The burial of Cambodian democracy

From an `hybrid democracy´, Cambodia has fallen into an `authoritarian regime´ in the last report from The Economist. The China financial support to this country is helping it to ignore the western outcry against violations of Human Rights and disrespect of minimum democratic standards.

Seavmey Phan is living in fear. She does not dare to express what she feels in public because she is afraid of being arrested if she criticizes the government. “I don’t want to lose my life or go to live in prison. So, I just bare it in mind”.

Mey, as she likes being called, is a Cambodian 22-year-old woman. She lives in the capital of Cambodia, in Phnom Penh, where she is studying English Literature. Roughly 50% of the population is less than 25 years old which also means that they have never lived under the communist government that during decades ruled the country in conditions of poverty.

Thus, she and around eight million people have grown up in a country where the international community has pushed the political power to establish a democracy and respect the human rights. However, the last couple of years, they have witnessed how their government is taking steps to restrict their democratic rights.

“From my point of view, our current prime mister has done something really bad that we cannot accept. It seems like he wants to change our country to a communist one since the famous opposition party is dissolved. Still, most people believe in his actions, but I don’t believe that. I just know that he has held power for a long time and done something really bad for a long time, so I desperately need a change”.

Family selfie. Phnom Penh. Marisa López

The latest Democracy Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit – published this week – shows that Cambodia’s democracy is facing a serious risk. From a “hybrid regime” – how the previous report considered this little Southeast Asian country – Cambodia has fallen 12 places south of its 2016 standing – ranked 124th out of 167 countries – and joined to the group of those ones considered “authoritarian regimes”.

In the report, The Economist explains – as Mey pointed out –  that “the forced dissolution of the main opposition party [the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)] turned the country into a de facto one-party state”.The government spokesman has denied the verdict in the report saying that it is “completely different from the reality”. However, this is not the only ranking published during the last days of January where the political and social situation of Cambodia is showed seriously threatened. In the WJP Rule of Law Index 2017 – 2018, Cambodia ranked almost rock bottom, at 112 out of 113 countries, below Afghanistan and only ahead of Venezuela.

Last but not least, according to the Corruption Perception Index 2016 from Transparency International Organization, Cambodia is in the 156th position out of 176. Although Hun Sen’s political party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has always won all the elections that the country has held, the last two have shown they have faced a significant loss of power. In the national elections in 2013, the CNRP obtained 44% of the votes. The outcome was followed by widespread accusations of electoral fraud.

Family portrait in the Royal Palace. Phnom Penh. Marisa López
A process of democratic destruction 

Last June, in the local elections, CNRP won 482 out of 1,646 communes, in spite of the threat of war that he launched. Hun Sen bases mainly his power on the popularity that he has in the countryside, thus, this little victory of the opposition meant a big hit to his dominance. Due to those facts, many thought that the outcomes could be a springboard for next general election this year. But nothing could be further from the truth. Hun Sen has been concerned to show that he is not going to be deposed.

The Hun Sen success in destroying the main opposition political party– the CNRP – took place in November. Through a law which allows him to prohibit any party accused of any crime – the main opposition leader, Kem Sokha was arrested of treason. Then his whole politcal party was accused of colluding with the US to topple the government. Some time later, his party was dissolved.

NGOs and Media have been also in his spotlight. Since August, around 19 media outlets – among them the well-known Cambodia Daily and a dozen radio stations –  and three NGOs have had to close.

Apart from that, Hun Sen has used the threat of war to keep people silent. During the local electoral campaign, he did not hesitate in using his most aggressive rhetoric. “No guns are needed to cause war. Words can cause war if the CPP loses patience and goes to your homes and burns down your homes. The only solution is that the CPP must win elections at all stages,” he said in one of his speeches. 

Hun Sen has wanted to revive the echo of a war that destroyed the country, its economy and its population between 1967 until 1993. During the Cambodian genocide that took place between 1975 – 1979 more than a quarter of the population died. Hun Sen was one of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, a communist guerrilla blamed for that massacre. However, when the purge started also inside of the party, Hun Sen – feared his life – fled to Vietnam to join troops opposed to the Khmer Rouge.


When Vietnam installed a new government in Cambodia in 1979, he returned as minister of foreign affairs, becoming prime minister in 1985 at the age of 33. In 1993, after Paris Peace Accords, Cambodia held its first democratic elections organized by the UN. Although he did not win, Hun Sen still had the military and political power he´s had since 1985, thanks to the Vietnamese. He undermined his opponents’ power and was sworn in president.

