Sophal Ear on Cambodia’s Political Climate

Sophal Ear, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Diplomacy & World Affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles where he teaches international political economy, international development, international security, and Asian security. Previously, he taught at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. He has consulted for the World Bank, was Assistant Representative for UNDP in East Timor, and served as Advisor to Cambodia's first private equity fund Leopard Capital. He is the author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy(Columbia University Press) and co-author of The Hungry Dragon: How China’s Resources Quest is Reshaping the World (Routledge). A graduate of Princeton and Berkeley, he moved to the United States from France as a Cambodian refugee at the age of 10. He interviewed with Seoyoon Choi CMC '19 on February 1, 2018. Biography and photo courtesy of Sophal Ear.

The Cambodian Supreme Court dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and jailed its leader Kem Sokha on charges of treason last November. Why was the CNRP a threat to the regime?

In 2013, the opposition won an unprecedented number of seats in the National Assembly and threatened the majority status of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Following the election, the CPP proceeded to curtail the CNRP’s growth in popularity. When the 2017 Commune Elections took place, one would have expected very modest gains for the CNRP, but the opposition party was able to make large gains again. These results were not quite as impressive as those of 2013 because the Commune Elections always favor the ruling party, but in 2017, the CPP lost hundreds of Commune Chief positions despite the CPP’s continuous efforts since 2013 to prevent the opposition’s rise. Feeling threatened by the results of the Commune Election, the Cambodian government placed the CNRP’s leader under arrest after having already exiled another leader, who had to resign from the party’s leadership to prevent the dissolution (at the time) of the CNRP. The CNRP made advances that were completely unacceptable to the ruling CPP and became an existential threat to the CPP. The leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, has been in power for 33 years. Hun Sen and his associates fear that if the CPP loses its grip on power, CPP leaders will not only have valuable assets taken from them, but could also face prosecution.

The Cambodian People’s Party has been in power since 1979 and is one of the longest ruling parties in the world. Could you speak about the history of political opposition in Cambodia? Is the treatment of the CNRP exceptional?

The Cambodian People’s Party, the ruling party of Cambodia, is a descendant of the pro-Vietnam, communist Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP) that was founded in 1951. An opposition has existed in Cambodia’s current “Second Kingdom” political system only since the early 1990s and the UN-organized election of 1993. Prior to the 1990s, instead of facing political opposition, the ruling party fought against the resistance, such as the Khmer Rouge, the Royalists, and the non-communists then known as the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front. The Khmer Rouge never became a competing political party in the 1990s, having refused to enter the 1993 election. The Royalists and the non-communist resistance continued, and various new parties formed at the same time. Later in the 2000s, the Sam Rainsy Party merged with the Human Rights Party to create the Cambodian National Rescue Party. Since Cambodia’s electoral system is based on proportional representation and has a minimum threshold, small parties that do not win many votes do not gain any seats in the National Assembly. But by combining forces, the CNRP was able to make unprecedented gains in 2013 in the National Assembly. As to the treatment of the CNRP, it may appear exceptional in that the ruling party is not using brute force as it did in the events of July 5-6, 1997, when hundreds of people were killed. When Prime Minister Hun Sen spoke before the recent Commune Election and said he was willing to eliminate 100 to 200 people in order to make millions better off, he was referring exactly to the events of 1997, in case anyone forgot. In this sense, the dissolution of the CNRP is exceptional in that the CPP decided to dissolve an opposition party that threatened it rather than using force and massacring its opponents. That is, it used what is known as “lawfare,” which is the asymmetric use of the legal system to undermine and delegitimize its enemy, the opposition party. The CPP passed laws and amendments that would help weaken the opposition and punish it on grounds of treason.

Are there signs of fractures within the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)? Is there a struggle over Hun Sen’s succession that could lead to the CPP’s downfall?

The three founders of the CPP are Chea Sim, Heng Samrin, and Hun Sen. Even after Chea Sim’s death, his faction survived through Sar Kheng, who is the Interior Minister. There is certainly dissatisfaction within the party regarding how Prime Minister Hun Sen is leading the country, but the factions are unlikely to go to war with each other because there is too much at stake. Hun Sen wants one of his male children to succeed him. Within the CPP, there are high-ranking officials who believe their children are better suited to lead Cambodia (or at least deserve a chance to do so). The fact that Hun Sen’s children have studied in the U.S., Australia, and the U.K., earning degrees at West Point, NYU, National Defense University, Melbourne University, and Bristol University does not by virtue of earning these degrees make them shoo-in for Prime Minister. Elites within the party will question what Hun Sen’s children have contributed to the party.

The U.S. State Department has expressed concern over the arrest of Kem Sokha, and Cambodia’s opposition politicians have urged the United States to respond with sanctions and travel bans on the regime. Does U.S. pressure matter for Cambodia’s domestic politics, in particular given the regime’s greater reliance on China as a political and economic ally?

