Yesterday, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen announced in a televised speech that he was stepping down as Cambodia’s leader, after 38 years in the cockpit of power, and will make way for his eldest son, Hun Manet. The announcement follows an election in which the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won a crushing victory – and unsurprisingly so, given the lack of any meaningful source of opposition. The handover of power has been set for August 22, when a new-look CPP cabinet, made up predominantly of the sons of party grandees, will be sworn into office.
There is much that can be said both about Hun Sen’s political legacy in Cambodia and the challenges that his son will face in carrying this forward. Among the most pressing questions being asked in foreign capitals is what impact the change in leadership will have on the future trajectory of Cambodia’s foreign policy, which in recent years has been characterized by a chilling of ties with the Western democracies and a conversely heavy shift toward China.
Despite the fact that Cambodia and Western governments may well view the advent of the 45-year-old Manet as a chance to initiate a diplomatic reset, there is unlikely to be a significant shift in the country’s foreign orientation.
This is the case for two reasons. The first is the nature of the political system that Manet will inherit, which has grown to be strongly reliant on economic and political support from China. The second is the perception of Western governments, which have made investments in the idea of Cambodian democracy, which they are unlikely to abandon in the interests of improved relations.
Cambodia’s political system, as it has developed under Hun Sen, is characterized by a turbocharged form of clientelism in which power resides in individuals rather than in the offices that they occupy. In the absence of durable, independent political institutions, power flows through relationships of obligation and loyalty that bind the political establishment, the business elite, and the security forces. Sitting atop this pyramidal network is Hun Sen and his family, on whom the countless ksae, or “strings,” of patronage converge.
Far from enjoying absolute power, however, Hun Sen has been beholden to powerful figures within this elite network, who can be expected to resist any attempt by Manet to reform the system in the direction of something more accountable. Their loyalty is contingent and must be periodically renewed, usually by the granting of preferential access to natural resources, business opportunities, and other forms of patronage. As Neil Loughlin of the City University of London pointed out in an insightful Twitter thread yesterday, this system relies on constant growth, absent which the bonds of patronage could begin to fray. And in recent years, an increasing proportion of this growth has been created by investment from China – both state-led infrastructure funding and private sector investment. The key to the system’s continuity, Loughlin wrote, “will be [Manet’s] ability to maintain growth to sustain the elite patronage system built up by his father, which is now to a significant degree fed by Chinese investment.”
Alongside this economic largess, China has offered Cambodia diplomatic support that has allowed Hun Sen to neutralize and eliminate sources of opposition, sidestep Western inducements to reform, and shore up the political system that underpins his power.
For years, roughly from 1993 until the beginning of the 2010s, the Cambodian government’s reliance on Western donor aid – and the intricate good governance and human rights conditionalities that were often attached to it – imposed distinct, if constantly shifting, limits on Hun Sen’s political freedom of maneuver. But with the advent of the “ironclad” relationship between Phnom Penh and Beijing, Hun Sen is no longer as reliant on Western money, and no longer as sensitive to the opinion of Western governments. As a result, he has been able unilaterally to abrogate the international settlement that created Cambodia’s democratic system in the early 1990s, and return the country to a form of more openly authoritarian rule – as evidenced by Sunday’s no-contest election.
The need to safeguard the CPP’s political monopoly from the designs of perceived enemies, both internal and external, will also require continued support from China – and will continue to be a roadblock to improved relations with the West.
From this side, too, the impetus toward an improvement in relations appears unlikely. Following the Paris Peace Agreements of 1991, and the subsequent arrival of the UNTAC peacekeeping mission in early 1992, the Western democracies, and particularly the United States, have been invested heavily, both morally and financially, in the idea of Cambodia as a democratic project. The effort to transform a war-torn country into a prosperous multiparty democracy became a key project of the optimistic post-Cold War era. Indeed, for some officials it was viewed as almost a form of atonement for the Western policies that contributed to the country’s devastation during the Cold War.
This view of the country has persisted, to the eternal chagrin of Hun Sen, who has come to harbor a deep resentment that his achievements, as he sees them, have gone unrecognized in the West. One reason for its persistence is a common perception of Cambodia as strategically marginal – a country where there was ultimately little “cost” to standing on principle. Absent any significant “interests,” democratic governments could hold fast to their values, even as they traded one off against the other elsewhere. Another reason has been Hun Sen’s sheer longevity – over the years, he has grown into a Gaddafi-like figure – and a natural distaste for the methods that he has used to remain in power.
Any substantial improvement in relations between Cambodia and the Western democracies will require the latter to adopt a more pragmatic policy toward the country, and realistic expectations of the incoming Hun Manet administration. However, Phnom Penh is unlikely to get the benefit of the doubt in the aftermath of a rigged election in which the CPP won 120 of the 125 seats in the National Assembly, in a climate of fear and intimidation. For those nations most worried about China’s growing influence, particularly the U.S., the rapid progress on the Chinese-backed refurbishment of the Ream Naval Base on Cambodia’s south coast, which some U.S. security analysts view as an embryonic base for the People’s Liberation Army Navy, will make a reset even less likely in the immediate term.
The immediate response to Sunday’s election of many Western governments – particularly the U.S., which has announced that it will freeze some aid programs and introduce visa restrictions for officials responsible for “undermining democracy” in Cambodia – suggests that they will first await a meaningful gesture by the Hun Manet administration: to introduce democratic reforms, to distance itself from China, or both.
As suggested above, these are things that Cambodia’s leader-in-waiting does not have the freedom to grant, even assuming he has the will. Significant political reform would almost by definition undermine the system upon which Manet’s success will hinge, as would spurning China, the most reliable means by which this system of patronage can be nourished and defended. That does not rule out gestures – say, the pardoning and release of opposition leader Kem Sokha from his highly conditional form of house arrest, or other amnesties of political prisoners. But we’ve seen this movie many times before: any gesture of reform will be grudging, formalistic, and easily reversed down the line; so, conversely, will any improvement in relations that results.
For the immediate term, then, there is a certain structural path dependence on Cambodia’s current international alignments – one that suggests some small variations in the curve, but no fundamental change of trajectory under a new leader.