March 26, 2023

Tag: China

Key Issues, Market

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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