March 26, 2023

Tag: Cambodia


The Cambodian fallout from Thailand’s coup

Author: Leng Thearith, UNSW Canberra

Last month saw the 19th coup d’état in Thailand since 1932 but, unlike previous regime changes, this coup has significant regional implications — especially for Thailand’s neighbour, Cambodia. These are both economic and political.

The most vulnerable area for the Cambodian economy is remittances. From 6 June to 19 June, the Thai military junta has deported over 210,000 Cambodian migrants — approximately half of the total number of Cambodian migrants in Thailand — due to concerns that these workers would join forces with the pro-Thaksin faction to overthrow the junta. The Cambodian economy could lose more than US$1 million per day in revenue due to this policy.

The tourism sector — one of Cambodia’s most important — has also felt the heat. Given Thailand’s position as a regional transit hub, growth in the number of Chinese tourists to Cambodia in the first four months of 2014 has shrunk to 18.2 per cent, compared to 55 per cent in the same period last year, according to the Cambodian Daily. Some tourists might be concerned about their personal safety as the Thai junta has given itself the power to detain any person for up to a week without warrant, charge, or trial. The fear of indiscriminate persecution of foreign workers by the military regime is a further concern. Chinese tourists are now becoming a major target of many Southeast Asian economies. But the coup in Thailand has jeopardised the Cambodian government’s plan to attract at least 1.3 million Chinese tourists by 2018.

The Thai political crisis has not only negatively affected the Cambodian economy but also its security. Thailand’s military leadership has indirectly put pressure on the Cambodian government by accusing Cambodia of harbouring the prominent leader of the Red Shirt movement, Jakrapob Penkair — a claim the Cambodian government has strongly denied. Jakrapob has vowed to create a movement to resist the current military junta from outside Thailand, sparking rumours that Cambodia could be a potential hideout for the pro-Thaksin group.

The junta has also accused Cambodia of secretly supporting the Red Shirts via local media, in an attempt to topple the military government. More importantly, the Thai military has recently erected barbed wire in the Preah Vihear temple’s vicinity — despite the International Court of Justice confirming Cambodian sovereignty over the area around the temple last year. Thailand’s intervention prompted an immediate but peaceful protest from Phnom Penh. As a small country with limited military capability, Cambodia has downplayed this latest provocation for fear of a renewed military confrontation with the junta.

Meanwhile, the current political upheaval in Thailand has also impacted Cambodian domestic politics, heightening pressure on the ruling party in Cambodia.

The Cambodian National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy has attacked the government by pointing out that it had failed to create sufficient jobs for Cambodians at home and that, as a consequence, many were forced to risk their lives working illegally in Thailand. The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), whose popularity has declined since last year’s election, has attempted to win back support with its handling of this issue.

Despite concerted efforts on the part of the ruling government to accommodate migrant workers, it is unlikely that Cambodia will be able to effectively absorb the huge influx of migrants continually deported from Thailand. The ruling government has encountered serious problems in the provision of humanitarian aid and attempting to create jobs for those returning from Thailand. An alternative solution is to create favourable conditions for Cambodian migrants to return to work in Thailand legally. For example, one measure intended to encourage Cambodian migrants to migrate legally is the reduction of the passport fee from US$124 to US$4. To qualify for this concession fee, however, the bureaucratic process is excessive. In particular, one must be accepted by local migrant agents, many of whom have a reputation for frequently exploiting and extorting money from workers.

The effects of Thailand’s coup have rippled out into the region, and the government in Phnom Penh will need to find solutions to the numerous problems that its neighbour’s instability poses for Cambodia’s growth and development.

Leng Thearith is currently pursuing his PhD in Political and International Studies at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy (ADFA).

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Cambodia’s betwixt and between foreign policy

Author: Leng Thearith, UNSW Canberra

Following the 2012 ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, the chair, Cambodia, was largely blamed for the ASEAN foreign ministers’ failure to produce a joint communiqué over the South China Sea dispute.

Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, left, and Chinese president Xi Jinping shake hands while at a multinational conference in Shanghai on Wednesday 21 May 2014. Both the Philippines and Vietnam have blamed Cambodia for blocking discussions on Chinese aggression in the South China Sea at the 2012 ASEAN summit. (Photo: AAP)

The sticking point was that the ASEAN claimant states — particularly the Philippines and Vietnam — insisted on using strong language to criticise China’s growing assertiveness. Manila wished to incorporate the Scarborough Shoal, claimed by China and the Philippines, in the communiqué. And Hanoi wanted the document to express criticism of Beijing’s growing provocation at sea. For Vietnam, one example of this was the cutting of a Vietnamese oil exploration cable by Chinese fishing vessels in May 2011. Another was China unilaterally granting nine oil blocks in disputed areas to foreign firms in June 2012.

