Cambodia 2013

Legislative elections were held in Cambodia on July 28, 2013. The lower house of the Cambodian Parliament (សភាតំណាងរាស្ត្រ ព្រះរាជាណាចក្រកម្ពុជា, Rathasaphea ney Preăh Réachéanachâk Kâmpŭchéa), the National Assembly (រដ្ឋសភាជាតិ; Rotsaphea) has 123 members elected to five-year terms by proportional representation (d’Hondt) in provincial constituencies of one to 18 members. The upper house, the Senate (ព្រឹទ្ធសភានៃព្រះរាជាណាចក្រកម្ពុជា, Protsaphea) is made of 61 members, two of which are nominated by the King, two are nominated by the National Assembly and the remaining 57 seats are, similar to the French Senate, elected by an electoral college made up of MPs and commune councillors. The Senate, which is less powerful than the lower house, was created by a constitutional revision in 1999 and the first elections were held in 2006.

Historical context

Cambodia’s history since 1945 has been a tragedy. Destroyed by decades of war, victim of one of the most atrocious genocides in recent history, invaded countless times and caught up in strategic geopolitical calculations of great powers, Cambodia has only slowly lifted itself up from this tragedy. Cambodian history is of particular relevance to its contemporary politics for a variety of reasons – not only is it all quite interesting; many Cambodian politicians have remarkable political longevity and Cambodian politics remained heavily influenced by the country’s political history and its foreign relations.

The Sihanouk ‘monarchy’ (1953-1970)

Cambodia gained full independence from France in November 1953, and its sovereignty was entrenched by the Geneva Accords in July 1954, which ended the First Indochina War. Although Cambodia’s independence was partly the result of an armed struggle by an underground nationalist movement which, like in Laos, was effectively controlled by the Việt Minh (after 1947); the conflict in Cambodia was far less bloody than in Vietnam or Laos. Rather, independence was, in large part, the work of Norodom Sihanouk, the King of Cambodia since 1941. Sihanouk, a central figure of Cambodian politics until his death in 2012, was a shrewd political operator. Originally installed by the French; when the Japanese occupiers assumed full political control of Indochina (previously, they had allowed Vichy France to administer the territory in their stead), Sihanouk remained as the monarch of Japan’s short-lived puppet state. However, he quickly regained French confidence after Japan’s defeat. Facing political instability and a legislature dominated by a party fairly hostile to him, Sihanouk gained the upper hand after 1952/1953 (over the head of rival princes and politicians), kicking off a successful diplomatic campaign for independence.

New regime, new flag – 1 / 7: Flag of the Kingdom of Cambodia (1953-1970, 1993- )

After independence, Cambodian politics were dominated by Sihanouk – who abdicated (in favour of his father) in 1955 to enter active politics, through a big-tent political party, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, which dominated Cambodian politics until 1970 – although that hid a complex factional conflict between left and right within the state. The Sangkum won the 1955 elections, largely through fraud, intimidation and support from the government, effectively crushing the Democratic Party, the old rival of Sihanouk since the French era, and the left. As Prime Minister, and, later, as ‘chief of state’ of Cambodia (after 1960), Sihanouk was the man who controlled Cambodian politics. Politically, the Sangkum was something a typical party of power – personalist, populist and autocratic. That being said, the Sangkum was not quite Sihanouk’s tool – the party, as a big-tent party of power, included politicians (Sam Sary, Lon Nol etc) who would later conspire against Sihanouk himself.

In domestic politics, Sihanouk largely leaned towards the right. For example, the Sangkum held that social inequalities were legitimized by the Theravada Buddhist idea of karma – poor people who were virtuous and obedient would be reincarnated in a more socially prominent role in their future lives. Sihanouk’s regime cracked down on the leftist opposition, which eventually led the communist opposition to go underground. That being said, he was also able to play both sides off of one another – some prominent leftists, including future Khmer Rouge apparatchik Khieu Samphân, participated in some governments.

The first years after independence were Cambodia’s golden years. Exports of raw materials (largely rice) were high, economic growth was 8% yearly, there were plenty of employment opportunities in the countryside and the cities, most people had enough to eat and foreign aid allowed the country to modernize and build up modern infrastructures, including schools, hospitals, roads or harbours. Foreign aid came from both the western bloc (France and the United States mostly) and the communist bloc (USSR, PR China).

As early as 1954, Sihanouk’s Cambodia began pursuing a non-aligned policy – the country participated in the 1955 Bandung Conference and became a founding member of the non-aligned movement. For a strategically located country like Cambodia in the midst of the Cold War and the beginning of the Vietnam War, however, sitting on the fence was near impossible. Until 1963, Sihanouk maintained fairly amicable relations with the US, although there was mutual suspicions on both sides. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Cambodia turned to the US for military aid – eventually, the Khmer armed forces (FARK) became strong bulwarks of anti-communism led by a pro-American officer corp (notably General Lon Nol). However, Sihanouk was rather hostile towards two US allies in the region – Thailand and South Vietnam, two countries with significant Khmer minorities and with a history of territorial disputes (and irredentist designs) with Cambodia. While Sihanouk was trying to have the cake and eat it with the US, he developed much stronger and warmer ties with communist China. The alliance with China was mutually beneficial for both: as a major power, China would, Sihanouk hoped, keep Vietnam and Thailand from acting against his country; for Beijing, having an ally in Cambodia was vital for preventing their encirclement by anti-communist and pro-American regimes. Besides, Sihanouk predicted that the southeast Asian conflict would end, sooner or later, with a communist victory – in this scenario, Cambodia’s interests (and sovereignty) were better served by Hanoi and Beijing than they would by Saigon or Washington.

Relations with Bangkok, Saigon and Washington deteriorated quickly after 1959, when the government uncovered a Thai-South Vietnamese plot to overthrow Sihanouk and replace him with a republic led by veteran right-nationalist Son Ngoc Thanh. Diplomatic relations with Thailand were broken in 1961, those with South Vietnam in 1963. Relations with South Vietnam (and, by consequence, the US) worsened when Sihanouk came on fairly good terms with both the North Vietnamese government and the communist Viêt Cong in South Vietnam – after establishing diplomatic relations with the north in 1963, he turned to the Viêt Cong and the North Vietnamese government to obtain guarantees for Cambodian territorial integrity.

Relations with the US became horrible after 1963 (Sihanouk favourably greeted the news of President Kennedy’s assassination) and ties were finally broken in 1965. Domestically, after 1963, Sihanouk nationalized banks, foreign trade and insurance and state monopolies created; leading to some kind of ‘crony socialism’, widespread corruption and palace intrigues/scandals. Increased air and land incursions by the American military inside Cambodia had become a major issue. Cambodia, with or without Sihanouk’s blessing, served as rear base for the Viêt Cong and the country. After 1965, the Cambodian government opened its main harbour (Sihanoukville) to Soviet and Chinese shipments of arms destined for North Vietnam. Ironically, while Sihanouk’s foreign policy became, after 1963-1965, pretty openly leftist, his domestic policies were far more right-wing, unleashing waves of repression on left-wing and communist activists and clandestine fighters in Cambodia.

Over time, however, Sihanouk began to resent the heavy North Vietnamese/Viêt Cong influence and presence in his country – both parties were using their rear bases in Cambodia, the country was the southern terminus of the Hô Chi Minh trail (which supplied the Viêt Cong with supplies from the north) and Vietnamese presence destabilized the country economically and politically. Sihanouk came to regret the break with the US, while right-wing sectors within the military, business community and ruling party criticized Sihanouk’s policies.

