Sebastian Strangio’s book on Hun Sen’s Cambodia lays bare the mirage on the Mekong

It looks like a democracy and the phrases beloved of the UN and international NGOs ring around Phnom Penh's staterooms, but a new book says Cambodia is a big fake.
Cambodia’s longest-serving prime minister Hun Sen at a polling station in Kandal province during the general election last year, showing the indelible ink on his finger that is used to indicate that he has cast his vote. Kimlong Meng / Demotix / Corbis
Cambodia’s longest-serving prime minister Hun Sen at a polling station in Kandal province during the general election last year, showing the indelible ink on his finger that is used to indicate that he has cast his vote. Kimlong Meng / Demotix / Corbis
On the surface, Cambodia today is one of the great success stories of democratic transition – every bit the poster country for UNTAC, the United Nations' mission that oversaw implementation of the 1991 Paris peace accords, which ended the series of civil wars, occupations and mass slaughter that had plagued the country since 1967.

There are regular elections, fiercely fought and which the governing Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has not been able to guarantee winning in the past, being forced into coalition with the then main opposition, the royalist Funcinpec in 1993 and 1998. Vibrant English-language newspapers such as The Phnom Penh Post (of which the book's Australian author, Sebastian Strangio, is a former deputy news editor) and The Cambodia Daily, are openly critical of the government. Civil society flourishes, with more than 2,600 NGOs officially registered. Labour unions often call strikes and walkouts.

Growth has been impressive; the economy bounced back almost immediately after the financial crisis of 2007-08. With a young population, it would seem that Cambodia can look to a bright future and put behind it both the years of war and those when it was known as the country of “the killing fields”, when the Maoist Khmer Rouge put the calendar back to “Year Zero” and up to 25 per cent of the population died in their lunatic brand of agrarian revolution.

There's just one problem. It is all, argues Strangio, who has covered the region since 2008 for publications such as Foreign Policy and The Economist, a conjuring trick. Carefully constructed by Hun Sen, who has been prime minister since 1985, every single institution, law, process, check, balance and review that gives the impression of a new democracy taking its baby steps – a few stumbles are to be expected, surely? – is hollow. The UN's great experiment in rebuilding a nation from the rubble is, according to Strangio, “a mirage on the Mekong”.

The English press is free, for instance – and those are the papers that international observers see – but the Khmer media are tightly controlled. What of all those NGOs? “Few other governments had so fully absorbed the symbols and narratives of global humanism to so little apparent effect.” Aid money has found its way into the pockets of a crony class in a country so riddled with corruption that educational certificates are almost worthless, so commonplace is bribing teachers for credits. Elections are competitive, but could not be called “free and fair”, given the amount of intimidation and forced signing up of members by the CPP, which also consistently presents a large amount of government spending as largesse by the party and prominent figures and supporters. Presiding over it all is Hun Sen, a man with “a fierce ambition, a serrated political instinct and a genuine ability to channel the hopes and fears of rural Cambodians”.

I used to think of Hun Sen as a cynical authoritarian but also a skilful one – as anyone must be whose career included being a regimental commander under the Khmer Rouge, to minister in and then prime minister of the Vietnamese-installed government that booted them out in 1979; who could survive losing the first elections held under the UN's auspices in 1993 by engineering a fake secession in the east of the country, and leveraging the title of “Second Prime Minister” out of his claim that only he could persuade the rebels to return to the fold; and who ultimately succeeded in neutering the one force that he could not control, the monarchy, installing a reluctant former ballet dancer to the throne after King Sihanouk stepped down in 2004.

After reading this hugely compelling book, however, it is impossible not to regard him as a genius that any would-be parliamentary autocrat should study. To put him in the same class as Vladimir Putin might be considered a compliment by Hun Sen's supporters; except he has succeeded in far more difficult and closely monitored circumstances. It is Putin who could probably take a lesson or two from Hun Sen.