But the proposals to include these respective concerns of the Philippines and Vietnam were rejected by Cambodia. Phnom Penh viewed these as bilateral rather than multilateral issues. The chair’s continuous refusal to assent to including criticism of China led to the accusation that the country had completely ignored the interests of the region as a whole in favour of its own national interest. To put it even more bluntly, some saw Cambodia as a proxy for China, ardently advancing its patron state’s interests.

Is this claim justified?

One of the reasons Cambodia sought to join ASEAN was to gain protection from its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam. These larger neighbours have throughout history worried Cambodian leaders, including the late King Ang Duong, the late King Norodom Sihanouk, General Lon Nol, Pol Pot, and even Prime Minister Hun Sen. General Lon Nol and Pol Pot chose strong external allies (the US and China, respectively) to counter the threat from its neighbours. On the other hand, Hun Sen has chosen a more nuanced foreign policy approach by hedging against both China and ASEAN, particularly Vietnam.

Since Cambodia was admitted into ASEAN in 1999, its strategy has been partly driven by an expectation that ASEAN would act as a counter against Cambodia’s neighbours. But the country was disappointed by ASEAN’s muted response to the armed conflicts between Cambodia and Thailand surrounding the Preah Vihear temple. When Phnom Penh called for ASEAN support in 2008–10, ASEAN countries — particularly the Philippines and Vietnam — showed little interest, even though their indifference went against the main regional principle of ASEAN; that is, the prevention of armed conflicts and disputes between member states.

The reaction of Manila and Hanoi towards Phnom Penh’s request for ASEAN intervention is worth analysing. The Philippines initially seemed as if it would take a bold stance. Manila accused the Thai government of attempting to avoid the agreements it had reached with Cambodia, but thereafter Manila claimed its position had been misrepresented by the media. Meanwhile, a Vietnamese spokesperson made a formal statement that the Vietnamese government expected both Cambodia and Thailand to resolve the conflict peacefully and amicably, a statement Cambodia was not expecting. Hanoi may have reckoned that an interventionist stance as per Cambodia’s request would harm its economic interests in Thailand.

Sensing that ASEAN had not taken the security interests of its smaller members seriously, Phnom Penh started losing faith in the association — seeking to attract the attention of the other ASEAN states by defying Vietnam and the Philippines on the South China Sea issue at the 2012 ASEAN Summit. But this does not necessarily mean that Cambodia decided to completely abandon the ASEAN countries and opt for China. In fact, Cambodia recognises that ASEAN, and especially Thailand and Vietnam, is vital to its interests. These interests, furthermore, are best served by maintaining a balance between China and ASEAN countries.

If Cambodia were a Chinese proxy, such a balance would be unnecessary: Cambodia’s strategic security would be totally underwritten by its patron, China. Phnom Penh would be unable to maintain close relations with other countries, especially China’s enemies and competitors.

But the Cambodia–Vietnam relationship remains strong, as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recent visit to Hanoi showed. In December 2013, he visited Vietnam amid rising tensions in Cambodia after accusations of irregularities in the national election held earlier that year. Despite his party’s declining popularity, partly due to Cambodia’s close relations with Vietnam, Hun Sen still managed to visit to Hanoi and meet senior political leaders. More surprisingly, he publicly spoke in the Vietnamese language to create a sense of amity and indicate his willingness to draw closer to Vietnam.

The position of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the largest opposition party in Cambodia, towards Hanoi is also interesting. The CNRP, notorious for its hostile policy towards Vietnam, has recently promised to grant Cambodian citizenship to Vietnamese immigrants born in Cambodia if it wins the national election.

Maintaining a balance between China and ASEAN will likely remain the cornerstone of Cambodian foreign policy. Without such a balance, Cambodia risks being cursed by its geography.

Phnom Penh cannot afford to be a Chinese proxy. While China is of great economic interest to Cambodia, Vietnam is also vital to Cambodian security given the country’s geographical proximity. Balancing its foreign policy between China and Vietnam (and ASEAN as a whole) would be the wisest option for Cambodia. At the same time, the fiasco of the 2012 ASEAN summit should demonstrate to other ASEAN members the necessity of responding to the security concerns of its smaller members.