The 1966 elections marked the beginning of the end for Sihanouk’s regime but also the start of a civil war which would truly end only in 1990. The right-wing faction (anti-nationalization and pro-American) of the Sangkum won the elections, forcing Sihanouk to name Lon Nol, a right-wing military officer, as Prime Minister. In some regards, Sihanouk might have shared some of Lon Nol’s hostility towards the Vietnamese, but he remained suspicious and hostile towards his Prime Minister. To counterbalance Lon Nol’s power, he named a “counter government” which he used to control and criticize Lon Nol. In 1967, the government’s decision to stop the illegal sale of rice to the communists by using the military to forcibly collect the harvests at gunpoint led to a peasant revolt in the western rural province of Battambang. In the prince’s absence, but with his blessing, Lon Nol responded by imposing martial law and killing hundreds of peasants. Upon his return in the country, Sihanouk arrested leftist members of his “counter government”, but then also pushed Lon Nol to resign later in 1967.

Between 1967 and 1975, the policies of successive Cambodian governments and – after 1969 – the United States – succeeded in driving thousands of Cambodian peasants from the countryside into the arms of the local communist rebels, which Sihanouk styled the Khmers Rouge (‘Red Khmers’, KR). The Communist Party of Kampuchea (PCK) was founded in 1951, basically as the local section of the hegemonic Vietnamese communi movement. Quickly, the party became divided: a (predominantly urban) faction of the party was pro-Vietnamese, but a more rural and anti-Vietnamese faction progressively developed around a group of intellectuals educated in Paris – Saloth Sâr (Pol Pot) and Ieng Sary became the ‘Paris students’ group’ main leaders. In the 1950s, the Cambodian communists faced a hard time: Sihanouk, as a fairly anti-American leader with support in Hanoi and Beijing, was more legitimate in the eyes of many Cambodians than the South Vietnamese regime was in Vietnam; the government actively persecuted communists; and, in the countryside, the communists’ call for a peasant revolution never took off. Many of the Paris students chose to become teachers in respected lycées in Phnom Penh – their academic work would eventually come to provide with them with a network of young supporters, indoctrinated by their respected professors. Starting in 1960, the Paris students group rose to prominence within the party – Pol Pot became secretary-general in 1962, after the pro-Vietnamese leader disappeared. The break with Vietnam was not sudden, but rather took place over a few years. However, in 1965, after Pol Pot visited North Vietnam, where the communist leadership in Hanoi advised him to stay cautious and play nice with Sihanouk, the break appeared fairly definite. In contrast, the PCK obtained a warmer reception in China, notwithstanding Beijing’s alliance with Sihanouk. The Khmers Rouge launched their armed insurgency (and, by consequence, the civil war) in January 1968.

In 1969, in a turnaround, Sihanouk started denouncing the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia and tried patching things up with Washington. In March 1969, the new Nixon administration began ‘Operation Menu’ – the heavy bombing (108,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on the country), by the USAF, of suspected Vietnamese bases in Cambodian territory. Sihanouk welcomed the bombing campaign – he reestablished diplomatic relations in June 1969, Lon Nol returned as Prime Minister and the government spearheaded violent demonstrations against Vietnamese interests in Cambodia.

The Khmer Republic (1970-1975)

New regime, new flag – 2: Flag of the Khmer Republic (1970-1975)

While Sihanouk was abroad in March 1970, he was overthrown in a coup masterminded by his cousin and dynastic rival, Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, and Prime Minister Lon Nol. The CIA had foreknowledge of the coup, but they probably did not stage it themselves – they were content to let their allies in the military and the political right handle that matter. Quickly, the National Assembly voted to remove Sihanouk from office and, in October 1970, the Khmer Republic was proclaimed.

Throughout its short existence, the Khmer Republic’s history was defined by the Cambodian Civil War – which was both a domestic conflict between the government troops and the Khmers Rouge, and part of a broader regional conflict – the Vietnam War – with American, North Vietnamese, Viêt Cong and South Vietnamese participation.

The government, which could fairly accurately be described as an American puppet government, was weakened by a whole variety of factors. Top among those were probably internal clashes, between Lon Nol and Prince Sirik Matak, and by the weakness of the Cambodian military (FANK) – dogged by poor morale, corrupt leadership and heavy casualties. The FANK and the Khmer Republic’s government were both heavily dependent on American military aid. American and South Vietnamese (ARVN) troops ‘invaded’ Cambodia in April-May 1970 to destroy Vietnamese communist base camps, and save the Lon Nol government from collapse. USAF bombing of Cambodia continued until 1973 – including the earlier Operation Menu (1969-1970), the US dropped 539,129 tonnes of bomb on Cambodia and killed between 40,000 and 150,000 Cambodians. The scale of this bombing far surpassed the American bombings of Japan during World War II.

Map of US bombings in Cambodia (pink dots) – source:

From a strategic standpoint, some have argued that the US bombing served its intended purposes – it allowed the Khmer Republic to survive, it often weakened the communists and eventually led to the North Vietnamese progressively withdrawing from Cambodia. However, the devastating effects of the bombing drove thousands of Cambodians into the Khmers Rouge’s arms. The KR started proving themselves to be vicious, psychopathic murderers in the “liberated zones” after 1972 (random killings, purges of opponents, forced collectivization), but the details of their pre-1975 atrocities were not widely publicized, and, as in any cases of genocide, many citizens doubted that they were dealing with people who would brutally murder their own countrymen for no apparent purposes. Instead, many peasants who had their villages, livelihoods and families destroyed by American bombing and resented the pro-American corrupt, incompetent and venal Lon Nol regime saw the KR as liberators. They were ready to attribute reports of atrocities to the “heat of battle”. Between 1970 and 1975, the KR’s manpower increased from 12-15k to 35-40k.

In exile, Sihanouk formed, in March 1970, the Royal Government of National Union of Kampuchea (GRUNK) in alliance with the KR. Sihanouk was smart enough to know that he was being used by the KR, but between Lon Nol and the KR, he saw the latter as the lesser evil – and the ones who weren’t the puppets of “American imperialism”. In turn, the Khmers Rouge saw Sihanouk as a useful figurehead for them both domestically and internationally. Domestically, Sihanouk was still revered as a godlike figure by numerous Cambodians, and his alliance with the KR gave them an aura of respectability with many Cambodians who hadn’t cared much for their talk of “peasant revolution” in the 1960s. Internationally, Sihanouk was still held in high regard in several countries and thus gave international respectability to the KR.

The GRUNK was a government-in-exile led by Sihanouk, run out of Beijing, but the real power laid with the KR who were actually in Cambodia. The GRUNK/KR were recognized and supported by the PR China, North Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba and other communist countries, although the USSR recognized the GRUNK as Cambodia’s “legitimate government” only in 1973. While North Vietnam backed, fairly obviously, the GRUNK over Lon Nol, relations on the ground between the North Vietnamese and the KR deteriorated after 1972, even if Washington continued to subscribe to the myth of “monolithic communism” and treating the KR as the one and the same as the North Vietnamese and Viêt Cong. In 1973, after the Paris Peace Accords, the KR refused any negotiations or settlement with the Khmer Republic – they would fight until victory. That same year, the end of the American bombing campaign and the US’ slow withdrawal from SE Asia further weakened the FANK and Lon Nol’s government. By 1974, the Khmer Republic government’s authority was limited to Phnom Penh, vital communication routes with South Vietnam and Thailand, and the lowlands around Lake Tonlé Sap. Phnom Penh’s population had swelled to over 2 million (from 600,000) over the course of the conflict, due to an influx of refugees fleeing the fighting and American bombings.

