On the morning of November 16, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen promised to add another decade to the 32 years he’s already spent in power. By the evening, after the Supreme Court dissolved the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s only viable opposition party in next year’s national elections, he proclaimed the health of multi-party democracy. Everyone knew which speech to believe.
It was a return to form for Hun Sen, who cut his political chops as leader of a one-party state during the 1980s. It was also a return to the grudges of that era. Few Western observers put much stock in the case against the CNRP, whose president, Kem Sokha, was jailed in September for allegedly conspiring with the United States to topple Hun Sen. The prime minister, however, expressed no such doubts.
“You could not even overthrow me, so now you join to kill democracy in Cambodia,” he chided the United States in a speech on November 19, after the U.S. cut aid to upcoming elections.
Hun Sen has long seen democracy and opposition parties as tools of convenience for Western powers — and particularly hawkish American politicians — happy to see him go. It’s a reading of history born during the 1980s, when U.S.-backed forces tried to root out the Vietnamese-installed regime he eventually led. His skepticism of U.S. motives continued after his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) converted to nominal democracy and capitalism in the early 1990s, only to be hectored about human rights.
Leaders of the CNRP like Kem Sokha and his exiled predecessor Sam Rainsy, both participants in the 1980s resistance, share the spite, though not substance, of the prime minister’s memories. To the opposition and many of its Washington D.C. backers, Hun Sen’s government is an illegitimate holdover from a bygone communist era.
With the CPP racking up support from current and former communist governments in China, Vietnam, and Russia, and the CNRP rallying sanctions from the U.S. and E.U., recent events show how Cold War-era alliances and fault lines persist in Cambodian politics.
“Memories of the Cold War era are vivid in the minds of Cambodia’s aging politicians,” said Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a political scientist who authored Cambodia’s Second Kingdom: Nation, Imagination, and Democracy. “Wartime political identities carried over to multi-party politics. Until now, political parties have seen each other not as legitimate contenders for power but as enemies of the nation.”
Geopolitics have changed a lot since the 1980s. Beijing, which once backed the anti-Vietnamese forces, has evolved into a steadfast ally of Hun Sen’s CPP, while the United States and European Union have until recently maintained relatively cordial relations with Cambodian officials. Domestic politics have also moved with unprecedented speed. As historian David Chandler put it, “The current era is completely cuckoo.”
Still, the rivalries and rhetoric of the 1980s animate Cambodian politics. Traces of the era are even found in party’s names. The CPP’s name nods to its socialist roots, while the CNRP’s allusion to national rescue riffs on the Vietnamese invasion of Pol Pot’s Cambodia on January 7, 1979, suggesting that effort failed to root out foreign oppressors.
The day set the stage for everything that’s happened since, according to Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia.
“The new regime built itself up as the liberator of Cambodia, and Cold War politics functioned to deepen and entrench the polarization,” he said.
When Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1982, the Vietnamese invasion was treated as yet another front in a global war against communism. The United States channeled millions of dollars in covert funding to the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF), which joined with the royalist FUNCINPEC movement and the Khmer Rouge to form an unstable alliance against the new regime. Hun Sen’s government begrudged Washington for cutting off aid and tacitly supporting the Khmer Rouge, which had just killed an estimated two million Cambodians.
Many of today’s opposition politicians got their start working with the resistance. Kem Sokha secretly joined the KPNLF, while Sam Rainsy helped launch FUNCINPEC from France. Then, as now, the opposition saw Vietnamese as brutal colonialists and local leaders as their puppets.
When Hun Sen reluctantly accepted UN-backed democracy in 1993, these narratives “transferred quite seamlessly into a battle as to who was on ‘the right side of history’ in the post-Cold War era,” according to Strangio.
By the time Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy had opposition parties of their own in 2007, they had accumulated many veterans of KNLF and FUNCINPEC, respectively. In spite of rivalries that had festered since the 1980s, the two groups joined forces in 2013 to form the CNRP, marking a return to the fragile 1980s alliance.
In the intervening decades, both men cultivated relationships with American donors, politicians, and diplomats. Both received funding and training from U.S.-funded democracy promotion NGOs, though the CPP also received some support. In a leaked U.S. embassy cable from 2006, then-Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli wrote that “Rainsy credited the international community’s interest and support over the past year, as well as the U.S. Embassy’s work on his behalf, as critical to arriving at the situation in Cambodia today.”
Both men also emphasized the importance of human rights and democracy, especially when speaking to Western audiences. Hun Sen mostly heard existential threats in the rhetoric, and the opposition’s vitriol toward ethnic Vietnamese gave Western backers pause. But Kem Sokha’s daughter, Kem Monovithya, said her father was sincere.
“The opposition has evolved over the decades,” she said. “But for Kem Sokha… democratic and human rights principles have always been his compass.”
Sam Rainsy was especially popular with U.S. lawmakers, some of whom held on to a Reagan-era missionary zeal against a leader they saw as a communist relic. Chandler described attending an address Sam Rainsy gave Republican lawmakers in the 1990s peppered with “thank the lord” and “lord praise.”
“I found that shocking,” Chandler said. Rainsy’s evangelical fervor — and a small but wealthy Cambodian-American constituency in Texas — perhaps explains what has recently drawn Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a conservative Christian whose father left communist Cuba in the 1950s, to the CNRP’s cause. Other Republicans have a deeper history with Cambodia, including John McCain, a Vietnam War veteran and longtime Hun Sen critic; Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a friend of Sam Rainsy who once called Cambodia “the Zimbabwe of Southeast Asia“; and lawmaker Dana Rohrabacher, a former speechwriter for Reagan who introduced a 1998 bill that accused Hun Sen of war crimes.
“There are some powerful people messing around with something that is of nostalgic interest,” Chandler said.
It’s a nostalgia with a vindictive tinge, according to Strangio.
“The deeper reason that Hun Sen is so hated among the small lobby of congressional hawks is that he represents a double repudiation of the U.S.: first for being on the ‘winning’ side in the Vietnam War, and being placed in power by the victorious Vietnamese communists; and secondly, by the spurning the American gift of democracy after the Cold War ended,” he said.
U.S. lawmakers also heard from Cambodian-American constituents, some of whom believe that “the Khmer Rouge never left, but instead traded their black pajamas for cheap suits,” said Veasna Roeun, a Republican and vice president of the activist Cambodia-America Alliance, which is advocating for sanctions. Freeing up rights and markets “serves society much better than collectivism and crony capitalism,” he said.
To Hun Sen, such scolding has always smacked of hypocrisy in light of the United States’ Vietnam War-era bombing and later backing of the Khmer Rouge.
“You are [now] talking about human rights but when you bombed Cambodia you did not think in what state Khmer lives were,” he said in 1995, demanding at least $20 billion in compensation and an end to Western criticism.
With China and Vietnam at his side and Russia promising election monitors, Hun Sen can finally ignore D.C. donors. Freed of the CNRP, he may welcome the return of the “good old days,” Chandler said, remembering a 1981 general election in which the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party won an uncontested election of 117 seats.
“There weren’t any of these newfangled parties,” he said. “You could do it your way.”
Ben Paviour is a freelance journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.