Leng Thearith is a PhD candidate in Political and International Studies at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy (ADFA).

The author would like to express his sincere gratitude to Professor Leszek Buszynski, currently a Fellow Researcher at the Hedley Bull Center, for his valuable advice and comments on the article.

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Can Cambodia’s sites of struggle become sources of hope?

Author: Sarah Milne, ANU

At the beginning of this year it emerged that ANZ, Australia’s banking giant, had helped to finance a 20,000-hectare sugar plantation in Cambodia that involved military-backed land grabs, forced eviction of local farmers, food shortages and child labour, allegedly affecting more than 1000 families.

The agri-business project in question, led by a well-known and well-connected Cambodian tycoon and ruling party senator, is just one of hundreds of Economic Land Concessions that have transformed Cambodia’s countryside over the past decade. Such privately held concessions, for agriculture and mining, are now said to cover 22 per cent of the Cambodia’s surface area. At first glance, the concessions appear to offer a much needed win-win for business and human development in one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries: investors are virtually guaranteed double-digit growth rates; concessions are held in the long-term, on vast tracts of apparently empty state land; and local people are promised vital employment.

But this development vision is illusory, and even harbours the potential for political unrest, because it is built on the shaky foundation of contested resource ownership, or unresolved property rights.

For agri-business to take root in rural Cambodia’s patchwork landscapes, from which around 80 per cent of the population still derives its livelihood, a great deal of practical and discursive work is required. At a fundamental level, this entails the reorganisation and reworking of property, including clarification of its categories and forms, as well as its rules of access and ownership.

Inevitably, this task of property formation is contested and political in nature. Sprawled beyond the easily mapped paddy lands of Cambodia’s rice-belt is the other two-thirds of the country: a relatively sparsely populated and unruly landscape of savannah, flooded forest, mixed agriculture, fallow and jungle. This poorly understood expanse of ‘forested land’ is largely anthropogenic and has sustained Khmer and indigenous people for centuries, including through the upheavals of Cambodia’s 30-year civil war.

In this setting, customary property rights derive from traditional livelihood activities like shifting agriculture and the collection of non-timber forest products. But these rights are also infused with the complex and dynamic ‘property effects’ of Cambodia’s past, which involved massive human displacement, protracted territorial struggles and a radical socialist abolition of private property. How then does a nascent post-conflict state, seeking growth and stability, make sense of this melting pot of overlapping and evolving resource claims?

Answering this question is not easy. There are multiple possible ‘right’ ways to approach it, each with its own complications.

Facing this challenge 20 years ago, Cambodia entered its post-conflict land reform process. A daunting range of actors, along with their ideas and agendas, were thrown into the mix: well-intended donors, the World Bank, NGOs, international advisors, and an array of variously motivated government officials including decision-makers, law-makers, map-makers, village chiefs and provincial governors. Most of these actors subscribed to the conventional logic that clear private property rights were essential for the efficient functioning of markets, and must therefore underpin Cambodia’s modernisation and economic development. Thus the ambitious multi-million-dollar Land Mapping and Administration Project was born in 2002. Hosted by the Ministry of Land Management Urban Planning and Construction, with lead roles being played by German advisors and the World Bank, this project initiated the massive task of systematic land titling for the millions of Cambodians whose land occupation and ownership was not officially registered.

As the land reform process unfolded, however, it became subject to political manipulation by the government and its increasingly self-confident rulers. For example, by 2007, it was clear that the land titling initiative had taken on a particular geography whereby some property claims were privileged over others, and the presence of ‘inconveniently’ located people was rendered invisible or simply overlooked in official map-making processes.

Thus, through partial and selective implementation, the titling program was used by the state to achieve its own more self-interested goals, namely: legitimisation and reinforcement of the government’s hold over vast areas of valuable but as-yet-untitled land, including millions of hectares of forest estate, national parks and a range of urban slums.

By virtue of the classification ‘State Land’ these areas became available to investors and elites. Some acquired long-term concessions after paying handsome ‘fees’ to government and ruling party members; others, often government officials themselves, simply grabbed land because they had the power and connections to do so. This deft manoeuvring, conducted under the purview of international donors and advisors, highlights the predatory nature of Cambodia’s current regime. In particular, it shows how state power and authority have been used to facilitate the private accumulation of land and resources by elites.

