Beneath one-party rule, seeds of more conflict in Cambodia?

Take a drive through the flat, green Cambodian countryside, and there may be only one sight more common than a rice paddy: the blue-and-white billboards advertising in English, alongside Khmer script, “Cambodian People’s Party.” Weeks after the July 28 national election, the signs were everywhere – in the capital, Phnom Penh, where new luxury apartment towers sit not far from tin-roofed shanties; scattered throughout the famed Angkor Wat temple complex and the adjacent booming tourist town of Siem Reap; in the tiny, faded seaside resort town of Kep, where a massive sign depicting the party’s leaders looms over the main intersection, even along the highway that runs to Vietnam – the party functionary in charge of sign-placing plunked one last billboard down just before the border, apparently determined to capture the support of people who are leaving the country. The signs are notable not just for their ubiquity but also for their vacuity – they say little or nothing more than the party’s name. Still, the message that derives from their sheer number is unmistakable: We run the show here.

For a nation whose recent history is as brutal and unsettled as Cambodia’s – the country’s post-colonial period has featured not just the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime but also numerous coups and more than a decade under Vietnamese control – there is something reassuring about the idea that someone is in charge. There have been material benefits, too: Under CPP rule, the economy has experienced strong and sustained growth, and living conditions are on the rise. But life under the CPP also comes with a heavy price, including pervasive corruption, harassment of political opponents and rampant land grabs. Though signs of progress are everywhere, embedded within the current situation are the seeds of another crisis, even collapse. And the path the country charts over the next decade may have powerful ramifications – not just for Cambodia’s 14 million inhabitants, but for everyone who is trying to understand how, once a nation has crawled out of the depths, it can become a “normal” country.

Those billboards don’t lie: the CPP really does run the show. In the July election, the party increased its share in the 123-member parliament from 73 to 90 seats, rendering superfluous a constitutional amendment it had forced through to lower the requirement for a governing coalition from two-thirds to a simple majority. Prime Minister Hun Sen, the head of the CPP, has been blunt about his desire to dispense with partners in the government, and the party has acted accordingly. As the National Assembly convened this week for the first time since the election, the CPP announced its intention to claim all nine chair and deputy chair committee positions. And with members of the opposition Sam Rainsy and Human Rights parties pledging to boycott the swearing-in ceremony to protest voting irregularities during the election, the CPP declared it would go ahead, even stripping opponents of their seats. “If they don’t attend, they will never attend ever again,” party member Cheam Yeap told the Phnom Penh Post.

Given that brook-no-compromises mentality, it’s little surprise that a World Bank review found that the level of political stability in Cambodia dramatically increased between 1996 – the year before Hun Sen consolidated his control of the government in a violent coup – and 2007. And while that stability was once achieved through the barrel of a gun, the CPP can increasingly claim to be broadly popular, thanks to the county’s economic development. Cambodia has experienced double-digit annual GDP growth since 2004, driven by the garment manufacturing industry and an increasing tourist trade. While growth has contributed to rising inequality and inflation, it has also materially improved living conditions in both the cities and the countryside, where 80 percent of the population resides. The poverty rate, though still 35 percent, has declined. Rates of child mortality and malnutrition have dropped, and immunization is more widespread. Public and private infrastructure is being built in both urban and rural areas.

The effect of the improvements should not be overstated – rapid gains were possible in part because the baseline was so low. Still, a public opinion survey conducted earlier this year found that 77% of Cambodians feel their country is moving in the right direction, and a team of European Union observers concluded that while polling irregularities did occur, the sweeping CPP victory reflected the intent of voters. “It’s much better right now, in terms of infrastructure, economic living conditions and education… Cambodia is in much better condition,” said a young Cambodian I’ll call Ben, who is now studying in the United States.

But economic gains have not been accompanied by liberalization in other areas. Ben asked that his real name not be used in this story, noting that “you take a lot of risks when you discuss the political condition in Cambodia.” His cautiousness is one of many markers of the culture of fear that, while attenuated, still marks the country’s politics. Another is the unsolved killing of an opposition journalist weeks before the July election. While political violence is on the decline, it is not unknown.