It is true that the State Department has taken such measures. Many in the U.S. such as Senators Ted Cruz and John McCain have spoken out against political repression in Cambodia. Regarding your question of whether U.S. pressure matters for Cambodia’s domestic politics, the answer depends on what kind of pressure it is. The travel ban on individuals and their families who have undermined Cambodian democracy may prevent Cambodian elites from enjoying their leisure activities, such as shopping in the U.S. and purchasing a new iPhone X to show off. As a result, Cambodian politicians close to the Prime Minister who are not on the travel ban would not want to bring attention to this. That is, they would not want to appear as if their cooperation with the U.S. allowed them to stay off the U.S. blacklist. In addition to the travel ban, asset freezes and placements on the designated foreign national list could seriously affect the ruling party’s elites. Once they are named on the list, they will not be able to conduct any banking that involves U.S. banks. The entire global banking system relies on American intermediate banks. Although these elites claim that they themselves do not have U.S. assets, their relatives and friends do. Placement on this list could be a real problem for them. The real game-changer, however, would be U.S. actions limiting trade with Cambodia. U.S. pressure that affects hundreds of thousands of Cambodian garment workers could potentially lead to instability. The U.S. offers the General System of Preferences (GSP), and Europe offers Everything But Arms (EBA) to Cambodia. Relatively speaking, the U.S. has less leverage with GSP due to Cambodia’s membership in the WTO. If Europe were to pause EBA with Cambodia because of political repression, it would cost Cambodia hundreds of millions of dollars. It would be very damaging for the Cambodia’s economy and its elites. China is also a huge factor; it is the elephant in the room. China provides resources and investments to Cambodia, but it will not buy Cambodia’s garments if the U.S. or Europe decides to buy fewer garments from Cambodia.

Cambodia’s military and police have remained powerful despite efforts in the 1990s to liberalize Cambodia. Why did those organs remain so powerful within Cambodia’s political system?

The political elite and the ruling party have coopted the military and the police to serve their own needs. The elites or those close to the Prime Minister have familial relationships through marriages and extended families. The chief of Cambodia’s National Police, for instance, is the Prime Minister’s nephew-in-law. The Interior Minister has family relations with the Prime Minister through marriage. Cambodia’s military and police remain powerful because they essentially allow the regime to stay in power. So it is not surprising when the Minister of Defense makes the threat that if anyone disputes the election results, he will “smash their teeth” -- which is an actual quote from him.

China is among the greatest providers of foreign aid to Cambodia, and one that does not attach conditions relating to democracy or human rights. What is Cambodia’s strategic importance to China in the face of regional conflicts, including the conflict over the South China Sea?

Cambodia has been China’s ally within ASEAN since the 2000s. Following the events of July 5-6, 1997, which essentially was a coup, the Cambodian government decided that it would banish the representative office of Taiwan and begin to follow the “One China” policy in earnest (while still accepting Taiwanese investment). This opened up the doors for the ruling party to form much deeper ties with China. By the late 1990s, the biggest Chinese language school (by number of students) outside of China was built in Cambodia. Cambodia also received foreign aid, aid-like instruments, and billions of dollars of investments. These efforts have made Cambodia very dependent on China, and as a result, China has essentially bought a seat at the table of ASEAN. In 2012, Cambodia became China’s spokesperson when it made a statement that the members of ASEAN would not “internationalize” the South China Sea dispute. The term “internationalize” literally came from China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson. It was as if the Cambodian government was reading a script that China asked it to read. In 2009, there was an incident in which 20 Uighurs from China sought asylum from the UN Refugee Agency office in Cambodia. Instead of granting them protection, the Cambodian government deported the Uighurs back to China, and they have not been heard from since then. The day after the Uighurs were sent back, Xi Jinping, then Vice President of China, came to Cambodia and signed a $1.2 billion package of investments and aid. The message could not have been clearer. Even though Cambodia says that it is neutral and not aligned with a specific country, its actions speak louder than words. Because of Chinese investment in Cambodia, the relationship between China and Cambodia is increasingly neocolonial. If a country does not have its own foreign policy, is it truly a sovereign country?

Despite significant economic growth over the past three decades, the Cambodian economy suffers from cronyism, poverty, low wages, and land grabs. Is Cambodia’s extreme inequality a threat to the stability of the economy? Could other factors bring about a collapse of the Cambodian economy?

In the last decade alone, the average growth rate of the Cambodian economy has been around 8 percent per year, which is higher than China’s average growth in the recent years. But this has happened in the context of growing inequality and oppressive corruption. Businessmen operating in Cambodia do not necessarily want the absence of corruption. These businesses are willing to work within a corrupt environment as long as it favors them. Other factors such as the real estate bubble now underway could also bring down the Cambodian economy. There are signs of so-called “ghost cities” in Cambodia that have empty condos that are all owned and purchased already. The workers who built the condos, or the average Cambodian, cannot afford them. Back when I lived in Cambodia in the mid-2000s, the price of land was already an outrageous $1,000 per square meter. Now it is around $3,000-$3,500 per square meter for condos! Prices are driven up to the point that average people cannot afford a place to live. Authoritarian leadership in Cambodia is similar to that of Singapore in this respect: as long as the government can maintain growth, the masses will not ask for true democracy. The moment it becomes difficult for the government to keep this promise, a collapse may occur. This is the problem of any country that lacks democracy since leaders cannot be easily changed through voting when they prove themselves incompetent.

Seoyoon Choi CMC '19Student Journalist

Featured Image by Heng Reaksmey, VOA Khmer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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