Lessons from Cambodia?

By David Hopkins 10 December 2014

When Mr. Hun Sen became prime minister in 1985, Cambodia was under Vietnamese occupation, internationally ostracized and gripped by an ongoing Khmer Rouge-led guerilla war. Almost three decades later, the 62-year-old strongman remains in power and a measure of stability has been achieved under his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

But despite the ruling party’s oft-stated claims to have defended—to paraphrase Hun Sen—peace, order and sovereignty, dissatisfaction with the status quo is rising. In mid-2013, the CPP won a narrow victory in national elections, its worst electoral performance in 15 years.

What lies behind this veneer of peace and political stability? In “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” Phnom Penh-based journalist Sebastian Strangio offers an unflinching assessment.

Tracing Cambodia’s precarious emergence from the disastrous reign of the Khmer Rouge (1975-79), Strangio methodically dismantles the “mirage” of democracy and development assiduously constructed by the CPP and its backers. The country he depicts is ensnared by patronage politics, pervasive corruption and appalling, impunity-fueled violence.

Strangio is highly critical of international interventions—from the UN peace-keeping force (1992-93) that failed to demobilize the various fighting factions to the ongoing trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders that have been plagued by dysfunction and interference. He also takes aim at the empty apolitical development jargon of many local and international NGOs and their inclination to focus on short-term results.

Cambodia today, argues Strangio, is trapped in a “development complex.” Continued lack of state capacity is matched by ongoing disbursals of international aid, enabling the government to continue “ignoring its most basic responsibilities.”

He coins the term “Hunsenomics” to describe the system of patronage, graft and shameless nepotism that enriches a small circle of elites and their families and leaves systemic poverty to fester. At the center of this destructive but enduring social and political order, Mr. Hun Sen rules on a diet of force and fear-mongering, intimidation and bribery.

Strangio paints a perceptive portrait of the former Khmer Rouge cadre as the quintessential political animal; as comfortable wooing international aid donors as he is publically threatening opponents. Any individual or institution that may rival his impervious influence is ruthlessly brought to heel.

Mr. Hun Sen’s self-regard manifests itself in the thousands of schools that bear his name and the countless CPP billboards across the country that feature him waving benevolently, as Strangio recounts, in “Dear Leader” mode. After refusing to pass a law in 2002 on regulating the royal succession, the prime minister asserted: “I have no right to be the king. But I have the right to create a king.”

The book introduces a raft of other powerful figures. Tycoons such as Teng Bunma, who once shot out the tire of a grounded airliner in a fit of rage; the businesswoman Keat Kolney, who hoodwinked villagers in Kong Yu into parting with their land to make way for a rubber plantation; and, of course, the enigmatic former king Norodom Sihanouk, who maintained a curious relationship of rivalry and respect with Hun Sen until his death in 2012.

But the book is at its most poignant when drawing on the voices of ordinary Cambodians. Garment factory workers such as Yem Sreyvy who works long hours for a barely livable wage. Or Loun Sovath, a Buddhist monk evicted from his monastery for protesting against land confiscation.

Many others relate stories of suffering caused by the scourge of land grabbing that has accompanied “economic development” in the country. Noch Chhoun was one of several hundred residents violently evicted from Borei Keila in Phnom Penh in 2012. “If I didn’t wake up I would have died there,” she says of the bulldozers that razed her home.

As Myanmar embarks on its own stuttering transition from decades of conflict and military rule, “Hun Sen’s Cambodia” provides a sobering reminder of pitfalls that may lay in wait. The “development complex” mentioned above may be an example. Or the “licensed graft” that accompanies the privatization of state land and enterprises, to the benefit of government-aligned cronies.

But perhaps the book’s most pertinent note of caution for Myanmar is this: that the journey toward greater rights and freedoms is far from inevitable. It is always vulnerable to subversion by those with traditional means of power: wealth and weapons.

Hun Sen’s Cambodia is published in this region by Silkworm Books in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This review originally appeared in the December issue of The Irrawaddy Magazine.