In January 1975, the Khmers Rouge launched their final push for Phnom Penh. They encircled the capital, cutting off fluvial supply routes with South Vietnam. On April 1, Lon Nol fled the country with the cash. On April 17,  Phnom Penh fell and the Khmers Rouge seized power.

“Democratic” Kampuchea and the Khmers Rouge (1975-1979)

New regime, new flag – 3: Flag of the Khmers Rouge’ Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979)

The Khmers Rouge subscribed to a radical, hardline definition of communism – it could be seen as Maoism taken to a radical genocidal extreme; however, some aspects of the KR’s ideology was similar to fascism and Nazism. The end result of the four-year reign of the KR was a genocide in which between 1.7 and 2.2 million Cambodians died (either directly or indirectly at the hands of the regime). Certain groups – such as ethnic minorities (the Muslim Cham, the Vietnamese and Chinese minorities were decimated), Buddhist monks, “intellectuals” or anybody tied to the old regime – suffered much more than others, but, in general, the KR were hardly discriminatory in their psychopathic mass-murders.

Those who came to power in April 1975 were largely unknowns. They were referred to as and known as the Angkar (The Organization), but little else was known of them or of the identity of their leaders (for example, that the Angkar was the PCK was only revealed officially in 1977). Pol Pot and his allies preferred to live in secrecy, even after they came to power. Indeed, the new head of state of Democratic Kampuchea (as the country became known) was Prince Sihanouk, until he resigned in April 1976 and was placed under house arrest. However, Sihanouk was only the international facade for the Khmer Rouge government, even as ‘head of state’ (he was virtually prisoner of the KR). Khieu Samphân became President of the Presidium in April 1976, while Pol Pot would serve as Prime Minister (with one short exception) between April 1976 and the fall of the regime in January 1979.

Real political power was held by the Angkar, specifically a small circle of confidantes around Pol Pot, most of them former Paris students from the 1950. This inner circle included Pol Pot, Khieu Samphân, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and the sanguinary ‘butcher’ Ta Mok. Tuol Sleng’s commanding officer was Kang Kek Ieu, known as ‘Douch’.

The core of Khmer Rouge political thought can be summarized around a four main points: the total recreation of society, radical dehumanization, hatred of urban areas and Khmer nationalism.

A key concept in Khmer Rouge ideology was that of “Year Zero”, expressing the need for a ‘recreation’ of Khmer society, literally wiping out the “impure” old culture and traditions and replacing them with a new revolutionary culture built from scratch.  Upon taking power, the new Khmer Rouge government abolished all currency, effectively reverting to barter. All those associated with this “impure” old order needed to be re-educated, or, more often, wiped out. “Intellectuals” – which soon came to be defined as people wearing glasses, Cambodians who had been ‘westernized’ or those who speak foreign languages (such as French and English) – were prime targets. Buddhist monks, associated with religion and, by consequence, the old order, were nearly exterminated.

Another facet of this “Year Zero” obsession was an hatred of urban areas, seen as impure symbols of the old order. Days after the fall of Phnom Penh, the KR ordered the entire city to be forcibly evacuated and the population displaced into the countryside. The government claimed this was a temporary evacuation to protect citizens from an “American bombing”; the reality, which soon became clear, was that the evacuation of the cities was part of their forced collectivization policies – everybody would be forced to work in the fields, to “serve the revolution”. During the evacuation of the capital, the KR emptied hospitals at gunpoint, with those too weak to evacuate being shot. In sweltering heat and inhumane conditions, the evacuation of Phnom Penh claimed the lives of about 10,000 people.

The KR, unlike traditional communist regimes or parties, was very hostile towards urban labour and the embryonic industrial working-classes, largely because they had not offered them support during the civil war years. As a result, the KR, like in Maoist doctrine, placed great emphasis on agriculture and agrarian socialism.

The other major aspect of Khmer Rouge ideology was a total, radical dehumanization of society. Everybody and everything was to be subordinated to the “revolution” and building the new society. Families were separated, and the regime broke up family ties by encouraging children to rebel against their parents (symbols of an old authority). Individuality, in the form of any kind of individual expression or pleasure, was banned and harshly punished. In the fields, the Khmers Rouge’ quasi-slaves ate their meager rations in common. Intermingling, extramarital sex, group entertainment (such as music, poetry etc which was not ‘revolutionary’) was all forbidden and repressed. “Justice” was arbitrary because there was no judicial system. Those who disobeyed and showed the slightest hint of dissent were summarily executed. Similarly, those who were judged to be ‘lazy’, unproductive or who had committed a mistake in their work were also summarily executed.

The KR regime was a far cry from Marxist ‘internationalism’. On the contrary, the KR were chauvinist Khmer nationalists, with a particularly profound hatred for Vietnam and anything Vietnamese. The KR regime sought to reclaim a region of southern Vietnam bordering Cambodia, known as Kampuchea Krom, inhabited by ethnic Khmers (Khmer Krom) and considered by Khmers to be their historical heartland until it was annexed by Annam and granted to South Vietnam by France in 1949. In Cambodia, the Vietnamese minority had faced persecution since 1970 – after the coup, the government had encouraged a massacre of Vietnamese in April 1970. When the KR came to power, they expelled 150,000 Vietnamese in 1975, but by 1976 they barred them from leaving the country and those who remained in Cambodia were subject to arbitrary persecution.

As with so many other sociopathic regimes, another key aspect of the Khmer Rouge regime was the paranoia of the ruling elite. Pol Pot and his henchmen were quick to purge any other Khmer Rouge leader who showed any hints of dissent, rival ambition or disobedience. Beginning even before 1975, KR leaders who disagreed with Pol Pot’s radical anti-Vietnamese, nationalist and dehumanizing ideology were purged from the PCK. After 1975, a number of regional KR leaders who had disagreed with the Angkars policies were killed off. For example, in 1976 and 1977, the KR leadership of the “East Zone” was purged after a coup attempt by a KR military leader. Those who were lucky – like the more ‘moderate’ and pro-Vietnamese Hun Sen and Heng Samrin – managed to flee the country.

The regime’s secret police arrested thousands of individuals, the majority of whom were innocent or whose ‘crimes’ often were little more than stealing or trying to get extra food for themselves. Tuol Sleng, a former girl’s lycée in Phnom Penh, was converted into a prison (or, more accurately, an extermination camp), officially called S-21. Prisoners held at Tuol Sleng were systematically identified, locked up and tortured until they admitted that they were Vietnamese and/or CIA spies. Many prisoners, under torture, admitted to being foreign spies and gave ‘details’ of their ‘plots’. About 15,000 people passed through Tuol Sleng, including a few unlucky foreigners, but it is said that less than 10 people came out alive.

The Lon Nol regime and the civil war was obviously not an era of economic prosperity – far from it. However, “peace” with the KR hardly brought anything better. In line with their objective of transforming the country into a communist society without going through any intermediate stages, the KR had ordered the forced collectivization of agriculture – beginning in the “liberated zones” they controlled prior to 1975. Peasants, many of whom had owned small tracts of land, lost their land and were turned into subhuman slaves, working for the Angkar. The deportation of urban dwellers, followed by their forced migration from one part of the country to another, worsened the situation. Soon, Cambodia faced a generalized famine; the KR in turn used this famine as a coercive tactic on the population. The famine was caused, in good part, by the KR’s policies and their incompetence – the government sought to triple rice production at the expense of other crops, irrigation was deficient, and the government took decisions on harvest calendars (ignoring local environmental conditions). Individuals were provided with meager rations provided by the Angkar, and anyone who sought to get additional food (like picking fruit) could be arrested or executed.