The fundamental problem here is that the millions of hectares of Cambodian land now appropriated for private interests were not necessarily unoccupied or empty. Just as the peasants of Europe were dispossessed from their land to make way for the market economy, Cambodia is witnessing the alienation of tens of thousands of people from their land and livelihoods to make way for ‘development’, often involving state-sanctioned violence.

Initially, villagers stood by in shock and fear as they lost their land and resources. But in recent years their responses have galvanised into resistance, giving rise to a looming political discontent that was reflected in the dramatic and still-unresolved national election results of July 2013 — perhaps the greatest challenge yet to the ruling party.

Protests over land are now almost a daily occurrence. Some resistance efforts have garnered international attention, for example when indigenous villagers dressed up as ‘avatars’ in Phnom Penh. But most resistance is of the everyday kind: blocking off of provincial roads to create disturbance, delivery of thumb-printed letters to local government officials, formation of village networks to share information and defend land. These dynamics are the visible ‘edge’ of social change in Cambodia, and they will continue so long as the property contests remain unsolved.

Today, ANZ is learning the hard way about the violent and messy underpinnings of property in Cambodia. Donors have also suffered over land issues in recent years: both the Australian aid program and the World Bank have been accused of financing forced evictions through their provision of aid to the Cambodian government. Given this unpredictable environment, where outsiders tend to get their fingers burnt, how should international investors and donors proceed? So far, their actions have involved a fickle mixture of risk-aversion and public relations — strategies that ultimately reinforce the status quo in Cambodia. But what would happen if international leverage and resources were brought to bear differently, for example by nurturing local people’s desire for justice and change? This would be fiendishly complicated; but as a matter of moral obligation, it is well worth the risk.

Sarah Milne is a Research Fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘On the edge in Asia’.

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Cambodian opposition boycotts parliament to what end?

Author: Kheang Un, Northern Illinois University

This year’s Cambodian general election showed a surge of support for the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), cutting the Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) majority control over the National Assembly from 90 to 68 seats.

Sam Rainsy, President of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), walks with his supporters during a protest in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 25 October 2013. The CNRP rejects the official results of the fifth national assembly elections, which declared Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party as winner. (Photo; AAP)

The CPP’s majority in this year’s election, the CNRP argues, would have disappeared in the absence of electoral fraud, principally the deletion of voters from the voter registration list. The CNRP has demanded an independent investigation into the alleged malpractice and has employed various strategies, including mass protests, a parliamentary boycott and diplomatic lobbying, to discredit the CPP’s claim to victory. It is obvious that an independent verification of the alleged fraud, let alone an attempt to overturn the results, is impossible within the current political context. The question then is why has the CNRP continued to pursue this strategy?

Firstly, because if the CNRP accepts the results of the election, or negotiates with the CPP through back channels, the CNRP’s credibility will be at risk. Its supporters, many of whom used to back the royalist FUNCINPEC party, will liken Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha to Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who was seen as a self-interested politician — a state of affairs that erased FUNCINPEC and Prince Ranariddh from the Cambodian electoral map. Second, demonstrations are the best avenue for the CNRP to raise its visibility among the Cambodian public. Sam Rainsy has been well known for his bravery in standing up to the CPP, and recent protests indicated his determination to challenge the status quo. After all, Sam Rainsy rose to fame in Cambodia through organising protests that in the 1990s and early 2000s earned him the nickname the ‘CEO of demonstrations’.

The second strategy the CNRP took was boycotting the National Assembly in order to provoke a constitutional crisis, by denying the CPP the required quorum to form a new government. This strategy has not yielded any fruit so far in the absence of strong international pressure through US and EU trade sanctions, the suspension of aid, or votes to vacate the Cambodian seat at the United Nations — as was the case in 1997 following the violent ouster of Prince Norodom Ranariddh by then Second Prime Minister Hun Sen. At the moment the situation in Cambodia is not so grave that it warrants such drastic action. Though corrupt and authoritarian, the Hun Sen government has been able to provide stability and sustained economic growth. Furthermore, the Hun Sen government has secured backing from China, which is ready to fill any vacuum created by the West.

Some analysts argue that the CNRP pursued the wrong strategy by boycotting the National Assembly. But participating in the National Assembly without gaining major leadership concessions from the CPP would be erroneous for the CNRP. Sam Rainsy in 2005 collaborated with the CPP to amend the constitution from the two-thirds majority required for the formation of government to a simple majority. Through that strategy Sam Rainsy succeeded in destroying Prince Ranariddh/FUNCINPEC’s political future. From 2005 onward, the battle would be between Sam Rainsy (and later Kem Sokha) and Hun Sen. The great showdown came with this election. The electoral contest, allegations of fraud notwithstanding, almost tipped towards the CNRP, which won 2.9 million votes compared to the CPP’s 3.2 million. But the 2005 constitutional amendment also rendered the CNRP’s minority status powerless in the National Assembly. For this reason the CNRP must be tough in its pressure for a power-sharing arrangement.

