After thirty years of Hun Sen, where is Cambodia now?

Author: Vannarith Chheang, University of Leeds

2015 marks 30 years in power for Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Hun Sen became prime minister in January 1985 at only 33 years old. He has consolidated his power base through charismatic leadership, paternalism, coercion and a system of patronage.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, greets well-wishers during the 36th anniversary of Victory Day, when the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 07 January 2015. (Photo: AAP).

There are mixed views on Hun Sen’s leadership. It is essential to understand the national context to conduct a well-balanced assessment of Hun Sen’s achievements and shortcomings. Cambodia is a fragile country after nearly three decades of war and conflict. Social and political distrust, a potential source of political instability, remain deeply embedded in Cambodian political culture and society.

For Hun Sen, peace and security and socio-economic development occupy centre stage in Cambodia’s domestic politics, with democracy and human rights coming in second.

Hun Sen is one of the main architects of peace-building in Cambodia. His political career started with the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation which, with the support of Vietnam, toppled the Khmer Rouge regime in January 1979.

At the end of the 1980s, as similar economic reforms were being pursued in Vietnam and Laos, Hun Sen chose to follow the free-market economic model. But Cambodia took a different political reform path from that of Laos and Vietnam after the 1991 Paris Peace Accords. Cambodia adopted a liberal, multi-party political system, incorporating the principles of democracy and human rights in its 1993 constitution.

Hun Sen has steered Cambodia towards peace and development, helping overcome the most difficult period in the country’s history, which included both the civil war and subsequent factional power struggles. In the late 1990s, Hun Sen managed to dissolve the remaining Khmer Rouge forces and reintegrate them into the Cambodian Royal Armed Forces, marking the end of the civil war.

Hun Sen has contributed to Cambodia’s political stability, relatively good economic performance and poverty reduction. In the last two decades, Cambodia has enjoyed an average of 7.7 per cent GDP growth. Cambodia is classified as a ‘high growth country’ by the World Bank.

The poverty rate fell from 47.8 per cent in 2007 to 18.9 per cent in 2012. But the development gap between urban and rural areas remains wide. In 2011, 91 per cent of poor households were living in rural areas. Cambodia’s poor households are vulnerable to an array of shocks including natural disasters and water, food and energy security crises.

Hun Sen’s governance strategy revolves around three factors: political stability, development and promoting cultural identity. Hun Sen’s ambition is to transform Cambodia into a middle-income country by 2030, and a high-income country by 2050.

Still, Hun Sen’s leadership and legitimacy were critically challenged in the July 2013 general election when his Cambodian People Party (CPP) suffered a remarkable drop in popular support, losing 22 seats to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

One of the reasons for falling support for the CPP is the chronic and rampant corruption within the government and the party. Corruption is the root cause of social injustice, human rights violations, the culture of impunity, the mismanagement of natural and state resources, widening income inequality, and the downgrading of social ethics and values.

Acknowledging these problems, Hun Sen set a comprehensive reform agenda after the 2013 elections. But concrete outcomes have yet to be seen.

To fulfil the reform agenda, and build his own legacy, Hun Sen must make major institutional changes. He must be innovative and consistent in fighting corruption and nepotism otherwise his reform policy will fail, further challenging his legitimacy and legacy.

Transformative and adaptive political leadership, effective and efficient bureaucracy, and popular support and participation are necessary if political and economic reforms are to succeed. Hun Sen’s government must further deepen the reform agenda by focusing on these three elements.

Hun Sen has, some say, adapted his leadership style too slowly to cope with Cambodia’s fast-changing social transformation. His authoritarian leadership is not popular, especially among young people. The majority of Cambodian youth aspire to change. At the party congress in February, CPP leaders added youth leaders to the Central Committee, resulting in 70 out of 545 members being under the age of 50, in a bid to gain support from Cambodia’s youth.

Hun Sen also takes a pragmatic approach towards foreign affairs. His core foreign policy objectives are to maintain national peace and security, further economic development, reduce poverty, and raise Cambodia’s image and prestige.

Hun Sen is pushing to diversify Cambodia’s strategic and economic partners, but there is currently still a tilt towards China. Economic and cultural ties define Cambodia–China relations. China is now Cambodia’s largest source of both foreign direct investment and development assistance.

Under Hun Sen, Cambodia has also engaged in promoting global peace and stability. Cambodia has sent more than 1700 peacekeepers to different parts of the world under the UN framework and is actively involved in the global campaign to end landmines.

Cambodia is taking a leading role in promoting the ‘responsibility to protect’ in Southeast Asia, and intends to build stronger partnerships with ASEAN and the UN to build the state’s capacity to protect its population from genocide and crimes against humanity, and from their incitement.

In the 30 years Hun Sen has been in power, Cambodia has made significant progress but key challenges remain.

Vannarith Chheang is lecturer of Asia Pacific Studies at the University of Leeds.

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