Relations with Vietnam (reunified after the communist victory) were strained from the get-go. The Communist Party of Vietnam had longed sought to play a hegemonic leadership role over Laos and Cambodia. The KR had long sought to escape Vietnamese tuttelage. Right after their victory in April 1975, KR troops had been massed along the Vietnamese border and there were small clashes between both countries in May 1975. Again in May 1977, KR troops attacked Vietnamese villages and killed civilians, although Vietnam did not retaliate. That same year, unlike Laos, Cambodia refused to sign a treaty of friendship and cooperation with Vietnam.

On the world stage, Cambodia was relatively isolated. The communist bloc was now divided because of the Sino-Soviet split. In southeast Asia, Vietnam sided with the Soviet Union, while the KR aligned with China (even before 1975). Mao and Zhou Enlai’s deaths in 1976 meant that Chinese aid dried up, and Democratic Kampuchea was reliant on a few non-aligned or pro-Chinese communist countries: North Korea, Albania, Yugoslavia or Romania. Relations with the western bloc, the Soviet Union and Thailand were generally strained.

Vietnam allegedly took the decision to invade Democratic Kampuchea in 1977 or early 1978. At the outset, Vietnam’s rationale for invading Cambodia was likely more geopolitical than humanitarian. Relations between Phnom Penh and Hanoi deteriorated further in 1978, with the KR regime stepping up violently anti-Vietnamese propaganda and doubling down on internal purges of ‘suspected Vietnamese agents’ within the ruling elite. In preparation for the invasion, Vietnam sought political support from the Soviet Union.

The Vietnamese invasion began on December 21, 1978. With some 170,000 men to the KR’s 73,000, the Vietnamese military quickly overwhelmed the weak KR defenses and as early as January 7, 1979, Vietnamese troops took Phnom Penh. However, the KR government – including Pol Pot and his inner circle – had fled the city in the days leading up to the fall of the capital. Pol Pot vowed to fight “Soviet expansionism” by a return to the KR’s old guerrilla tactics. The KR evacuated Prince Sihanouk out of the country.

People’s Republic of Kampuchea and the second civil war (1979-1991)

New regime, new flag – 4: Flag of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (1979-1991)

Democratic Kampuchea was followed by the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, a single-party communist regime backed by Vietnam and the USSR. The new government’s ruling elite was formed by former KR cadres who had managed to flee the country: Heng Samrin became President, Hun Sen was in charge of foreign affairs and Chea Sim in charge of internal affairs. Within the new government, there were, at the outset, two factions: the remnants of the anti-colonial and Vietnamese-led Khmers Issarak (many of whom had been living in Vietnam for decades) and KR dissidents. In December 1981, the Khmer Issarak Prime Minister, Pen Sovan, was ousted from office. In 1985, Hun Sen became Prime Minister. The government was widely seen as a Vietnamese puppet state. Indeed, Vietnamese troops – up to 200,000 soldiers – occupied the country until 1989, Vietnamese “expert-advisers” guided government policies and the government/Vietnam encouraged the immigration of about 500,000 Vietnamese in Cambodia.

The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was a morally gray situation. On the one hand, the invasion constituted a gross violation of the sacrosanct principle of state sovereignty, which had not yet been challenged by the ideas of humanitarian intervention or R2P. On the other hand, many Cambodians initially welcomed the Vietnamese as liberators from a brutal regime, which was, proportionally, one of the most genocidal regimes in world history.

The Vietnamese invasion did not mark the end of Cambodia’s agony. The KR had fled the capital and conceded control over most of Cambodia to the new pro-Vietnamese government, but they set up camps along the Thai border, from where they would keep fighting until 1998. Once again, Cambodia was the victim of greater power politics between great powers.

Between 1970 and 1975, the United States had strongly supported Lon Nol’s regime against the North Vietnamese and the KR, in the name of anti-communism. After the fall of the Khmer Republic, relations between the US and Democratic Kampuchea had been strained. Some American policymakers, such as Sen. George McGovern (D-SD), had urged the US to welcome the Vietnamese invasion as a ‘liberation’ of the country from the murderous KR regime. However, geopolitical considerations quickly took primacy over humanitarian and moral considerations in Washington. In January 1979, the US was on the verge of establishing diplomatic relations with PR China and Washington was eager to build close relations with Beijing, to counter the ultimate enemy – Moscow (and, by extension, Hanoi). Besides, in 1979, the US still saw Vietnam as the enemy. The United States, followed by Thailand, Great Britain and most western bloc nations, sided with China – and the KR – against Vietnam and the Soviet Union.

In February, China launched a ‘punitive invasion’ of northern Vietnam to punish the Vietnamese for the invasion of Cambodia. Both sides suffered loses and the Chinese withdrew a month later, but China continued to provide material support to the KR inside Cambodia.

The Vietnamese invasion led to a severe humanitarian crisis, which was aggravated by continuing fighting. Vietnamese troops had pillaged the country, and both sides had raided the rice harvests, creating another large famine in the country. Over a million Cambodians attempted to flee the country towards Thailand in 1979, at first being held back by Thai authorities until Thailand opened its borders (for strategic reasons) to Cambodian refugees, settling them in refugee camps on both sides of the Thai-Cambodian border.

In addition to the KR, two other anti-Vietnamese rebel groups were founded between 1979 and 1981. In 1979, with Thai and American support, Sihanouk’s former Prime Minister Son Sann formed Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (FLNPK). In 1981, with support from the ASEAN’s member states, Prince Sihanouk created the “National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia” (FUNCINPEC), whose military wing was the Sihanoukist National Army (ANS).

In 1982, Prince Sihanouk took the leadership of a ‘Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea’, which was made up of the KR, FUNCINPEC and the FLNPK. On the world stage, thanks to American and Chinese support, the UN denied recognition to the People’s Republic of Kampuchea and continued to recognize the KR’s Democratic Kampuchea as the sole legitimate government of Cambodia.

The United States and Britain preferred to provide material support and funding to the more internationally palatable FUNCINPEC/ANC and FLNPK. However, at the start of the conflict, both of these armed groups were weaker than the KR. The KR, regrouped along the Thai border, received funding and support from China; they received training from the Thai special forces and the British SAS. Thailand had welcomed the thousands of Cambodian refugees and provided strong support for the anti-Vietnamese rebel groups because it too feared Vietnamese expansionism and sought to organize Cambodian anti-Vietnamese rebels to protect itself from Vietnam. In 1985, after Vietnamese attacks on FLNPK and KR bases, the Thai responded militarily. There were several border clashes between Vietnam and Thailand throughout the conflict.

It is slightly unclear whether the United States ever provided funding or support expressly to the KR, but they certainly gave China a blank cheque to do so itself. Humanitarian aid from the Red Cross or the WFP, directed to the refugee camps, was administered by the Thai military. As a result, a lot of this aid, through the Thai military, went to help the KR to get back on their feet.

