ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

The Theater of Public Contrition in Cambodian Politics

As July’s election approaches, a growing number of opposition officials are following the well-worn path into Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP.

The Theater of Public Contrition in Cambodian Politics

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen inspects the construction of a sewage plant in Preah Sihanouk province, Cambodia, April 30, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/Samdech Hun Sen, Cambodian Prime Minister

In late March, I wrote about the case of Yim Sinorn and Hun Kosal, two critics of Cambodia’s government who were arrested after they posted comments on Facebook that were deemed critical of King Norodom Sihamoni. The posts in question highlighted the diminished position of the king under the all-encompassing rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and alleged that the Cambodian leader had effectively usurped the role for himself.

Their fortunes have since undergone a rapid reversal – one that speaks to the methods that Hun Sen has used to maintain his hold on power over the years. Yim Sinorn, a former youth leader for the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), has taken up a post as a undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. Hun Kosal has also entered government, as undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Land Management and Urban Planning.

The key to these sudden shifts, of course, is not hard to discern. Both came after these individuals issued groveling apologies to Prime Minister Hun Sen, in which they denounced their past allegiances and activities, and pledged to support the ruling dispensation.

“After meeting the prime minister in person, I found that he has a personality that is full of joy and deep compassion,” wrote Hun Kosal. “I am only a former prisoner who committed a crime against the Prime Minister, but after holding this invaluable meeting, the Prime Minister escorted us to the front of his residence. This behavior alone shows that he is a man with a heart that holds no malice or hatred.” Yim Sinorn likewise asked both King Sihamoni and Hun Sen for forgiveness for his “unintentional mistake.”

In a separate report yesterday, the U.S.-funded broadcaster Radio Free Asia detailed the cases of three additional opposition figures, who have defected to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) as the country moves toward national elections in July. The first was Suong Sophorn, a former CNRP youth leader and the president of the little-known Khmer Win Party, who was appointed to be the secretary of state of the Council of Ministers on Sunday after making a “clear decision to join my political life with the CPP.”

The following day, according to the RFA report, Ir Channa, the former deputy chief of the opposition Candlelight Party (CLP)’s organization in Takeo province, apologized for all his “mistakes.” A fierce critic of Hun Sen’s policy regarding Vietnamese border demarcation – the CPP has long been criticized for ceding territory to Vietnam – Ir Channa fled abroad in 2005 and was eventually granted asylum by Norway. He was then arrested in Cambodia last year after returning from exile to support the CLP in last year’s commune elections. (It is unclear if Ir Channa has requested to join the CPP.)

A third figure, former CNRP official Kean Ponlork, also issued an apology on Monday in which he requested to join the CPP. In accounting for his past “transgressions,” Kean Ponlork explained: “I was too young to be able to fully understand the depth of Cambodian politics.” Hun Sen duly accepted the apology, directing the CPP provincial committee in Takeo to find a job for the former opposition official.

This path from dissidence to the CPP has been well-trodden over the past three decades. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was walked by denizens of the royalist party Funcinpec and nationalists associated with the short-lived Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, which jumped ship as their parties’ fortunes sank. It was also replicated in a slightly different form by former mid-ranking leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who waged an insurgency from bases along the Thai border until the late 1990s before taking up local government posts under Hun Sen.

In more recent years, similar tactics have been employed against opposition parties such as the CNRP. Since the CNRP’s court-ordered dissolution in 2017, the government has made concerted efforts to absorb most of its rank-and-file officials, and the few senior leaders of the party who did not flee in exile.

This theater of contrition and acceptance forms a central part of how Hun Sen has governed the country over the past four decades, especially since the creation of the country’s current multi-party democratic system in 1993. In recent years, it has played out on Hun Sen’s Facebook page (and increasingly on his Telegram account), from where it is then reported by the government-aligned media.

This constitutes a political performance in which Hun Sen is able to demonstrate his patience, mercy, and benevolence – to position his own person above legitimate political contestation. The 70-year-old Cambodian leader welcomes all except the most hardened opponents of the government into the CPP, as long as they jettison their past allegiances and grovel in the prescribed manner.

The political purpose of this exercise, which proceeds alongside the government’s oscillating political crackdowns on the opposition, is to paint the act of opposition as futile; the constant leeching of talent from opposition parties weakens their capacity and sows mistrust in their ranks.

It is also designed to depict the CPP as the only vehicle through which officials can work for the benefit of their country. As Suong Sophorn wrote in his pledge to Hun Sen, “Being in the opposition, I appear to think that I have contributed so little to the nation and our homeland, so I have made a clear decision to join the government so that I may use my abilities to serve our people directly.” I heard similar remarks – some genuine, others less so – from a number of other politicians during the years that I spent working as a journalist in Cambodia.

The end result, for those who are granted positions within the CPP’s networks of patronage, is both political and financial dependence on the party, and ultimately on Hun Sen. The cost for these individuals, of course, is to collude in a system in which corruption and exploitation is rampant, and in which the squeezing of profit from political positions is not only common but, given the paltry official salaries on offer, pretty much compulsory.

The assumption underlying this practice is an equivalence between the interests of Hun Sen’s government and those of the Cambodian nation as a whole. Its ultimate goal, as I wrote in my 2014 book “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” is “to fully subsume [the] country’s social and political life within a self-sustaining cosmology of power.” To be sure, there are certain benefits for Hun Sen to maintain a rump opposition presence in Cambodian politics for the benefit of Western governments and other outside constituencies. But the trend lines since the 1993 election, which the CPP lost, are clear.

Given that power in Cambodia inheres in the individual rather than in the post or institution that they occupy, there is always room for these networks to expand to accommodate political defectors. Indeed, the Cambodian administration and the CPP itself have since the early 1990s grown into a bloated edifice. Whether this has destabilizing impacts in future, if the current system survives the looming transition of power from Hun Sen to his eldest son Hun Manet, is one of the most important long-term questions in Cambodian politics.