Those problems pose obvious concerns for opposition politicians and others who challenge CPP rule. But they are also worrisome for the “ordinary Cambodians” who have benefited from economic development and who, in the words of the Asia Foundation’s Roderick Brazier, just “want the government to leave them alone.” Studies by the World Bank have found that in the long run it is good governance that causes economic growth, not the other way around. The economic challenges now facing the country suggest why this might be so – record inflation, rising global food prices, and a weakening export market all require a smart policy response, and a reputation for corruption scares away most investors. But in Cambodia, governance remains, by almost any measure, poor. The World Bank review that found a marked increase in political stability also found modest growth in measures of citizen voice and government effectiveness. But the country’s rankings for the rule of law and control of corruption remained essentially unchanged at abysmally low levels, and the level of regulatory quality actually declined sharply over the past decade.

Taken together, the trends indicate a trajectory – economic development, poor governance, political repression – that is unlikely to be sustainable in the long run. As the economy matures, “it will become harder to squeeze economic growth out of this place without deeper reforms,” said Brazier, and at some point those reforms “will begin to impinge on political interest.”

“That to me is the big, big question,” he added. “How far is the CPP prepared to go to keep delivering growth?”

Clues to an answer might be found in the strategies the CPP has used to gain authority and ward off challenges. These begin with a canny understanding of one of Cambodia’s most important revenue sources – foreign aid. While the government has long been reliant on aid, the nature and source of those funds have shifted dramatically in recent years, with China becoming one of the single largest donors, as well as one of the leading sources of foreign investment. In spring 2006, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao announced a $600 million aid package that was apparently intended to match a similar award from a Western-backed consortium. Outside observers point to several motivations for Beijing’s increasing presence, such as access to Cambodia’s deep-sea ports and natural resources, and a desire to see the historic ties between China and the Khmer Rouge downplayed at an upcoming tribunal. For the CPP, the benefits are obvious: a steady source of funds from a regional power not inclined to make troublesome demands.

The consequences of China’s role are clear, said Sara Colm, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. “With the Cambodian government less dependent on foreign aid that is linked to concrete benchmarks for reform, international donors have much less leverage and clout when they register concerns about Cambodia’s poor human rights record,” she said. Morivan Ly, a Cambodian woman now living in the United States, made a similar point: “[The] Cambodian government used to get a lot of fund[s] from the U.S., England and some other countries. But now they get a lot of money from China. So China has a lot of power on [the] Cambodian government, I think. Unfortunately, China is not one of the democratic countries, so it does not help the situation in Cambodia.”

In addition to their direct benefits, funds from China also give the CPP leverage over Western donors, who have sought to impose conditions on aid but are reluctant to punish the Cambodian leadership for fear of losing influence in the region. In 2007, international donors upped their annual pledge from $601 to $689 million; that figure included, for the first time in a decade, funds from the United States. (It also included some Chinese funds, as for the first time China agreed to coordinate its efforts with others in the international community.) Hun Sen’s ability to exploit the situation has earned admiration even from his many critics. “Politically, he’s pretty brilliant,” said Peter Ma, a Cambodian who left his home country for the United States in 1981 but closely follows developments there.

But the party’s increasing closeness with China does not preclude it from cozying up to other great powers with deep pockets. In an interview last month with the Phnom Penh Post, outgoing U.S. Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli paired cautious criticism of the CPP with praise for its cooperation with America. “The Cambodians are incredibly helpful on issues that matter to us,” he said. “On counterterrorism, nobody tries harder than the Cambodians.” The U.S. also rewarded the CPP with a recent visit by Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, the highest-ranking American to come to Cambodia in the country’s history.