The KR adapted themselves to the new international dispensation by placing Prince Sihanouk as their international facade (again), and learning to speak Washington’s language of ‘falling dominoes’ to justify its conflict against Vietnam. Pol Pot, albeit still the real leader, was officially reduced to a more secretive role and replaced, for diplomatic purposes, by the more urbane Khieu Samphân. The KRs admitted that there had been a few abuses, and a few thousands had been killed ‘by mistake’, but they never admitted to their mass killings or showed any remorse for their genocide. Not that there was ever any pressure on them to do so. On the ground, the KR continued their reign of terror in the territories they controlled.

The second Cambodian Civil War quickly turned into a bloody war of attrition between both sides (indeed, for the FUNCINPEC and the FLNPK, attribution was what they wanted). During the dry season (November-April), the Vietnamese attacked the rebel camps, oftentimes penetrating into Thai territory. During the rainy season, the rebels attacked Vietnamese positions inside Cambodia. After 1984, the Vietnamese mobilized the population into a vast enterprise of ‘passive defense’ – for 3 to 6 months each year, Cambodian civilians were called upon to build roads, infrastructures, fortifications and protective dikes; there was, furthermore, a 2 – later 5 – year military service in the Cambodian military. A fifth of those called up to work in Vietnamese’ “passive defense” programs died, and the continuing Vietnamese occupation/immigration became increasingly unpopular.

The pro-Vietnamese government in Phnom Penh largely based its legitimacy on denunciations of the “Pol Pot-Ieng Sary genocidal clique”. Having uncovered the extent of the KR’s terror, notably at Tuol Sleng prison, the new government and Vietnam used the KR’s genocide as a public relations tool on the world stage. The Vietnamese invasion of 1979 (and ensuing invasion) was now justified on humanitarian grounds, and Moscow was more than happy to use the Cambodian genocide to shame Washington. The Cambodian genocide and the problem of being associated with mass-murderers was a factor which compelled the US to ratify the Genocide Convention in the 1980s, but it did not shame it out of supporting the KR through a Chinese proxy.

By 1986, the conflict had dragged to a stalemate. Because of Vietnamese military superiority, the rebel forces had been unable to gain solid footholds inside Cambodia; however, the Vietnamese were unable to root out the rebels from their camps on either side of the Thai border. Nevertheless, negotiations remained difficult given that the KR never showed a great willingness to dialogue and compromise, while the Vietnamese demanded that the KR be excluded from talks and a future government (a position which was still unacceptable to Sihanouk and Son Sann).

Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power in Moscow was a landmark moment which catalyzed a resolution of the conflict. Gorbachev sought to disengage the USSR from costly foreign entanglements – Cambodia (although it had no troops on the country, a lot of the USSR’s military aid budget was being gobbled up by Hanoi), Afghanistan, Angola or Cuba; he also wanted to normalize relations with China. Vietnam was also exhausted by the Cambodian conflict, and started progressively withdrawing its troops from the country. Negotiations, launched by France and Australia, began in December 1987 with meetings between Prince Sihanouk and Hun Sen. The three rebel groups (KR included) and Hun Sen’s government met again in Indonesia in 1988. However, early talks all hit deadlock. The rebels, particularly Sihanouk, demanded that the country change its official name; the Vietnamese remained opposed to KR participation. The US and China wanted an independent, anti-Vietnamese government led by Sihanouk and Son Sann, perhaps with the KR included.

New regime, new flag – 5: Flag of the State of Cambodia (1991-1992)

In April 1989, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea changed its name to the State of Cambodia, and removed references to socialism from the constitution. Human rights, private property, the Buddhist religion and neutrality were inscribed in the constitution. In September 1989, the last Vietnamese troops left the country. Both sides came to agree to the organization of elections, but they disagreed on what kind of interim government should govern the country between a cease-fire and elections. In November 1989, the Australian foreign minister proposed that the country be placed under UN tutelage until the elections.

The KR, with China’s go-ahead, joined negotiations in 1991. In April 1991, all four parties agreed to a cease-fire. In October 1991, they signed the Paris Accords. Under the Paris Accords, Cambodia was placed under UN tutelage – the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) – which had the mission of disarming the belligerents, prepare for elections, supervise the two rival administrations and ensure refugees’ return to Cambodia.

Transition and political consolidation (1992-1999)

UNTAC began its mission in February 1992, with a force of around 17,000 military personnel and 8,000 civilians. The UNTAC had the mission of disarming all belligerents, the KR included. However, the KR didn’t keep their word for long. After their attempt to set up an office for their political wing in Phnom Penh ended in riots fed by Hun Sen, the KR retreated to their rural strongholds and continued their military actions and reign of terror. The KR barred the UNTAC from entering the zones they controlled, and in 1992 they announced that they would not respect the Paris Accords. In 1993, the KR announced that they would boycott the May 1993 election and called on the murder of Vietnamese immigrants.

New regime, new flag – 6: Flag of UNTAC (1992-1993)

The May 1993, against all hopes, turned out well. Prince Sihanouk’s FUNCINPEC, led by his son Prince Norodom Ranariddh, won 45.5% and 58 seats against 38.2% and 51 seats for Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the renamed ex-socialist party which had ruled since 1979. Son Sann’s party took 3.8% and 10 seats, one last seat went to a small monarchist party. In June, after a brief deadlock, Prince Sihanouk mediated the formation of a grand coalition between FUNCINPEC and the CPP, with Norodom Ranariddh as First Prime Minister and Hun Sen as Second Prime Minister. In September 1993, the monarchy was reestablished and Norodom Sihanouk became, once again, King of Cambodia – though he was now a largely ceremonial and symbolic monarch.

The KR having not been disarmed by the UNTAC, they continued their armed struggle in western rural Cambodia. Foreign assistance to their cause having dried up, the KR now funded their rampages through the sell of gemstones and forestry products. Pol Pot remained active in the movement, despite an official ‘retirement’ in the mid-1980s; for example, he is suspected of having ordered the kidnapping and subsequent execution of four foreign tourists in 1994.

Within the government, tensions between the FUNCINPEC and CPP ran high. Both sides wanted to take full power, eliminating the other side. Hun Sen moved to muzzle the opposition and exclude rivals such as Sam Rainsy from politics. The FUNCINPEC was trying to turn the table around, to marginalize the CPP. In 1996, the FUNCINPEC negotiated the surrender of KR leader Ieng Sary and his Pailin faction, in exchange for a ‘royal pardon’ for Ieng Sary. The FUNCINPEC were trying to use the KR as potential allies against the CPP.

The crisis came to a head in 1997. In the capital, militias loyal to the two main parties clashed. The FUNCINPEC was trying to reach out to the KR, but their strategy ran into some major roadblocks: it is tough to get a mass-murderer like Pol Pot and a bunch of paranoid psychopaths to sit down and turn into political allies. For example, KR troops, on Pol Pot’s orders, once kidnapped FUNCINPEC negotiators. In June 1997, however, FUNCINPEC leader Prince/Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh met with KR diplomat Khieu Samphân, and announced that he had reached an agreement with the KR which included the exile of Pol Pot, Son Sen and Ta Mok. However, Norodom Ranariddh had made this announcement unilaterally and the KR quickly denied any agreement. Within days, an increasingly paranoid Pol Pot ordered the execution of Son Sen (and Son Sen’s wife, and former KR minister, Yun Yat). Ta Mok, scared, ran wild and took the situation in his hands by capturing Pol Pot. Some of Pol Pot’s men tried to flee to Thailand with cash, but they were stopped by the Thai military. On July 25, Pol Pot was tried by his former ally Ta Mok’s men and sentenced to life in ‘prison’. Pol Pot’s military commanders were executed.

