The Mirage of a Cambodia Palace Coup

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The Mirage of a Cambodia Palace Coup

Suggestions by Sam Rainsy of a palace coup grossly overestimate factionalism in the CPP and underestimate Hun Sen’s power.

Despite having failed to return to Cambodia from exile on March 3 despite a very public wager with Prime Minister Hun Sen that he would do so, Sam Rainsy, the Cambodian opposition figure who is today the acting-president of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), continues to be causing trouble on a range of fronts that may draw attention but are unlikely to have any real impact on the country’s politics.

First, having not returned, he decided instead to once again call on the military to disobey the orders of Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which is improbable given the military often resembles the CPP’s armed wing. Then, days later, Sam Rainsy inexplicably appeared to call for a “palace coup” within the CPP by saying the exiled opposition party could work with the ruling party but only if Hun Sen was removed. “The CNRP does not demand a regime change – we extend an embrace towards the ruling party, as only these two parties can determine the destiny of Cambodia. Removal of Hun Sen is the first step,” he said.

At best, Sam Rainsy is engaged in public blue-sky thinking. It is difficult to even begin to assess this in any meaningful way with so much uncertainty around so many fronts, and where the basics, such as his intended audience – other CNRP members, the Cambodian public, CPP functionaries or (I suspect most likely) the international community that is threatening to sanction the Cambodian government for its political stranglehold – and the extent to which they would be swayed by this focus, is not readily apparent. This could also well be publicity designed to affect more private deliberations that are ongoing.

Nonetheless, his latest appeal for the CPP to work with the CNRP, perhaps in a coalition if Hun Sen is removed from power, necessitates some reflection of factionalism within the CPP as the ruling party, something that has fascinated Cambodia-watchers for years. Some are of the opinion that Hun Sen’s power is today unquestioned and absolute, and any possibility of a power-struggle perished in 2015 with Chea Sim, one of the party’s founders and triumvirate of grandees. Others, however, reckon that Hun Sen’s position is in fact unstable and could be challenged; for most who subscribe to this view, Interior Minister Sar Kheng is considered a “liberal” alternative.

Both of these theories stroke the edges of reality. My sense from talking to those who are aware of some of the internal workings is that there is factionalism within the CPP but it does not include Hun Sen, whose power is indeed absolute. In one sense, it is possible to say that the CPP, pretty much since the mid-2000s, has become a “leader-party” in that the thoughts and whims of Hun Sen are far more important that the collective opinions of the party itself. On a deeper level, what one eyes is a party basically unified in its faith in Hun Sen’s rule. It seems quite obvious that party factionalism still exists, and perhaps has increased recently, but all of this takes place below the apex of Hun Sen. Recent years have more ministers and military officials jostling for power. Children are promoted (or demoted by competing ministers) while most party grandees try to place their loyalists in different ministries to ensure they have some influence across the board.

But it is important to emphasize that all this benefits Hun Sen. Constant squabbling for patronage positions and influence by those beneath him limits their power, while making sure that personal loyalty to Hun Sen is the price of party unity. And for a protean party that oscillates almost on a daily basis between populism and elitism, between the free-market and intervention, faith in its leader is indeed one constant. It is little surprise that a personality cult for Hun Sen has been heavily embellished in recent years, especially on social media and in pro-government newspapers, to such an extent where it is difficult to know where Hun Sen begins and the party ends.

Consider, too, how much power he has built. Hun Sen’s eldest son, Hun Manet, is now the second highest-ranking official in the military, while another son, Hun Manith, is the director-general of military intelligence. Another son, Hun Many, is in charge of the party’s youth wing, an important propaganda tool given the country’s youthful population. Meanwhile, his daughter, Hun Mana, controls a vast business empire, including some of Cambodia’s most profitable firms, and a Brobdingnagian network of media outlets. His wife, Bun Rany, is president of the politicized Cambodian Red Cross, an important propaganda instrument when it comes to appealing to the country’s poor and needy. And then there are Hun Sen’s extended family members, who can be said to have fingers in every Cambodian pie.

Now compare it to the limited family connections of other CPP elites. Interior Minister Sar Kheng’s son, Sar Sokha, was made a lieutenant general last year and is a secretary of state at the Education Ministry. Say Chhum, president of the Senate and chairman of the CPP’s Permanent Committee, its elite decision-making body, has one well-placed son, Say Sam Al, who is Minister of Environment. Defence Minister Tea Banh’s children are provincial governors. There are of course additional connections that these individuals may have that are more indirect in nature, but the point is that none of these politicians’ family ties are as vast, or as important, as Hun Sen’s.

Moreover, Hun Sen, has made sure that no other politician can develop such a vast networks of political interest. Just look at what happened after the death in 2017 of Sok An, a Deputy Prime Minister who was called Hun Sen’s “right-hand man.” Sok An’s power was, indeed, vast. He was among other things head of the Council of Ministers, the cabinet; chairman of the state-controlled Cambodian National Petroleum Authority and Apsara Authority, which controls the money-spinning Angkor Wat park; chief of the Khmer Rouge tribunal; and head of the Royal Academy. His wife, Annie Sok An, vice president of the Cambodian Red Cross, while his sons secretaries of state and one married to Hun Sen’s youngest daughter. Sok An, then, wielded genuine power and had far flung connections. But after Sok An’s death, many of the posts he held were divvied up by Hun Sen and transferred to the control of different ministers, making sure that no-one but himself controlled such a vast network.

Or, for that matter, consider recent changes in the military. Last year, three of the most senior military officials resigned so they could run for the CPP in the general election. Most won but quickly stepped down as MPs (reportedly on the CPP’s orders) and were subsequently handed ministerial roles. Replacing them was a younger set of military leaders, in particular Hun Sen’s son Hun Manet who is now thought to rule the roost. The little-known Vong Pisen took over as commander-in-chief, the military’s highest-ranking position, but important units have been transferred away from his purview and under Hun Manet’s command. “Together with the marked lack of change within the CPP following the election, others have argued that Hun Sen is making these moves because he still does not fully trust the military or other senior elites outside his own family,” wrote an academic last year.

To be sure, it is never easy to get a full sense of the inner workings of the CPP, and we should always leave room for unexpected developments to change the current trajectory of things. But for now, all indications suggest that any talk of a power struggle within the CPP is at best overly sanguine, and at worst negligent of reality. Though there are no doubt other power centers beyond Hun Sen that exist, that ought not to undermine the fundamental reality that his position in Cambodia today remains immensely powerful relative to other potential challengers.

An earlier version of this article had referred to Say Sam Al as Minister of Education. He is Minister of Environment. A correction has been made in the article.