Thus, History has shown that he was cleverer than his partners. Those Khmer Rouge leaders who are still alive are nowadays facing justice before The Extraordinary Chambers of the Court of Cambodia (ECCC). Leaders, as Noun Chea and Khieu Samphan, have been sentenced to a life of imprisonment.

China, a better alliance

Since Cambodia became a democracy, thousands of millions of dollars have been invested by the international community in order to help Cambodia redevelop. For example, roughly 53 millions of dollars[i] have been invested by Japan, European Union, French and Australians among others, excluding  China, to create the ECCC. These trials have been the biggest expression in the country in order to bring justice for the victims of the worst genocide in the human history, in percentage terms.

During this time, the respect to Human Rights and the Rule of Law have been the necessary conditions to receive foreign aids. “A serious deterioration of the human rights situation might have implications for development assistance programs and trade preferences” said the delegation’s chairman, Werner Langen, a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats party, last October after a two days visit in the country.

A woman working in the market. Phnom Penh. Marisa López

After years of war and political instability Cambodia needed that money – and still needs it. However, Cambodia has found another ally, wealthier and for whom human rights and democracy are not a priority: China. According to an Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 2016 report, it has consolidated its position as Cambodia`s largest donor.

China’s official investment into the Cambodian economy has totaled US$ 2,219,914,520 since they first started in 2004, culminating in US$ 4.92 billion from 2011 to 2015. Far from claiming for civil rights, Chinese investments to Cambodia are mainly driven by deep political trust, economic conditions, market access, low labor costs and natural resources. This is exemplified by the prime minister’s 2006 remarks – criticizing Western demands – “China talks less but does a lot.” Also, it is significant that there are no Chinese or Chinese-funded non-governmental organizations in Cambodia.

Gavin Greenwood, senior Asia analyst at Allan & Associates, a global risk and crisis management firm, said to the South China Morning Post that the only way Hun Sen would risk the backing of the other donor countries was if he was confident of Beijing’s unwavering support. “[It] reflects the strength of ties between Phnom Penh and Beijing, in particular, China’s seeming willingness to replace any lost aid financing.”

Western Foreign Aid at the stake

The dissolution of the CNRP last November did not just make The Economist consider Cambodia as an “hybrid regime”. With a realistic perspective, this could be even anecdotic. The final blow to the main political opposition party in November – as the Werner Langen`s words announced – provoked the suspension of the all European Commission support for Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC). The Commission considered that credible elections in 2018 are impossible in the current climate. Apart from EU, the US and Sweden also have withdrawn their support.

A Phnom Penh street. Marisa López

Ou Virak, a political analyst and founder of the Future Forum in Cambodia, has alerted that the Cambodian government is doing dangerous miscalculations. “Firstly, we assume the West is no longer relevant [and that] is a poor assumption because it’s unlikely the West will hand the entire region to China on a silver platter. “Secondly, the government assumes China’s rise means they will back Cambodia at all costs. But I doubt they will because I do not think they care enough about Cambodia. Cambodia seems to be just a ‘project’ for China.”, he says.

In spite of the Western withdrawals, Hun Sen `s government has declared that they are ready to organize the 2018 elections. Som Sorida, NEC deputy secretary-general explained that Japan, China, South Korea and Russia would continue to support the elections.

The last 21st of February, Japan announced that pledges $7.5 million for Cambodian elections despite legitimacy concerns. Kem Monovithya, a CNRP figure and daughter of the imprisoned former party leader, said to The Phnom Pehn Post, that the only justifiable reason for Japan’s continued support was if they can ensure the elections will be free and fair. “Otherwise Japan would have to explain to at least half of the entire Cambodian population why it is supporting an artificial election that robs the will of millions of people.”

China contribution to Cambodia’s 2018 election will consist in equipment, including laptops, computers and voting booths, among other items, according to the NEC. “This equipment is very important for processing the election,” said the spokesman for the National Election Commission, Hang Puthea.

In the light of the Chinese support, Yong Kim Eng, president of the People Center for Development and Peace (PDP), told RFA’s Khmer Service that Chinese electoral aid should end with supplies and funding. “I’m afraid there will be issues if China provides technical assistance to the NEC as well,” he said. “China’s involvement is not good for Cambodia, as China is a communist country that has no experience in democratic elections.”

We can remember Mey`s fear, that her country might become a communist one. However, we will have to wait, at least until June, to see the development and the outcome of the general elections.

Statue of King Father Norodom Sihanouk. Phnom Penh. Marisa López

Marisa López























Una respuesta a «The burial of Cambodian democracy»

  1. I just returned from Cambodia (along with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam) and appreciate your in-depth report. I feel as if there is a simmering pot happening over there. I posted a similiar blog post about SE Asia + will be posting more. Quite an eye-opener, isn’t it?

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