One might argue that the CNRP could lose face if it fails to extract concessions from the CPP, but this seems unlikely. The public knows the limits of the CNRP’s manoeuvring and the CPP’s monopoly on power. The real concern is that the public could become alienated from politics as they lose hope in all possibility of change. But even this seems far-fetched: Cambodia’s changing demography means that youth under the age of 25 will soon constitute the majority of voters. They will continue to support opposition efforts at political transformation if social injustice, nepotism, corruption and inequality remain high. Moreover, things have also changed in the countryside, the CPP’s traditional base. The CPP’s patronage-based material inducements and surveillance techniques are no longer sufficient to win rural votes. Voters want programmatic policy changes.

In the final analysis, this election proved to be a wake-up call for the CPP leadership, who now realise the need for reform on key issues like nepotism, land grabs, civil servant salaries and corruption. If the CPP fails to initiate meaningful reforms then it will face even more vocal opposition, backed by an even more restless youth. Such grievances will be strong during the next few elections and will become explosive if economic recession hits the country. If the outcome of this election pressures the CPP government to undertake significant positive reforms then it is a great victory for all Cambodians, and the CNRP should be proud of the fact that it was at the frontline of forcing these reforms.

Kheang Un is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northern Illinois University.

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The Cambodian monarchy must step back from politics

Author: Phoak Kung, University of Warwick

The death of King Norodom Sihanouk in October last year was a great loss to Cambodia. To the royal family, the King’s tremendous popularity is a double-edged sword. For many years, the monarchy has enjoyed overwhelming support and loyalty from the people without having to establish a new identity or produce any significant achievements. Now, King Sihanouk is gone, and no member of the royal family has anywhere near his stature.

The current King, Norodom Sihamoni, might not even be able to ensure the survival of the monarchy beyond his reign. There are problems he cannot control.

First, some prominent members of the royal family are actively involved in politics — at the expense of the monarchy’s reputation. They form political parties to compete for power and often use their royal connections to mobilise public support, as in the case of the Funcinpec Party. This diminishes respect for the monarchy. Politicians break promises, and the people distrust them for it. When people feel betrayed by royalist political parties, they can blame not only individual members of the royal family but the whole institution of the monarchy, including the King.

Second, some members of the Privy Council, which advises the King, want the new King to follow his father and exert control over government affairs. But they expect too much. King Sihamoni needs to establish his own identity as monarch. In any case, the King does not have the kind of power and privileges that his father enjoyed when he ruled the country in the 1950s and 1960s, and the constraints facing the monarchy are enormous. Worse still, when the King refuses to intervene, some Privy Councillors publicly complain that he lacks the courage to confront the government. It is time for the council to revise its strategy. Instead of picking fights with political parties, the King should focus on the ordinary people. The people, not political parties, will protect the monarchy.

Moreover, some provisions of the Cambodian Constitution make the future of the monarchy uncertain. There is no royal hierarchy in Cambodia; instead, political parties select the new king from a pool of candidates. The Constitution effectively allows the ruling party to choose its preferred candidate. The candidate must be from three royal bloodlines — the descendants of King Ang Duong, King Norodom and King Sisowath. This does not mean there is a large pool of potential candidates, however. And infighting between the three royal families further undermines the monarchy. The Constitution makes it almost impossible to know who will be first in line to the throne.

The decline or collapse of the monarchy is not good for anyone, including the ruling party. For over 20 years, Cambodian politics has been characterised by fierce and often violent competition between government and opposition. Political deadlock is constant. But Cambodia has muddled through, mainly because King Sihanouk — the ‘Father of National Reconciliation’ — helped mediate.

What will happen now he is gone? For example both the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) claimed victory in parliamentary elections in July 2013. In protest against the electoral result, the CNRP vowed to hold massive demonstrations nationwide, while the CPP deployed troops and heavily armoured vehicles into the capital city to prevent any possible clashes. A peaceful solution remains elusive. Both parties and the people still expect King Sihamoni to intervene. It is clear that the monarchy remains an integral part of Cambodia’s conflict resolution mechanism.