Meanwhile, on June 28, Khieu Samphân announced the end of the KR. On July 5, a day before the KR (Khieu Samphân) and FUNCINPEC were due to sign an agreement, Hun Sen moved against Norodom Ranariddh (who was in France) – his men disarmed Norodom Ranariddh’s men, and attacked barracks where KR men where to have been taken by FUNCINPEC. FUNCINPEC leaders were rounded up, tortured and executed. Many foreign observers denounced a coup. Norodom Ranariddh, in exile, was tried in absentia twice and sentenced to 5 and 30 years in prison. As part of a compromise, he was pardoned by his father – the King – and allowed to return to Cambodia before the 1998 elections.

Ta Mok’s hundred or so men, who had by this point turned into brigands, dispersed. The Cambodian army pounded on their base camp in April 1998, but Ta Mok and his men managed to flee. While fleeing, an old and sickly Pol Pot died. In December 1998, Khieu Samphân and Nuon Chea were arrested by Thai authorities and handed over to Cambodia. The two men apologized for the crimes of the 1970s, while Hun Sen – converted to a policy of ‘national reconciliation’ – announced that they would not be tried. Ta Mok was arrested in Thailand and handed over to Cambodia in March 1999.

The CPP won the 1998 elections, taking 39.3% and 64 seats against 30.1% and 43 seats for the FUNCINPEC. The Sam Rainsy Party, a new right-liberal party led by Sam Rainsy, a former FUNCINPEC deputy, won 13.5% and 15 seats.

Justice? (1999-2013)

A major issue in contemporary Cambodian politics has been the fate of former KR leaders. After the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, the new regime had tried, in absentia, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary and sentenced both to death. The People’s Republic of Kampuchea built a large part of its (limited) legitimacy on denouncing the “genocidal clique” which had ruled the country and publicized details of the atrocities committed by the KR while in power – for example, the Vietnamese and the new government quickly turned Tuol Sleng into a commemorative museum of the genocide. Despite such denounciations, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea never purged former KR cadres – far from it. By the 1980s, middle-level KR cadres – many of them dissidents such as Hun Sen who had escaped from the Angkar’s reach – were promoted to positions in the new regime, often after a brief ‘re-education’. In the negotiations to end the second civil war, Prime Minister Hun Sen proved himself to be a staunch opponent of the KR and conditioned any agreement on their exclusion from government.

After the collapse of the KR between 1996 and 1998, Hun Sen, however, reincarnated himself as the leader of a “national reconciliation” policy and he has continued, to this day, to show himself hostile to wide-reaching judicial procedures against former KR leaders.

In 1997, Phnom Penh asked for the UN’s assistance to create a court to try former KR leaders. Negotiations, however, were to drag on: a draft agreement was reached in 1999, a law creating the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia was promulgated in 2001, the UN demanded amendments to the law, an agreement was signed with the UN in 2003, this agreement was promulgated over a year later in 2004, and judges (17 locals, 12 foreigners) took the oath in 2006. Over the course of the later half of 2007, six former KR leaders were put on trial: Kang Kek Ieu (‘Douch’), Ta Mok, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Khieu Samphân. Kang Kek Ieu was sentenced in July 2010 to 30 years in prison, less than the prosecutor had demanded (40 years).

The court’s work has been quite controversial and has attracted criticism from all sides. Many wished that the court extend its proceedings to try all those who collaborated with the KR’s crimes – extending the trial from only the top echelon to mid-level cadres who were responsible for a number of atrocities. However, Hun Sen has opposed an extension of the trials to lower-level KR cadres. His opponents claim that the current government fears that a more thorough investigation could reveal details which concerns them directly. The foreign judges have clashed with their Cambodian counterparts and the government several times, notably in 2009 when the court sought to hear from 6 high-ranking government officials including Heng Samrin, the current President of the National Assembly. Several foreign judges resigned in 2011 and 2012 after their attempts to charge and try additional suspects rebuffed by their Cambodian colleagues.

Some have also criticized that the court’s mandate is limited to crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea ‘era’ of April 17, 1975 to January 6, 1979. This narrow window ensures that the international community (US, China, Thailand and Vietnam) will not need to answer for its actions committed during the second civil war. A few more idealist voices have demanded that the trials be expanded to cover crimes committed under the Khmer Republic, including the responsibility of the top echelons of the American military in the bombing of Cambodia.

The court’s decision to drop cases 003 and 004 against KR military officers was strongly criticized.

Time is running out, given how old most KR leaders are at this point. Ta Mok died in July 2006, and Ieng Sary died in March 2013.

Contemporary Cambodia: Parties and Issues

The CPP was reelected with even wider majorities in 2003 and 2008, winning 73 and 90 seats respectively in those two elections. After the 1998 and 2003 elections, the CPP had fallen short of the two-thirds majority required to govern alone, compelling Hun Sen to form shaky coalitions with the FUNCINPEC, which fell to 26 seats in 2003 and collapsed to a mere 2 seats in 2008. In the 2008 election, winning 58% and 90 seats, the CPP won a two-thirds majority, which allows it to govern alone and amend the constitution.

King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated in favour of one of his sons, Norodom Sihamoni, in 2004. Sihanouk died in 2012. Although after 1993 Sihanouk was no longer the political animal he had been since the 1940s, he continued to be a powerful figure because of status in Cambodia to be a powerful figure, often criticizing the CPP and speaking out against the government’s heavy-handed tactics against opponents. The current monarch, Norodom Sihamoni, is much more reserved and significantly less powerful. He is, in the political realm, irrelevant – quite unlike his father – and some claim that he is an ‘hostage’ of the government.

Cambodia is, at best, a flawed democracy. The Economist ranks it as a “hybrid democracy”. US-based Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2013 describes it thus: “Cambodia is not an electoral democracy. Elections are conducted under often repressive conditions, and the opposition is hampered by serious legal and physical harassment.” This might be a bit of an exaggeration (keeping in mind that the US is not all that fond of Hun Sen): elections are certainly marred by intimidation, violence, irregularities (on the electoral rolls notably) and abuse of power by the government; however, the situation has been improving somewhat – the last local elections in 2012 were said to be better than in the past. Elections might not be free and fair, but they are probably not rigged outright.

Cambodia is also one of the most corrupt countries in the world: in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, it ranked 157 out of 174 countries, with a score of 22 out of 100.

Corruption is a serious problem that hinders economic development and social stability. Many in the ruling elite abuse their positions for private gain. While economic growth in recent years has been sustained by increased investment in mining, forestry, agriculture, textile manufacturing, tourism, hydropower, and real estate, these enterprises frequently involve land grabs by powerful politicians, bureaucrats, and military officers. Repeated efforts by international donors to promote tough anticorruption laws have been stalled and watered down by the government.

source: Freedom in the World 2013

Poverty remains widespread in Cambodia, despite strong economic growth in recent years. Cambodia’s HDI is 0.543 (medium), which makes it one of the poorest countries in Asia/Oceania. Over half of the population is estimated to live on less than $2 a day, and about 30% live below the national poverty line.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has all the hallmarks of a well-entrenched ruling party which has perpetuated its control of the country through unorthodox and fairly undemocratic means: it is autocratic, controlled by a small circle of insiders, family and friends, it is very corrupt and it has full control over the state’s bureaucracy, judiciary, media and law enforcement authorities. It has, unsurprisingly, used its power to silence opposition.

