Longtime observer pessimistic about Cambodia reform


To paraphrase the old Esquire magazine, why is Hun Sen laughing?  (Source: Phnom Penh Post)

“This is no country for decent and outspoken men.”

So begins Sebastian Strangio’s crystalline analysis of Cambodia’s political environment in the highly respected Mekong Review.  The one-and-a-half-year-old quarterly journal has given me permission to excerpt a substantial portion of the author’s astute perspective on the chasm between what might be desirable in the Kingdom of Wonder and what might be achievable.

Strangio — whose recent book on Cambodia under the 31-year rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen has received terrific reviews — draws a line between what ought to be the situation in the country versus what actually is the possibility of change.

You can read the full essay in the publication, and I suspect the excerpts below will peak your interest.

Since the Mekong Review depends on subscription revenue for its survival, you may want to consider making a commitment to support it.

On 10 July, at just after half-past eight in the morning, Dr Kem Ley, a prominent Cambodian political commentator and grassroots organiser, was shot and killed while drinking coffee at a Caltex service station in downtown Phnom Penh. The bullets were fired from close range by an unemployed former soldier who was picked up in the street by police shortly afterwards, blood streaming from his head after being pummelled by an angry mob. When asked for his name, the sinewy forty-three-year-old offered a chilling sobriquet: “Chuob Samlap” — literally, “Meet Kill”. Meanwhile, Kem Ley died almost instantly, sprawled backwards on the shiny mini-mart floor.

Kem Ley’s killing was striking for being so unexpected, yet so chillingly familiar.


Since mid-2015 the government has jailed more than twenty people, including opposition parliamentarians, human rights activists and land rights campaigners. Kem Sokha, the deputy president of the country’s main opposition party, the CNRP, remained holed up in the party’s headquarters in Phnom Penh, accused of “procuring prostitution” in connection with an alleged affair with a hairdresser half his age. Meanwhile, his colleague, CNRP President Sam Rainsy, Hun Sen’s longtime bête noire, is stranded in self-exile overseas — his third enforced timeout in the past decade — facing his own raft of thin legal charges.

As Cambodia moves towards its next national election in 2018, it is becoming increasingly clear that Hun Sen and his old comrades in the CPP have little intention of ever giving up power willingly.


If I was asked to choose an epitaph for my time in Cambodia, it would be hard to better the imperishable French phrase, attributed to the nineteenth-century French critic and journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It’s not that things aren’t changing in Cambodia. In quantitative terms, the shift has been dramatic. Under Hun Sen, the country has experienced the longest period of peace, or lack-of-war, in the country’s modern history. The economy has approached take-off, and Phnom Penh has become a boomtown fretted with light. In line with this, grievances and expectations are also growing. Since the early 1990s, the patronage-based political system headed by Hun Sen has started to provoke a strong blowback from the Cambodian public. Requiring ever greater amounts of patronage to renew the loyalty of powerful tycoons, military commanders and other heavies, the system is fast approaching the outer limits of both the country’s resources — the amount of land left to sell, the number of trees left to cut — and the limits of what the Cambodian people are willing to endure.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. But the faith remains. The high hopes that were heaped on Cambodia in the 1990s have reappeared today, at another time of rapid change. With a tectonic shift in demographics, the much-hoped-for “transition” is again nigh, supercharged by Facebook. . . In the utterances of global human rights activists and others in the humanitarian imperium, Cambodia has always been a special case: it is the democracy that should have been, but never was, but might soon be again — if only we get it right this time.

But liberal diagnoses of Cambodia focus so much attention on the ought that they often forget to deal with the is. Cambodia ought to be more fair and democratic — few would disagree. The government ought, also, to respect its very fine constitution, rich with rights and freedom-guarantees, and let people speak their mind without fear of violent attack. . .

But pointing out the ought is a pointless exercise if one does not ask, as Bill Clinton might have phrased it, what the reality of is is. After eight years of working in Cambodia, and a further three or four observing its cycles from afar, here’s what I’ve learned of the reality. Firstly, the rule of law and an impartial judiciary, the foundation of a democratic society, are the end products of successful liberal systems, not the beginnings. There’s no plan; they can’t be reverse-engineered, like a Rolex watch or a downed piece of American military technology. To be sure, a successful country’s institutions can be reproduced in a country like Cambodia. You can easily declare them on paper: photocopies of post-history. But there’s no inherent magic in institutions, to magnetise the people that fill them.

Secondly, there’s good reason to think the causality actually flows in the opposite direction. Like sponges absorbing sea-water, institutions take on the weight of the cultural, social and political conditions in which they are immersed. Everything politically exalted tends downwards into the deep water of local customs and relations of power.

Cambodian political culture has never tolerated opposition. As the scholars Trudy Jacobsen and Martin Stuart-Fox argued in a 2013 paper*, political power here stems not from a popular mandate, but from the fragile perception of bunn, or Buddhist merit. This is built and expressed through ostentatious displays of wealth and power, by feeding patronage networks and by expressions of charismatic oratory. Those with superior bunn, and the wealth that is its worldly manifestation, are perceived to hold their power as if by right. “In a very real sense,” Jacobsen and Stuart-Fox write, “bunn determines destiny.” In this pre-modern scheme of power, it is no surprise that criticisms often provoke violent reactions. To question a leader has traditionally been to question his merit, and hence his right to rule. This, naturally, is a slight that cannot be tolerated.

Today, as the Cambodian multi-party system approaches its silver jubilee, the concept of a “loyal opposition” remains a contradiction in terms, a phrase whose two halves attempt to bridge an irreconcilable gap. In its history, the country has never experienced a peaceful transfer of power from one regime to another.


There are many reasons for Hun Sen’s longevity, but the main one is that he has dealt with his country on the basis of how it is, rather than some vision of how it ought to be.


Hun Sen has succeeded by reinforcing, through violence and rough-edged populist appeal, the way things already are and have supposedly always have been — the cultural reflexes of deference, hardened during decades of conflict. Western governments, and the opposition leaders who appeal to them for support, carry an additional burden. They are always forced to square ideological commitments — to democratisation, to respect for human rights — with Cambodian realities. They struggle to fit the ought into the is. It is a noble enterprise. But it’s no surprise that Hun Sen always comes out on top.

 Email: malcolmncarter@gmail.com

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