If the CPP has become in many ways a client of larger nations, its domestic strategy has been to become the leading patron to the Cambodian people. At the time of the 1997 coup, the central treasury was spending three times as much on defense and security as on health, education and rural development. Under CPP rule, those ratios have come more into line with the regional standards – and the party makes sure Cambodians know who is responsible, stamping the name of Hun Sen and other party leaders on new schools, roads and bridges. Those improvements, along with the broader economic gains, are the key to the party’s success. Importantly, the CPP has for the most part been able to provide services and infrastructure without developing an independent state apparatus, or the public revenues needed to run one. Many projects are funded with foreign aid, and while the party’s finances are not transparent, the CPP is known to raise party funds from wealthy urban supporters in order to pay for upgrades in rural areas. Meanwhile, the top national tax rate is 20 percent, most Cambodians pay no tax at all to the central treasury, and as of 2005 government revenues amounted to only 12 percent of GDP.

The CPP’s strategy helps to explain one of the paradoxes of modern-day Cambodia: How can a strongman rule through a weak state? Hun Sen’s answer has been to allow the appurtenances of the state – laws, a parliament, councils, ministries, commissions – to exist in hollow form, while retaining control of the real sources of authority – patronage networks, private funds and foreign aid. Under pressure from Western donors, he has learned to mimic and master the mechanics of democracy. But Cambodians know where the real power lies – villagers displaced by land seizures don’t file a claim in court, they protest at the residence of the prime minister. The result of this approach is underscored by the futility of efforts, such as the opposition’s boycott of the swearing-in ceremony, to challenge the CPP through state institutions. In Cambodia, the party trumps the state.

Peter Ma summed up the current situation: “The government can almost pass any law it wants,” he said. “…Everything pretty much revolves around one man’s mouth.” That stark assessment makes it hard to credit the blithe optimism of an official with the United Nations Development Program who said, in response to a question about how to improve governance in Cambodia, “The new government will form soon, and its revised strategy will include governance-related reforms.”


So is there reason to believe Hun Sen and the CPP will take measures to needed to maintain growth, even if they mean disassembling the networks the party has developed to sustain itself? Recent history offers reason for skepticism. Reports by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and similar organizations tend to focus on the positive, noting the government’s repeated promises and a raft of reform legislation. But read deeper in those reports, and one line appears almost as often as a CPP billboard: “Implementation of these laws has lagged.”

That’s a truth Cambodians living outside the country know all too well. Peter Ma says he was hopeful once about his country’s future, when the Vietnamese occupation ended in the early 1990s and the United Nations oversaw a transitional government. But he has become disillusioned since then, and “the hope is pretty much dampened by the recent results of the election – going forward, there is a [much] less likely chance that Cambodia will ever be a democratic country,” he said.

“There is a sense of hopelessness and helplessness about Cambodia in the mindsets of many Cambodians, both in and out of the country,” said Leakhena Nou, a sociologist at California State University who believes the country’s struggles are rooted in the fact that many Cambodians have never recovered from the trauma of the Khmer Rouge era. Nou is trying to address the problem by marshalling the knowledge of Cambodians abroad to support those in the country, and she remains optimistic about the possibility of change. But the language both Nou and Ma use to describe the country’s future – “social implosion,” “ticking time bomb” – suggests change may come only on the heels of crisis.

Indeed, fault lines are already emerging between the CPP’s dual roles of patron and client that call into question just how stable Cambodia is. In the eastern Mondulkiri province, after an illegal deal transferring 200,000 hectares of forest land to a Chinese-backed firm displaced peasants who had relied on the land for their livelihood, the ensuing protests forced the government to respond with military force. If such tension continues – or if the economy weakens, and thus reduces potential patronage spoils – the CPP may be forced revert to older, more violent habits.

At the same time, it is possible to sketch an optimistic scenario, said Frazier of the Asia Foundation. “There are signs that there are reformers in the CPP,” he said, noting that the Ministry of the Interior has joined the World Bank in an effort to reach out to civil society organizations. And a tiny middle class – historically a check on abusive government power – is emerging. Phnom Penh’s many non-governmental organizations are beginning to see their Cambodian employees hired away by banks and other private sector companies, said Frazier. “It’s actually where people should be working in a normal country,” he said.

In time, those trends may throw up challenges to the CPP’s power. But for now, those watching from the outside are left to hope that, when the party is one day eclipsed, it will leave a functioning state in place. “If we don’t solve this problem within this generation or the next generation,” said Ben, the graduate student, “the whole thing may collapse.”