The government does not fully respect freedom of speech. Media controls are largely focused on local broadcast outlets. Print journalists are somewhat freer to criticize the government, but the print media reach only about 10 percent of the population. There are many privately owned print and broadcast outlets, including several owned and operated by the CPP and opposition parties, though broadcast licensing processes remain opaque. There are no restrictions on access to foreign broadcasts via satellite. The government has increasingly used lawsuits and criminal prosecution as a means of media intimidation over the past three years. A 2010 penal code drew criticism for several vague provisions relating to freedom of expression, including one that criminalizes any action that “affects the dignity” of a public official. In September 2012, journalist Hang Serei Odom, who had focused on illegal logging and its link to wealthy politicians, was killed, allegedly by a military policeman. His colleagues urged a more thorough investigation into the murder, but none was forthcoming. In April, writer and environmentalist Chut Watty, who focused on logging in protected forests, also was murdered, allegedly by police. The internet is fairly free of government control, though access is largely limited to urban centers.

source: Freedom in the World 2013

However, the CPP’s support is not entirely artificial. One of the government’s strongest points is the country’s healthy and robust economy. After decades of conflict, bloodshed and destruction; Cambodia’s economy is now booming. Between 2000 and 2009, the country’s GDP grew at a rate of 5 to 13% per year. Escaping the 2008-2009 crisis rather rapidly, the economy has continued to grow by around 7% since 2010 and solid growth is expected to continue for the next few years. Although the country remains largely agricultural, one of the main sources of growth in recent years has come from the garment industry. The government’s liberal investment policies has attracted significant foreign direct investment in the textile industry – about 95% of garment factories are foreign-owned, most by other Asian countries including Taiwan and China. Other factors also play – Cambodia offers them low wages, very weak organized labour activism and quota-free access to American and European markets Tourism has also increased significantly and contributes a fair share of the GDP.

The country’s infrastructure has also developed after the devastation of war. New roads, harbours, refineries or hydroelectric stations are now being built – often thanks to foreign (mostly Chinese) investment. The CPP bases a large part of its appeal on economic growth and the successful reconstruction of Cambodia after years of war.

The opposition claims – quite rightly – that economic growth is benefiting only a small clique around Hun Sen and the CPP. There has also been rising discontent on the ground with working conditions and government actions. Many garment factories have this year been hit by strikes and protests about working conditions and wages, to the point that it forced Hun Sen to order employers to pay employees an extra $10 a month. Another point of contention now are land concessions. In the past ten years, over 300,000 citizens were forcibly evicted from their homes and villages as the government sold land to foreign investors – notably Chinese and Vietnamese developers. After larger protests, in May 2012, the government suspended the allocation of new land concessions.

The rivalry between China and Vietnam is continuing to play out in Cambodia, though this time in the economic sphere rather than on the battlefields. China has made its peace with Hun Sen and the government, and it has become one of the country’s top economic partners and one of the government’s strongest supporters abroad. Thanks to Chinese investment, new harbours, container terminals, hydroelectric power stations and bridges have been built. Chinese interest in Cambodia is largely political – Cambodia has no mineral or oil resources to offer in return – China sees Cambodia as an ally against Vietnam and a ally within ASEAN. Vietnamese investment has also increased significantly in recent years, being worth around $2 billion. For example, a local subsidiary of Vietnam’s state-owned telecoms operator Viettel has 42% of the mobile market. Vietnamese interest in Cambodia is far more controversial, given the long history of enmity between Cambodia and Vietnam and the strong appeal of anti-Vietnamese Khmer nationalist sentiments in the country. The opposition often likes to paint Hun Sen as a Vietnamese pawn, although that is less true today than in the past.

Western nations, including the US, have criticized Hun Sen’s human rights record and, in general, they aren’t all that keen on him. However, they are ready to tolerate him as he keeps providing stability and economic growth.

The CPP’s other major argument is that it has brought stability and peace to the country – and that voting for the opposition would mean a return to civil war and chaos. The CPP continues to play heavily on their role in overthrowing the KR regime in 1979 and openly warns voters, especially in rural areas, that voting for the opposition is like “voting for the KR to return”.

The CPP’s lider maximo remains Hun Sen, who is surrounded by a small circle of powerful insiders and old-timers – such as interior minister Sar Kheng or the ailing president of the Senate Chea Sim. Hun Sen has been actively promoting his sons to succeed him. This year marked the first time one of his sons ran for office: Hun Many, his youngest son and leader of the CPP’s youth wing, ran in Kampong Speu province. His eldest son, Hun Manet, is a West Point graduate and military officer.

The FUNCINPEC, which had been the main anti-CPP force in the 1990s, has continuously declined in power, influence and support since the 1997 ‘coup’. In the last elections, in 2008, the bottom fell out from FUNCINPEC, which lost 15.7% of its vote – to win only 5.1% – and take only 2 seats, down 24 from 2003. It was hurt by the growth of new opposition parties, as well as the CPP. For example, former FUNCINPEC leader and ousted Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh had left the party prior to the vote to create his own party – the Norodom Ranariddh Party (Cambodian politicians seem terribly narcissistic) – which won 5.6% and 2 seats.

FUNCINPEC is currently led by Princess Norodom Arun Rasmey. Its platform was similar to that of the opposition, and, despite being long subservient to the CPP, it did not rule out a post-election alliance with the opposition. FUNCINPEC recently merged with the Norodom Ranariddh Party.

The main opposition force became Sam Rainsy, whose party was – you guessed it – called the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). Sam Rainsy, as touched upon in the history section, was a former FUNCINPEC deputy who lived in France until 1992. In 1994, he split from FUNCINPEC to create his own party. Hun Sen likely took him to be a serious threat, given that it is widely believed that Hun Sen was behind a failed assassination attempt on Sam Rainsy in 1997. In 2004, the Cambodian judiciary – controlled by the CPP – charged him with criminal defamation after he attacked the CPP and FUNCINPEC for corruption and claimed Hun Sen was behind the killings of several SRP leaders and his own assassination attempt in 1997. Having fled in exile in 2005, he was sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison and a $14,000 fine in December 2005. He was allowed to return home in February 2006 after he received a royal pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni.

After the 2008 election, the CPP’s quasi-witch hunt continued. In a 2010 trial denounced as politically-motivated, Sam Rainsy – who had fled into exile again – was sentenced in absentia to 11 years in jail. He was allowed to return just before the elections, on July 12, after a royal pardon requested by Hun Sen. Nevertheless, he was barred from standing in this year’s election.

The opposition forces united this year, to form the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). The CNRP is an alliance of Sam Rainsy’s SRP and the Human Rights Party, an ideologically similar party led by Kem Sokha. The CNRP is defined as ‘liberal’, but as I pointed out in my analysis of the Pakistani elections earlier this year, the western media has an annoying tendency assign an easily identifiable and coherent “Western ideology” to political parties. A better ‘western’ descriptor for the CNRP would be nationalist – particularly anti-Vietnamese, pro-American/pro-Thai. Its ostensible liberalism and its focus on ‘human rights’ is an effect of its nationalist orientation and its place as a persecuted opposition force in a dominant party regime.

On domestic issues, the CNRP’s platform denounces pervasive corruption, land-grabs and economic inequality. It has fairly populist proposals, not unlike that of former Thai Prime Minister (and good friend of Hun Sen) Thaksin Shinawatra, promising a $10/month old-age pension, a $150 minimum wage for garment workers and a $250 minimum wage for civil servants.

