Cambodia: Onwards and Upwards for Hun Sen


Milton Osborne

As 2006 drew to a close, Prime Minister Hun Sen could look back on the year as one of continuing success as he consolidates his position as the currently unchallenged political leader of Cambodia. Four years ago, in December 2002, he boldly stated that he would like to rule for a further ten years, and nothing in recent times appears likely to prevent him having his wish. At the same time his Cambodian People's party (CPP) has no reason to believe that it can be challenged as the kingdom's leading party as it begins to prepare for the elections due in 2008.

In particular, the closing month of 2006 witnessed the further political decline of his potentially most important opponent, Prince Norodom Ranariddh. It has been clear for some time that Ranariddh's leadership of FUNCINPEC (the United Front for an Independent, Neutral and Cooperative Cambodia) was increasingly tenuous. Party members were critical of Ranariddh's prolonged absences from Cambodia and of his very public infatuation with a new mistress. Whether it was clear to Ranariddh, or not, a combination of dissatisfaction with his leadership and a readiness on the part of senior FUNCINPEC members, including notably the party's Secretary-General, Nhiek Bun Chhay, to contemplate working more closely with the CPP, ultimately sealed his fate.

On 18 October, at a special party congress, FUNCINPEC stripped Ranariddh of his party leadership, replacing him with the Cambodian ambassador to Germany, Keo Puth Reasmey. As a sop to Ranariddh the congress awarded him the title of 'historic leader.'

Ranariddh and his dwindling band of supporters have now formed a new party incorporating his name, but it seems proper to conclude that they will struggle to overcome the coalition that has now been cemented between the CPP and FUNCINPEC.

Meanwhile, Sam Rainsy and his eponymous Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) seem unable to play much more than a gadfly role. Despite having returned to Cambodia from exile, following his being granted a pardon by King Sihamoni after Rainsy apologised for his attacks on both Hun Sen and Ranariddh; and, stating that he could now work in harmony with the government, he has reverted to form as a vehement critic. Having denounced the results of the village chiefs elections held in June, in which the CPP won 99.5 per cent of the vote, Sam Rainsy went on to compare Hun Sen's rule to that of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and then, in August, to say that, 'The CPP regime is the continuation of the Khmer Rouge regime. There is no difference between the two regimes.'

During the year, there were, of course, various developments that can be cited as reflections of Cambodia's far from perfect political system. These include the dubiously legal eviction of squatter communities from prime development land in the capital; the allegations of serious corruption and malfeasance made by the former Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of the Interior, Hen Pov, who fled Cambodia in July and, at the time of writing was fighting extradition in Malaysia; and, the allegations made by Human Rights Watch of deliberate government interference in the preparations for the much-delayed Khmer Rouge Tribunal (the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia).

Yet none of these issues has prevented Hun Sen and the CPP remaining in power. What is more, and reflecting the international community's concern to support the government, against the possibility of any alternative being worse, the Cambodia Consultative Group gave the kingdom an increased aid guarantee of US$601 million when it met in March. This was followed by China's providing an almost matching sum of US$600 million at the time of Premier Wen Jiabao's visit in April, a gift as Hun Sen has pointed out that came without 'strings'. Then, in November, when Hun Sen was visiting China, Wen Jiabao gave him further assurances of China's intention to increase its aid.

Economically, Cambodia has survived better than many observers predicted, not least it has successfully weathered the 2005 cut-off of the Multilateral Fibre Agreement as the garment industry has undergone labour market reforms that have enabled it to increase market share. Although the country will continue to be dependent on aid for the foreseeable future, both the IMF and the ADB have commended the administration for maintaining sound macroeconomic stability. What is more, the discovery of commercial quantities of oil and gas in Cambodian waters in the Gulf of Thailand promise the possibility of diversifying the economy's present reliance for revenue away from the garment and tourist industries.

It is just as well that there are reasons for optimistic judgments to be made about the future of Cambodia's economy, since the challenges that lie ahead are enormous. None are more challenging than those associated with Cambodia's demographic profile and the implications it has for politics and the economy in the future. Today, 70 per cent of the population are aged under 30 years of age, and 52 per cent under 18 years. As an ever-growing number of young people are coming onto the labour market, it is currently estimated that there is a need to find 200,000 new jobs each year. For those who have completed some form of tertiary education, the estimate is that only one in nine of the 8,000 students graduating each year is able to find a job. These statistics are a sobering qualification to the political success that Hun Sen has achieved through the year and are just as important as the legitimately expressed concerns of human rights groups about the continuing culture of impunity and pervasive corruption that exist in the country.

WATCHPOINT: As has been the case for several years, any development that has the capacity to bring Hun Sen's leadership into question would be a significant development. (The fact that it is not possible to be more specific is a reflection of the power of Hun Sen's current situation.)


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