Beyond the bare facts – that the Khmer Rouge instituted a genocide in Cambodia, for instance – the country's history is little known by those who don't follow the region closely. Strangio manages to condense the pre-20th century past and then go into much more detail from 1947, when the French colonial powers introduced a constitutional monarchy, in a way that presents a narrative that both newcomers and seasoned Cambodia-­watchers will find gripping. He traces, with deserved sympathy, the high-wire act that King Sihanouk maintained while surrounded by more powerful neighbours until he was deposed by a pro-American coup in 1970 (he returned to the throne in 1993). Indeed, one of the questions posed by that history is the extent to which that coup, by General Lon Nol, laid the ground for much that followed. It was then that Sihanouk took to the radio from exile in Beijing and urged his countrymen to rise up and support the Communists, whom he referred to as the “Khmer Rouge”, with no way of foretelling the murderous path they would take when they came to power four years later.

Once we are into that period, Hun Sen begins his comparatively swift ascent (he claimed he joined the Khmer Rouge in answer to his king's call), and so the story of Cambodia and that of its long-term leader naturally dovetail. Strangio takes the tale up to the present day, and then examines the nature of the country's economy, its judiciary, education institutions, civil society and so on, explaining how each is not what it seems and how all bend towards an ancient Khmer system of patronage which Hun Sen has painted with a democratic facade.

But it is the politics, and the reality that Cambodia has proved very poor soil for the seeds of liberalism and transparency that the UN planted, that fascinates. Hun Sen has complete mastery of the language that international NGOs, aid agencies and foreign governments like to hear, giving speeches to donor conferences in the capital Phnom Penh that reference “sustainability”, “efficiency”, “operation-oriented administration with high productivity, responsibility and capacity” and the like. But as Strangio notes, it was “all quite meaningless”. Since 1992, “Cambodia had received around $12 billion [Dh44bn] in foreign aid, while showing a more or less complete lack of progress on the various reform ‘benchmarks' formulated by its Western ‘partners'”. Those governments traded on the hope that by continuing to contribute they would be able to exert some influence, as opposed to leaving the country wide open to the Chinese. In the end, they were all fooled. In 2010, Hun Sen stopped such events indefinitely after the biggest aid pledge ever, for $1.1bn.

If, however, he appears to be the villain-in-chief, there appears to be no one of stature who could become the great liberal reformer that western media always want to identify in such scenarios. The closest would be Sam Rainsy, an opposition politician who served as Finance Minister in the 1993 coalition in which Hun Sen was Second Prime Minister. Like several other South East Asian “liberals”, he knows well how to play to western audiences. But at home, and in a language few television correspondents understand, he is not averse to stirring up domestic prejudices, in his case against ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia. His old boss, the former First Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh, leader of Funcinpec, is no closer, arguing in a 1995 manifesto that democracy in Cambodia “was just a phrase to be talked about in idle gossip” and that “discipline is more essential in our society”.

Despite all the corruption and lack of accountability, Cambodia has improved under Hun Sen – the economic growth figures, at least, are not made up. It has not become, however, the liberal civic society that the UN hoped to bring to life. Strangio's conclusion – “the mirage of democracy is clearly better than no democracy at all” – may seem rather grim, but it will not bother the subject of his new book.

What may trouble him more is that after last year's elections ended in a standoff, with Rainsy's Cambodia National Rescue Party boycotting parliament – they won 55 seats out of 123 but claimed the vote had been rigged – Hun Sen was forced into agreeing to reforms to end the deadlock. One, just recently announced, is that Rainsy will be granted the status of “official minority” leader, a role that in protocol terms makes him equal to the prime minister and to the leader of the Supreme Privy Council, Prince Ranariddh. If any should wonder, however, if that means the country's long-term leader really worries that he could lose his grip on power in the next general election, here is what he said earlier this month: “Some may say that in Cambodia, there are two prime ministers. I will just say one word. No. From now until 2018, the prime minister is called Hun Sen.” And for well after 2018 too, I suspect he thinks.

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman and a frequent commentator on South East Asian politics and religion.

Published: December 18, 2014 04:00 AM


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