However, both Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha are nationalist, anti-Vietnamese leaders. Sam Rainsy stoked anti-Vietnamese sentiments, with rhetoric which his critics say verged on being xenophobic. Even the Vietnamese embassy denounced his nationalist rhetoric. The CNRP, for example, has campaigned hard on illegal immigration and protecting territorial sovereignty – speaking to Khmer fears of being overwhelmed by Cambodia’s more powerful eastern neighbor. In June, Kem Sokha claimed that the horrors of Tuol Sleng, the infamous KR prison-turned-museum, were a fiction invented by the Vietnamese. His comments were a godsend for the government, which organized a 30,000-strong march and passed a law criminalizing denial of KR atrocities. In 2003, Sam Rainsy had already described the KR as a “patriotic resistance”.


Turnout was around 69%, down from 75% in 2008 and the lowest turnout out of all legislative elections held since 1993. Like in the local elections in 2012, the low turnout is likely due to dissatisfaction with politics. The government has kind of lost its ability to cajole apathetic voters into going to the polls.

The preliminary results are as follows:

CPP 49.36% (-8.75%) winning 67 seats (-23)
CNRP 44.34% (+15.81%) winning 56 seats (+27)
FUNCINPEC 3.3% (-7.37%) winning 0 seats (-4)
League for Democracy 1.02% (-0.13%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 1.94% (+0.4%) winning 0 seats (nc)

Cambodia 2013

Preliminary seat count by province – percentage of seats won by winning party in each province, fuchsia represents a tie

The CPP was reelected to yet another term in office, but what is most remarkable about the result is the opposition’s success. The CPP had increased its performance in every election after 1993, reaching a high of 90 seats and some 58% of the vote in the 2008 election. This year, the CPP suffered a major setback – its worst performance since 1998. The CPP has lost its two-thirds majority, meaning that it will no longer be able to change the constitution (although it does not seem to have made much use of that power since 2008). Under a 2006 amendment, a government can now be confirmed with the confidence of half rather than two-thirds of the National Assembly.

In contrast, the opposition did far better than anybody – themselves included – had thought that they would. Their wildest dream – of the kind that most parties issue with pomp and fanfare before an election so that we can laugh at them afterwards – was to win about 50 seats. They won 56 (or maybe 55, I’ve seen both) seats and 44% of the vote.

Of course, given how close the results turned out to be, the opposition now claims that it has won and it rejects the results. Was the election rigged? It is too early to say. What can be said is that the opposition did so well despite having most powers aligned against them in the country – the government, the police, the military, the courts and the media. The opposition and its candidates often lacked access to the media, and often found itself unable to make itself heard in small villages throughout rural Cambodia. For example, an article before the election from Anlong Veng, the last KR holdout in 1998, said that the CNRP’s main problem in that small town was getting people to know that it actually existed. Voters in Anlong Veng – despite having been a hotbed of anti-government activity until not too long ago – certainly bought in to the CPP’s traditional message of stability, growth and roads (and its fear-mongering that the opposition = KR); it also helped that because the CPP controls the media and filters what information rural Cambodians have access to, the opposition was an unknown entity.

It is quite likely that there were also serious irregularities in the election process. One major problem was the electoral roll – before the election, many had warned that because it been haphazardly updated, up to 10% of the population could be disenfranchised. On July 28, many voters claimed that there names were not on the list or that other people had already voted under their name. The ‘inedible’ ink supposed to make cheating tough turned out to be quite easy to remove – allowing voters to vote several times. The local independent Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) noted these irregularities, but it does not seem as if any foreign or local independent observers have yet proclaimed that the election was not free or fair, and whether irregularities had an impact on the outcome.

There is also a more nasty nationalist element at work here again. Vietnamese migrants were said to have been able to register easily due to lax immigration policies. After the vote, rumours flew furiously – for example, that the CPP had shipped in Vietnamese from across the border to vote. As a result, there has been an upswell of Khmer nationalist sentiments on social media websites, with cries such as “Khmer can’t vote—yuon can” – yuon is a derogatory term in Khmer meaning Vietnamese. There were some turbulent and somewhat violent riots in Phnom Penh on election night.

The opposition’s success shows that Cambodia is changing. The median age in the country is 22.5, and an increasingly large number of voters were now born after the end of the second civil war. As a result, the CPP’s traditional message of peace and stability – and its scare tactics about the opposition meaning a return to civil war and the KR – does not move younger voters as it might older voters who remember the civil war years. The CPP has brought stability and (a degree of) prosperity to Cambodia, and can credit itself with strong economic growth. However, economic growth and political stability has also meant that more and more voters are less willing to tolerate corruption, impunity and abuse of power by the CPP. This was already evident in the protests against low wages and poor working conditions in garment factories, or anger over the ‘land-grabs’.

The CNRP highlighted issues such as these which preoccupy more and more voters, particularly those in urban areas – who have freer access to information, are more connected with the outside world and have access to more wealth and modern goods. Sam Rainsy’s return from exile earlier this month also galvanized opposition supporters.

Map of poverty by commune (source:

The preliminary map of results above (based on a map from the Phnom Penh Post) shows a division of the country between the more isolated rural peripheral provinces, most of them with only one deputy, and the central heartland of the country around Phnom Penh, Kampong Cham and Pursat. The opposition won 7 out of 12 seats in Phnom Penh and 10 out of 18 seats in Kampong Cham (the province returning the most members). It also won 6 out of 11 seats in Kandal and Prey Veng provinces, two provinces located in the more urbanized central heartland surrounding Phnom Penh and on the banks of the Mekong and Bassac rivers. It is possible that anti-Vietnamese sentiments play well here, near the border with Vietnam and with small Vietnamese minorities in those provinces. The CPP and the opposition ended all tied up in Kompong Thom, Kampong Chhang, Kampong Speu, Kampot and Takeo provinces – once again, all located in the more developed and urbanized central heartlands. The CPP was successful in fairly populous provinces such as Siem Reap (home to Angkor Wat; the CPP won 4-2), Battambang (CPP won 5-3) or Pursat (CPP won 3-1). This region is poorer, and, in the case of Pursat, has a sizable Vietnamese population. The CPP won every one-seat province, most of them being isolated, often mountainous or hilly border provinces. These small provinces also have large ethnic minority populations – mostly Khmer Loeu (‘tribal’) or Lao.

On the sidelines, FUNCINPEC’s support collapsed again – despite high hopes for a rejuvenation after it absorbed Norodom Ranariddh’s party. Its few remaining supporters likely flocked to the opposition.

Although the CPP can form a government, according to the constitution, a valid meeting of the National Assembly needs two-thirds (82) members present. Therefore, the CNRP could keep the legislature from meeting altogether, and be in a strong position to extract concessions from the CPP.

With FUNCINPEC basically dead, Cambodia might realign to a two-party system – and one which is far more competitive than in the past. Hun Sen remains a highly capable Machiavellian leader – no wonder he’s been in office since 1985 – and also fairly young (in his early 60s) despite being in politics for so long. This is certainly a major blow to him, given how he has been portrayed as the all-powerful and unshakable leader. This might sign the beginning of the end for him and the CPP’s dominance of Cambodian politics since 1993/1997, but he can’t be counted out. He does have a succession plan – a fairly nepotistic one given that his likely successor is one of his sons – and he has shown time and time again his remarkable capacity to adapt himself to changing circumstances and conditions, both domestically and internationally. However, being used to a dormant, pliable or suppressed opposition for so long, one can wonder how Hun Sen will work with a rejuvenated and galvanized opposition which is more determined than ever.

Posted on July 30, 2013, in Cambodia. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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