Cambodian politics has become a zero-sum game; the public, too, is politically divided. Conflict and stalemate will be the reality of Cambodian politics for years to come. It is almost impossible to assume that these problems can be sorted out smoothly and peacefully without the help of a strong, popular monarchy. Government institutions are not ready to arbitrate electoral conflicts independently.

The monarchy can help ensure stability, security and peace in Cambodia, but only if the King remains neutral. If he is seen to side with either the CPP or the CNRP, he will lose credibility and legitimacy in the public eyes. Both political parties must refrain from politicising the monarchy. It is possible to convince the people to accept a more passive and ceremonial monarchy as stipulated in the Constitution. Moreover, the King and members of the royal family must reach out to as many people as possible through both traditional media outlets and social media like Facebook and Twitter. The modern monarchy must be more engaging, adaptive and innovative if it wants to survive Cambodia’s tumultuous politics. The era of the God King is well and truly over.

Phoak Kung is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies, the University of Warwick.

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Hun Sen stands firm on election results

Author: Vannarith Chheang, Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace

After 25 years of experimenting with general elections, the Cambodian people have come to embrace a more democratic value set, and they are demanding greater respect for human rights and dignity.

The general election that took place on 28 July 2013 was a critical turning point in this process of democratisation. Three interrelated factors help to explain the political dynamics of the election: the country’s demographics; the prevalence of communications technology; and the shortcomings of the serving prime minister, Hun Sen, and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

About 3.5 million of Cambodia’s 9.6 million registered voters are between the ages of 18 and 30; and of those, around 1.5 million are first-time voters. The majority of these young voters look beyond the country’s tragic past and are demanding concrete political and economic reforms, more freedom of expression, justice, inclusiveness, and good governance. Their aspirations are higher than their parents’ generation. Thanks to the rapid development of communications technology, especially through social media and smart phones, young voters can also receive updated information and actively exchange their views online.

Such a widespread proliferation of social media has broken down the effectiveness of state media control and propaganda in shaping public opinion on national issues. Although the CPP has been reasonably successful in maintaining peace and stability, economic growth, and infrastructure development, there are still serious shortcomings that are now more widely acknowledged. Public institutions have not satisfactorily responded to the needs and demands of the people. Systematic and chronic corruption, social injustice, land disputes and forced eviction, human rights violations, deforestation, national resource depletion, lack of transparency and accountability, and widening development gaps are among the key issues facing Cambodian society. Increasing numbers of voters have expressed their dissatisfaction with the ruling CPP by voting for the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The CNRP focused its campaign on “change”, serious reforms of national institutions in order to have better checks and balances, improving the wellbeing of the people, especially those working in public institutions, factory workers, farmers and the elderly.

The official results of the election, released by the National Election Committee (NEC), show that the CPP won 68 seats and the CNRP won 55, out of the 123 seats in the National Assembly. However, the CNRP has rejected the results and claims to have won 63 seats. It has called for the creation of an independent committee to investigate alleged election fraud. The CNRP has stated that ‘fifteen per cent of voters — about 1.2 to 1.3 million — were unable to vote because of list irregularities. There were also about 1 million ghost names on the voter list and about 200,000 duplicate names … That’s why we require the technical working group comprising the CNRP, the CPP, the UN, the NEC, local and international NGOs to investigate and make a report about these irregularities’.

However, the CPP has not accepted the proposal and has argued that all political parties must respect the official results issued by the NEC. After the failure of two rounds of negotiations between the two parties, the CPP went ahead to convene the opening of the National Assembly on 23 September — in line with the national constitution, which states that the first national assembly meeting shall be convened within 60 days of the election. The meeting was endorsed by the king, regardless of objections from civil society groups and the CNRP’s boycott.

The national assembly, with only the 68 CPP members sitting, voted to renew the prime minister’s five-year term. The first cabinet meeting was held on 25 September, with a promise to deepen reforms. Judicial reform, good governance, anti-corruption, and land and forest management are the top priorities for the next five-year reform program. Yet the opposition CNRP has denounced the creation of the new government, saying it was established by a ‘constitutional coup’. It continues to call for more protests and international pressure on the government. The United States and the European Union have both demanded a transparent review of election irregularities and reform of the electoral administration. Japan and Australia have also announced similar positions. But Hun Sen is standing firm.

