posturing was on full display during Hun Sen’s recent nationwide campaign trail. Touring all 25 provinces, he mixed cutting ribbons with targeted, euphonious edicts. In Kampong Thom, he vowed to return land to local residents around the Tonle Sap. In Takeo, he ordered local authorities to provide titles to 31 families living on state-owned land. In Kampong Chhnang, he promised local vendors of a market that the state would take over and do away with rent after 2025, a promise extended to markets all across the country a week later. As always with the recently avuncular, social-media savvy PM, most of his promises were declared on his Facebook page for all of his three million-plus fans to read about. And, as with many of Hun Sen’s previous promises, it seems unlikely that all can be kept. Political analyst Ou Virak commented that guaranteeing the vendors’ contracts at all Cambodian markets “might not be sustainable” and that “maybe [Hun Sen] only cares about the short run, the next two years,” by which he means the 2017 commune elections and 2018’s general elections.
At the same time as usurping the natural role of a modern State in providing the basic services to citizens, the CPP has also tried subsuming almost every facet of the State that should be neutral. A microscope is needed to identify the fissures between the State and the CPP. Consider the military. Last year, Chea Dara, one of several high-ranking military officers incorporated into the CPP’s Central Committee, said that “Every soldier is a member of the People’s Army and belongs to the CPP because [Hun Sen] is the feeder, caretaker, commander, and leader of the army… I speak frankly when I say that the army belongs to the Cambodia People’s Party.” CPP officials might have attempted to play down these remarks, asserting the military is, in fact, neutral, but its Central Committee boasts dozens of military personnel while Hun Sen’s son was appointed head of the country’s military intelligence department last year.
As for the national assembly, a report by the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel) revealed what most people were thinking: the parliament favors the CPP. For the civil service, most officials know only a government led by Hun Sen, and, since the 1980s, have been molded by the CPP. In June 2015, it was reported that seven newly appointed ambassadors were tasked with increasing membership of the CPP in the countries where they were posted. Two years before, in the run up to the general election, it was revealed that civil servants from the Press and Quick Reaction Unit were campaigning on behalf of the party. “I think the current government’s functioning and the role of the government is very confused. They all engage — including civil servants and members of the military on all levels — in supporting the political activity of the CPP,” Comfrel’s executive director Kuol Panha said at the time.
The CPP is even said to have a firm grasp on the monarchy. “In the past, Cambodia’s king might have played a role as a moral leader and potential critic of the government, but the current monarch, Norodom Sihamoni, is much more reliant on Hun Sen than his predecessor, long-ruling Norodom Sihinaouk. Hun Sen’s office is even said to control the king’s schedule,” Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently wrote.
“Today, Hun Sen and the CPP sit atop a sprawling system of domination that combines informal personal relationships of loyalty and dependence with formal state institutions,” wrote Lee Morgenbesser, of Griffith University, and Thomas Pepinsky, of Cornell University, in a recently published paper. In a separate paper, Morgenbesser suggests that this parallel, patronage network is a “powerful disincentive for many ordinary Cambodians to use elections as an arena to advance democracy,” and added that should a village vote against the CPP, it might fail to receive donations from the CPP or its philanthropic-tycoons. More simply, because basic services are doled out by the party and not the State, they have to be earned.
Speaking to the Cambodia Daily on August 12, Morgenbesser provided a few examples of how such a patronage system might be displaced. One, if China withdraws its financial support to the government. (Highly unlikely). Two, if CPP-aligned okhnas withdraw their cash. (Again, unlikely). In other words, stop the money at the source. In the same article, Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, employed the old, reactionary cliché that Morgenbesser does “not understand the culture of Cambodia,” before stating, as the newspaper paraphrased it, “the ability to undertake infrastructure projects, such as building bridges, had nothing to do with the CPP’s being in government, but was simply the result of the generosity of many rich businesspeople in the party.” (Is a clearer indication needed of how far the CPP has confused the role of the State?)
It has been more than two decades since the CPP ditched its communist pretensions. Still, its Leninist roots show through. And if the social contract in Cambodia is signed between the individual and the CPP, not the State, it begs the question: Could another political party run the government? (A third option on how to displace the CPP’s patronage system). By no means do I mean to be trite here; Cambodia has never known a peaceful removal of an incumbent by the ballot box, an important consideration as we approach 2017’s commune elections and 2018’s general elections. In 2013, the largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), narrowly lost, and despite recent monumental setbacks (including the exile of its president Sam Rainsy, and its vice-president Kem Sokha still in hiding in Phnom Penh) the possibility of a CNRP victory in two-year’s time remains a possibility.
Two questions should rest on the lips when speaking of the 2018 general election. First, has the CPP done enough in the past five years to prevent the CNRP from winning at the ballot? Second, would a CNRP victory at the polls be enough for it to form a government? For the former, nobody likes to predict Cambodian elections. But, as I have pointed out in The Diplomat before, since 2013 the CPP has been steadily appropriating the CNRP’s popular policies, and has sought to give itself a more personable makeover. This might be tip the balance. For the latter, there are two sub-questions: Would the CPP hand over power in the event of a CNRP victory? And, does the CNRP have the capabilities to take over a State that appears inseparable from the CPP? Again, speculation remains the name of the game for the first, though the historian David Chandler was arguably onto something when he told Voice of America Cambodia earlier this year: “I’m never going to say on your program or anywhere else that Hun Sen should be overthrown by force, but he is not going to be overthrown any other way. He’s worried about being overthrown in an election. But he’s not going to allow that to happen.” Having said that, the CPP might be clever and realize, as the military generals did in Myanmar last year, that handing over political power while retaining economic clout is their best of both worlds. Should this happen, the CPP and its business allies could still grow wealthy while alleviating themselves of the arduous task of providing a veneer of democracy and human rights.
Concerning the CNRP’s capabilities of forming a functioning government in a State that appears inseparable from the incumbent, it would be advisable for the party to begin planning for this today. But this will not be easy. The military, police, civil service, and judiciary have known only a CPP government, and many officials owe their positions to consanguinity or patronage politics. One solution might be for the CNRP to find officials friendly to its cause and keep them primed for leading roles (patronage might trump patronage). Or it could make the case that a CNRP government would not alter the status quo too much, though this might prevent the party from enacting the policies it wants. The only long term solution would be to foster genuine separation between political parties and the arms of the State. Again, no enviable task.
David Hutt is a journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.