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Seminar on Cambodia's Political Outlook

Thursday, 5 October 2017 -- On Thursday 5th October 2017, the Regional Strategic and Political Studies programme at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute held a public seminar entitled “Cambodia’s Political Outlook”. The seminar was chaired by ISEAS Senior Fellow Dr. Ian Storey. The seminar was delivered by Dr. Vannarith Chheang. Dr. Chheang is currently a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS, and was previously a lecturer at the University of Leeds (2013-2016) and the Executive Director at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (2009-13). The seminar was attended by around 30 persons including diplomats, academia, private industry and the media.

Dr. Chheang provided a comprehensive overview of the current political situation in Cambodia and how events might unfold in 2018 when Cambodia is due to hold its fifth general election since UN supervised elections in 1993. According to the 1993 Constitution, Cambodia’s political system is a liberal democracy and the country pursues a neutral and non-aligned foreign policy. However, a narrative has emerged in recent years that Cambodia is reverting to authoritarianism and that the country’s foreign policy has become overwhelmingly pro-China and anti-US. The government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), rejects this narrative, arguing that it prioritizes peace and stability in the face of attempts by the United States to interfere in the country’s political affairs and engineer a “colour revolution”.

Dr. Chheang provided a chronology of political events in Cambodia over the past few years, including the June 2013 election (in which the CPP gained a slim majority in the National Assembly), the closure of the National Democratic Institute in August 2017, the arrest on treason charges of Kem Sokha, the President of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on 3 September 2017, and the closure of the Cambodia Daily the following day for unpaid taxes. Vannarith went on to describe a series of meetings between senior CPP and Chinese leaders during which the latter have expressed their full support for the Hun Sen government. In return, China has thanked Cambodia for supporting its “core interests”. In response to recent events, the United States has expressed its concern and rejected accusations that it has interfered in Cambodia’s domestic politics. US-Cambodia relations have sunk to their lowest levels since 1993 and Cambodia has suspended POW/MIA cooperation with America and the US Peace Corps. According to Dr. Chheang, the crackdown on civil society and opposition parties by the CPP—and the tightening of relations with China and the country’s estrangement with America— is due to opposition gains at the 2013 elections, violent anti-government protests in January 2014, and the upcoming elections in 2018. Despite being in power since 1985, and reaching the age of 65, Hun Sen has pledged to stay on for two more terms.

Dr. Chheang went on to discuss possible future scenarios. He ranked the chances of a “colour revolution”, the unconditional release of Kem Sokha and the imposition of international sanctions as unlikely; the CPP’s victory at the 2018 elections is highly likely, though unless the CNRP is allowed to contest, the elections will lack legitimacy. In the presenter’s opinion, Cambodia’s political outlook is bleak.

In the Q&A session which followed, Dr. Chheang opined that although Vietnam has social capital in Cambodia, it lacks the financial resources of China; that Hun Sen could well stay on as prime minister for another decade; that the faction-riven CPP has been able to maintain unity in the face of the threat from the opposition; and that Hun Sen hopes that his legacy will be peace, jobs and infrastructure. Dr. Chheang noted that Hun Sen’s leadership style does not appeal to young people, and that the CPP’s future depends on an early power transition. On foreign policy, Vannarith argued that unlike some other ASEAN countries, Cambodia was not “hedging” against China; that China was its number one foreign partner and that ASEAN was a secondary priority.