China is among the few countries that congratulated the victory of the CPP. During a bilateral meeting between Premier Hun Sen and Premier Li Keqiang in Nanning on 2 September, Li confirmed Chinese support for Hun Sen. And in his visit to Cambodia on 21 August, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi stated: ‘We will support Cambodia ruling out external interference to pursue a development path in line with its own national conditions and the interest of the people’.

Thus, the future for Cambodian politics looks grim and highly uncertain. There is a serious lack of trust and confidence between the two political parties, and it will be difficult for both to return to negotiations and find a political breakthrough until there is a serious compromise from both sides. If a sustainable power-sharing arrangement cannot be found, the country could fall into a short-term political crisis. The implications of this would be a serious setback in the country’s economic development and poverty-reduction efforts — two areas that Cambodia has been struggling to improve over the years. In addition, it could also create space for more strategic and political competition among major powers in the region.

Vannarith Chheang is a senior fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

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Why China charms Cambodia

Author: Heidi Dahles, Griffith University

Cambodia’s persistent infatuation with China was blatantly displayed on the world stage in 2012 when, as ASEAN Chair, it refused to address the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

This widely commented incident once again underscored the close relationship between both countries.

Cambodia falls to China’s charm does not come as a surprise. The benefits from being among China’s most favoured nations are quite obvious. Cambodia receives Chinese investments and economic and military aid, both in kind and money, with ‘no strings attached’ — as the saying goes. The Cambodian government depicts China as a big old friend, a friendship that goes back a long time in history and one that has survived many regime changes.

The friendship between China and the current regime in Phnom Penh was confirmed after the 1997 coup. The coup saw the leader of the Cambodian People’s Party, Hun Sen, oust then Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, undoing the efforts of the international community to administer peace and good governance in the country since the Paris peace agreements in 1991. While many countries including the United States imposed sanctions on Cambodia for breaching the carefully brokered peace agreement, China sent US$10 million of aid. In this sense, the United States applies the stick when Cambodia side-tracks from the negotiated route to peace and democracy, whereas China offers the carrot instead.

China has always offered instant rewards for displays of loyalty. When the Cambodian government sent 22 Uighur refugees back to China in 2009, the United States once again suspended aid to Cambodia as a retributive measure. China, on the other hand, pledged a total of US$1.2 billion two days after the incident. This generous gesture, however, does not necessarily guarantee that the money is indeed received, as some observers caution.

But looking beyond the ‘big old friend’ rhetoric, what’s in this relationship for China? The strings attached to China’s generosity are undoubtedly strong and many-stranded.

As in all other friendships that China pursues across the world, access to cheap labour, markets and natural resources is paramount. As Chinese labour becomes more expensive and workers become more vocal, Cambodia’s cheap and controlled labour force provides an escape route for Chinese state-owned companies seeking to outsource their production processes to low-cost countries. Moreover, China’s participation in Cambodia’s garment manufacturing brokers access to markets that ordinarily restrict direct imports from China. Conversely, Cambodia benefits from its favoured status in the US and EU markets and helps China evade trade barriers. Cambodia also offers access to the much sought-after natural resources, energy reserves, arable land and agricultural products. Chinese investors have taken advantage of such assets, sometimes to the detriment of the locals. A mounting number of land issues in Cambodia is related to Chinese companies obtaining land concessions for project development, causing Cambodia’s poor to be (forcefully) dislocated.

Without downplaying the economic significance of Cambodia for China, compared to other developing countries — where access to cheap labour, land and natural resources come in abundance — Cambodia’s assets are limited and rapidly declining. Instead, the returns are first and foremost of a political nature, as the ASEAN incident vividly showed.

Cambodia sits in China’s backyard and this location has geopolitical consequences. Cambodia gains strategic importance as one of the pearls in the ‘string of pearls’ that China allegedly has created in Southeast Asia in order to secure military access to the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea. This strategic importance has to be understood in view of the competition between China and the United States for military access to Cambodia. The military defence cooperation between the United States and Cambodia, which was established in 2006, is about to expire and the pressing issue is whether this cooperation will be continued or abandoned in favour of a closer military link with China. China, who has few friends in Southeast Asia, would welcome Cambodia discontinuing the deal with the United States.

The recent Cambodian elections left the Hun Sen government weakened while the opposition emerged as a serious player in the Cambodian political arena. What role may China play in this aftermath? According to some analysts, the outcome of the elections foretells trouble for China as it may lose its privileged access to Cambodia. If the political situation in Cambodia escalates, will China support Hun Sen if it comes to a crackdown on the opposition? If history is to repeat itself, then China is likely to remain in the background ready to co-opt whoever emerges as a major political force in post-election Cambodia.

