The Eternal Win-Wins of Hun Sen’s Power in Cambodia

Recent Features


The Eternal Win-Wins of Hun Sen’s Power in Cambodia

There is some remarkable continuity in the rhetoric that the ruling party has adopted to sustain its legitimacy.

The Eternal Win-Wins of Hun Sen’s Power in Cambodia
Credit: Flickr/World Economic Forum

Weeks after the formal dissolution of Cambodia’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the government is lauding over the defections of CNRP members to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), something that Prime Minister Hun Sen has said is necessary if thousands of elected officials are to keep their jobs.

Unsurprisingly, as part of this, we have seen the reemergence of one of Hun Sen’s favored terms, the “Win-Win Policy,” a similar term he used to convince Khmer Rouge members to defect to the government in the early 1990s, which prompted the end of the civil war.

The so-called “Win-Win Policy” is arguably an illustration of the Prime Minister’s adroit use of realpolitik, or what some might say is his government’s opportunistic nature. And the government will now set this protean instinct to perpetuity, with a new monument built on the outskirts of the capital. The Phnom Penh Post reported on Thursday:

Dubbed the “Win-Win Monument”, the building is primarily meant to celebrate Hun Sen’s oft-cited “Win-Win Policy” of allowing Khmer Rouge holdouts to keep their military positions in exchange for defecting to government forces, ending decades of civil war. Now, according to Defense Minister Tea Banh, it will also commemorate something else: the ruling party’s campaign to encourage opposition defections after the highly controversial decision to dissolve its only legitimate competition earlier this month.

Was it coincidence or something more revelatory that the same copy of the newspaper carried another story, citing a study by the risk advisory firm, Access Asia Consulting, about how the government’s ongoing crackdown against political opponents and civil society is unlikely to affect Cambodia’s economy?

That report stated that “a 2018 election victory for the CPP is widely regarded by many in the business community as the best-case scenario for stability and business continuity in 2018 and beyond.”

There you have it, “stability and business continuity,” the rhyming couplet that embodies another of the CPP’s win-win policies. Indeed, the ruling party has for years built its entire narrative around these two pledges, domestically and internationally.

Before an election, the CCP is keen to stress that it is the party that brought an end to the Khmer Rouge and the party that ended the civil war. As a corollary, it has long said that if it falls from power, Cambodia will once again return to civil war, without saying who will actually instigate such an event, given that it controls the entire military machine.

Another of its pitches is that it is the party that led to an average 7.6 percent growth rate from 1994 to 2015 put more cash in many peoples’ pockets and oversaw falling poverty rates. How it has done this, though, is never to be questioned by party loyalists, though is a well-known to all those who have been left aside by Cambodia’s economic development, of which there are many.

Years ago, I termed the current period as Cambodia’s “Gilded Age,” a designation that still holds some weight. “What is the chief end of man? To get rich. In what way? Dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must,” Mark Twain satirized America in the 1870s. We all know that after America’s Gilded Age came its Progressive Era. But we will have to see if history repeats itself for Cambodia.

In an August article for this column, I wrote about the concept of a “stabilitocracy,” a term coined by the Montenegrin academic Srdja Pavlovic. It’s an appealing concept for anyone interested in how most Southeast Asian nations justify oppression and autocracy for the sake of gradual economic development and political surety – and how the international community succumbs to such thinking. Indeed, as I noted, this is hardly new in Cambodia. I wrote thusly:

In the early 1990s, the UN launched one of its largest missions in history: a $2 billion project to restore peace and democracy to Cambodia under the auspices of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). Today, it is readily said that its ideals failed. But that would be to confuse what those ideals were. Sebastian Strangio was correct when he wrote in Hun Sen’s Cambodia that the international community didn’t pay $2 billion to bring democracy to Cambodia; it paid to get Cambodia “off the agenda.” Charles Twining, who became the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia in 1994, commented that UNTAC “wasn’t to establish democracy… it was to stop the fighting” between the remnants of the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese-backed government, as Strangio noted.

Caroline Hughes, an academic, was a little more sympathetic to UNTAC, though she wrote that once the “proto-liberal peace” brought by the UN mission had collapsed after the CPP’s 1997 coup, which removed the royalist Funcinpec party from a power-sharing agreement, “the liberal democratic agenda in Cambodia was largely abandoned by Cambodia’s donors from 1997 in favor of a ‘good governance’ agenda that focused much more on promoting investor-friendly economic governance than on democratization.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même, after all. So, now, almost 25 years after UNTAC, and twenty years on from the 1997 coup, we are again seeing the rise of the old dialectic: stability or progress.

Domestically, there are signs that stability is winning. There has yet to be any protests against the CNRP’s dissolution, while the 2018 general election looks likely to go ahead, despite the fact the one could predict the outcome today. Indeed, across the region, economic growth has quietened calls for democracy and human rights. It appears a human trait to desire the quiet life as much as autonomy.

Internationally, though, we are still waiting to find out whether the democratic world will opt for the CPP’s brand of stability, or decide that stability without human rights and a genuine democracy is no stability at all.

The United States and the European Union (EU) are threatening sanctions, some of which could severally afflict the country’s economy. For example, removing Cambodia from the EU’s Everything But Arms initiative, which guarantees tariff and tax-free trade, could force many garment factories, the largest exporter of goods, to close down in Cambodia and move elsewhere. This would affect hundreds of thousands of workers and their families, given that remittances from the urban workers are essential for rural populations.

Not everyone though thinks the U.S. or EU will make such a move. The earlier mentioned Access Asia Consulting report states that “the threat of sanctions by Western countries will likely not be heeded, while the possibility of the EU suspending Cambodia’s inclusion in its Everything But Arms initiative would be a gradual and enduring process.”

This might turn out to be another accurate observation.