In Cambodia, ‘Rule of Law’ Means Hun Sen Rules

The prime minister uses a shroud of democracy to counter dissatisfaction and thwart the opposition.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and President of the National Assembly Heng Samrin release doves to mark the 68th anniversary of the Cambodian People's Party in Phnom Penh on June 28.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and President of the National Assembly Heng Samrin release doves to mark the 68th anniversary of the Cambodian People's Party in Phnom Penh on June 28. TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, currently Asia’s longest-serving ruler, faces no tangible political competition. The opposition leader Kem Sokha, though recently released from house arrest, is banned from politics and on Jan. 15, 2020, will face trial for treason—charges he says are politically motivated. When self-exiled opposition figure Sam Rainsy attempted to return to Cambodia in November, Thai Airways prevented him from boarding his Paris-to-Bangkok flight.

In 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court, which is aligned with the ruling party, dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Hun Sen said the decision was rooted in the “rule of law” and used it to crack down on opposition activists. Some politicians abroad, including Rainsy, planned to return on Nov. 9 despite being charged with a coup attempt. (Rainsy has called for a “peaceful uprising.”) Cambodia likely wielded diplomatic influence to convince Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia to detain or deport CNRP members en route. More than 50 former CNRP members are currently under arrest inside Cambodia.

But as his government swats away the opposition, Hun Sen seems to recognize the importance of maintaining some public support. He is trying to win over Cambodians—or at least coax them into complacency—by shrouding his authoritarian governance in a cloak of democratic legitimacy.

The prime minister speaks in legal terms, referencing Cambodia’s U.N.-backed 1993 constitution and concepts such as the rule of law and human rights that he frequently disregards in practice. Cambodians’ affinity for the West makes the strongman’s embrace of China a difficult sale, forcing him into this kind of manipulative language. But this camouflaging suggests the prime minister’s awareness of his dwindling support and perhaps his weakening grip on power.

Almost two-thirds of Cambodians are under 30, and they do not support Hun Sen at the rate of their elders, instead blaming him for lagging development. They do increasingly support democratic ideals. This creeping unpopularity among young voters was evident during the 2013 elections, which were surprisingly close, and the 2017 local elections, when the opposition managed to increase its vote share relative to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) despite Hun Sen’s threats of violence. In 2018, the CPP overwhelmingly won a general election widely regarded as a sham: The CNRP was already banned.

To counter public dissatisfaction, Hun Sen’s government has turned to word games, masking its authoritarianism in Western-style rhetoric in part to appeal to Cambodians’ approval of democracy and the rule of law.

For example, when a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official met European Union diplomats in 2016, he justified crackdowns on the CNRP as necessary “to enhance the rule of law.” The government described its 2017 expulsion of the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute in similar terms. And after the CPP won the 2018 elections, Hun Sen thanked Cambodians for high voter turnout—the result of coercion. “You have truly chosen the path of democracy,” he said.

Since 2017, Hun Sen’s government has undermined Cambodia’s democracy without technically violating the constitution. Cracking down on the opposition in ways that are technically legal allows Hun Sen to improve his image domestically, even in the face of international opposition.

In practice, Hun Sen pays only lip service to the rule of law. “Hun Sen has ruled in accordance with what can be referred to as a ‘modest’ constitution. It incorporates formal assurances of a wide variety of political rights and civil liberties, but there is a parallel failure to uphold those guarantees,” said Lee Morgenbesser, a senior lecturer at Griffith University in Australia whose research focuses on authoritarian politics and Southeast Asia.

The prime minister has relied on legal and financial tools to stifle the free press. In September 2017, the government shuttered the Cambodia Daily newspaper, citing a dubious $6.3 million tax bill. In May 2018, Cambodia’s only remaining independent newspaper, the Phnom Penh Post, was sold to a Malaysian businessman with ties to the CPP.

Similarly, Hun Sen—himself a former low-level Khmer Rouge commander—undermined the operations of the U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal through political pressure as its defendants aged and doubts grew over future indictments. He argued that the tribunal threatened Cambodia’s safety and the government’s ability to govern.

“The lack of a de facto commitment to such human rights fits with Hun Sen’s general mode of operation: the outward appearance of compliance to international standards of appropriate behavior, combined with a relatively disguised behavioral divergence from those established standards,” Morgenbesser said.

In recent years, Hun Sen has also turned to China for political backing and financial aid to solidify his power. The prime minister’s concern for perceived legality extends even to this relationship. In July, the Wall Street Journal reported that the two countries had reached a secret deal for China to use a Cambodian military base in the coastal city of Sihanoukville. While Cambodia’s constitution bans hosting a foreign military base, Hun Sen found a workaround: Cambodia will simply issue the Chinese personnel on the base Cambodian passports.

But this might not necessarily help Hun Sen’s public image. Cambodian resentment is growing, thanks to the continued influx of Chinese nationals and skyrocketing household debt. The public is also likely to hold Hun Sen responsible if Cambodia loses its preferential trade status with the European Union, which allows it to export garments and other goods duty-free.

Hun Sen isn’t likely to face a genuine political challenge in his lifetime. Hun Sen isn’t likely to face a genuine political challenge in his lifetime, particularly with the “rule of law” behind him. The government increasingly wields the digital sphere as a repressive tool, arresting people for critical social media posts and creating a silencing effect.

“Young people are increasingly more cautious to openly criticize [the] CPP,” said a Cambodian journalist in Phnom Penh, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. “What’s happened in 2017 and the following years makes them less hopeful. The young don’t see new faces, new input, or new approach. They don’t want to care.”

The journalist said they and other Cambodian reporters have a substantial number of Cambodian Twitter bots following them—presumably intended to let Cambodians know they’re being watched by the powerful.

Youth frustration could pose problems for the Hun clan down the line. Hun Sen appears to be grooming his son Hun Manet as his successor. In personalized authoritarian regimes like Cambodia, a successor’s success hinges on their ability to reduce public discontent and control volatile elites. If this elite discontent erupts upon Hun Sen’s death, it could thwart Hun Manet’s likely succession as prime minister.

Hun Sen, hoping to strengthen his family’s grasp on power, will keep cracking down through supposedly legal means and by acting as Beijing’s proxy. But Cambodians have become increasingly literate in the language of authoritarianism, casting doubt on the long-term success of Hun Sen’s efforts to dress up his one-man rule as democratic.

Charles Dunst is a visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington and an associate at LSE Ideas, a foreign-policy think tank at the London School of Economics. He is a contributing editor for American Purpose. Twitter: @charlesdunst