Heidi Dahles is Head of Department and Professor of International Business and Asian Studies at Griffith University.

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Key Issues, Market

What to expect from Cambodia’s 2013 election

Author: Kheang Un, Northern Illinois University

Cambodia will hold its fifth general election on 28 July, 20 years since its first UN-sponsored election in 1993. It is anticipated that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will win the elections. But since the two main opposition parties, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, merged to become the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), there has been anxiety within the CPP over their likely margin of victory. 

The uneven playing field in Cambodia’s political landscape favours the CPP in a number of ways. First, the National Election Committee (NEC), which is under the control of the ruling party, has been suspected of tampering with the voter list. The National Democratic Institute found that one in ten voters have had their names removed from this year’s voter list —an irregularity that could potentially disenfranchise over a million voters.

Second is the unequal access to the media. The CPP has a monopoly over broadcast media, leaving the opposition parties to rely on the insufficiently short, officially allocated time on state-run television. The opposition parties’ campaigns have therefore been based on face-to-face meetings with their supporters, which can generate only limited exposure.

Third, the CPP has used its control over the state to mobilise resources and personnel for their election campaign. Working groups consisting of CPP-aligned government officials contribute toward sustaining the CPP’s political machine by engaging in the constant surveillance of civilians and developing infrastructure such as schools, roads and irrigation networks. The CPP working groups also offer small gifts such as cash, clothing and MSG during their visits to rural areas. During election campaigns, the CPP portrays its rural development schemes and gift giving as part of its culture of sharing while characterising the CNRP as poor and therefore unable to provide for rural villages. The impact of small gifts on winning votes could be limited, but close to 80 per cent of voters credited the ruling party for improvements to the country’s infrastructure and political stability. The CPP capitalised on that sentiment by emphasising that a CNRP victory could lead the country toward civil war—a threat that resonates with the older generation of voters, whose lives have been traumatised by Cambodia’s armed conflicts.

Finally, the ruling CPP has used its influence over the courts to harass top CNRP leaders. For example, CNRP’s vice president Kem Sokha was summoned to appear in court for allegedly denying the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, while CNRP’s president Sam Rainsy was until July 19 unable to participate in the election campaign because of an 11-year prison sentence for charges widely believed to be politically motivated. He was pardoned and allowed to return to campaign less than 10 days before the election following strong pressure from the United States, although it is still unclear if Rainsy is eligible to run for office.

It is widely believed that if there were an equal playing field the CPP’s margin of victory would substantially shrink.

The CNRP is the only major opposition party. In previous elections, the CPP rode to victory over a divided opposition, which had an unclear policy platform besides its strong anti-Vietnamese rhetoric. This year’s election campaign, however, sees the CNRP adopting a clear policy agenda, focusing on improving people’s livelihoods, while continuing to push on the Vietnamese issue. The CNRP’s support base lies in the urban population; in rural villagers whose livelihood have been affected by the land-grabbing crisis, in which the government leases land to companies without providing adequate compensation to those evicted; and in youths. Importantly, over 70 per cent of Cambodians are under the age of 30, many of whom have demonstrated their enthusiasm for the CNRP by campaigning for and participating in CNRP events, particularly in urban areas. However, the impact of the youth vote to the CNRP’s electoral outcome remains low for a number of reasons. The NEC has refused to increase the number of seats in urban areas, such as in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, despite increases in the urban population, depriving the CNRP of potentially gaining more seats in the National Assembly. And the law requiring people to cast their votes in their home villages could adversely affect the CNRP campaign, as a large number of youths have left their villages for employment in urban areas and overseas.

This year’s election has proceeded without violence, though with an unequal playing field favouring the CPP. With a united front, the CNRP hopes to upset the ruling CPP government. Such hopes remain an illusion given the country’s favourable economic conditions and political stability, as well as the CPP’s highly institutionalised networks that penetrate deeply into Cambodia’s political landscape. While the urban middle class might disapprove of rampant corruption and nepotism within the ruling CPP, they also benefit from the strong economic conditions the CPP has provided. Poverty and conservatism in rural areas have enabled the CPP to secure support from farmers using patronage gift-giving, political control and local infrastructure development. For the CNRP, unseating the CPP remains a distant dream under present circumstances. But if the CNRP can increase its seats from the combined current total of 29 (out of the possible 123), this achievement will generate momentum for the opposition in the future.

Kheang Un is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northern Illinois University.

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