« What has gone wrong in Cambodia ? » by Milton Osbourne, 19/07/2018, The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)
Concerns ahead of Cambodia’s elections on 29 July centre on the judgement that under Prime Minister Hun Sen the country has become increasingly authoritarian in political character while the government – through a range of parliamentary and judicial actions, and backed by absolute control of the forces of order – has eliminated any viable political opposition to ensure its electoral return.
How did we arrive at this state of affairs in which there is now very little external actors can, or will, do to prevent Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party staying in office? Even if an unlikely election result occurs, with Hun Sen’s government voted out, it seems certain he would use all means, including force if necessary, to remain in power.
A brief review of Cambodia’s political history since the UN-supervised elections of 1993 is needed to understand the present situation.
The “original sin” that led to this set of circumstances occurred when the international community stepped back from involvement in Cambodia’s affairs and allowed the CPP to remain the dominant political force in the country, despite having lost the popular vote in the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC)–supervised elections in 1993. With Hun Sen and the CPP refusing to accept defeat, the compromise arrangements that were cobbled together left all real power in their hands.
As David Chandler notes of the political opposition at the time in his A History of Cambodia, “The royalist party soon lost its voice in decision making as well as its freedom of manoeuvre.”
Tired of the problems in Cambodia that had been exercising Western governments for more than a decade, no external players intervened to change the course of events. Similarly, there was never any sign at that stage that Moscow and Beijing had any interest in becoming directly involved in opposing the CPP’s actions.
The complex political history of the period from 1993 to 1997 is well documented in David W. Roberts’ Political Transition in Cambodia: Power, Elitism and Democracy. A disclosure: I reviewed this book for Pacific Affairs in 2001 and commented that it could be read as a justification for Hun Sen’s political behaviour. But I found persuasive, then and now, his endorsement of a view offered by long-term observer of Cambodia Steve Heder that the key players of the period – Sihanouk, Sam Rainsy, and Ranariddh – were all characterised by “deeply illiberal, anti-democratic and anti-pluralist tendencies”.
This lack of action in 1993 was followed by the unwillingness of external players to take any measures that mattered after Hun Sen’s brutal coup de force in July 1997 that saw the CPP overwhelm Prince Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC.
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