In Cambodia, Geopolitics Weakens a Strongman

9 MINS READFeb 17, 2016 | 09:30 GMT
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at the inauguration of the Stung Russey Chrum Krom hydroelectric dams. Under Hun Sen, Cambodia has been one of the only Southeast Asian countries resistant to political change in the face of a strengthening China.
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Political pressure on Southeast Asia's longest-serving leader, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, will mount ahead of the next elections amid economic and demographic changes.
  • Hun Sen's government will centralize power around his family, while trying to placate key interest groups — including garment workers and civil servants.
  • However, Cambodia's geopolitical weakness and vulnerability to outside forces will complicate such efforts.

On the periphery of China and India and at the nexus of major world trade routes, Southeast Asian states have always had to adapt to the movements of stronger regional and global powers. None are more abjectly dependent on the fortunes of geopolitical change than the oft-forgotten western province of what was once colonial French Indochina — Cambodia. The country has long been wracked by internal conflict and jostled by competition among its more powerful neighbors: Thailand, Vietnam and China.

Now the regional order is being challenged once again, because of two main factors: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is integrating and its economies are industrializing. At the same time, China is emerging as a potential regional hegemon, shaking up the power balance in the South China Sea and making economic and infrastructure connections in its near abroad. Southeast Asian governments are responding in different ways. Myanmar, for example, shed its military rule, but Thailand's military is entrenching its rule. In Laos and Vietnam, the normally inert Communist parties recently underwent tumultuous leadership reshuffles. These changes have, by and large, preserved stability because they have been managed by deep-rooted, enduring institutions: the increasingly behind-the-scenes military in Myanmar, the military and the monarchy in Thailand, and the Communist parties in Laos and Vietnam.

Such changes have not occurred over the past decade in Cambodia, in spite of extraordinary pressure. Phnom Penh is under the tightly consolidated rule of a single leader, Hun Sen, the country's lord prime minister, supreme military commander and president of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP). But the past three years have been the country's most politically tumultuous since the 1990s. With two years before general elections are held in February 2018 and with important local elections on the horizon in 2017, Hun Sen is strengthening the position of his party and consolidating its grip on power.

Geopolitical Foundations

Cambodian politics are, in part, a product of the country's weak geopolitical position. Squeezed between Thailand and Vietnam, the country was nearly absorbed by the expansion of both of these powers in the 19th century. It was only preserved as a separate entity by French colonization of Vietnam and post-war decolonization. Cambodia now controls a broad expanse of fertile lowlands, but its economic core lacks easy access to the sea. Vietnam controls the delta of the Mekong, Cambodia's main river system and economic lifeline, and its southern port is on the far side of the Elephant and Cardamom mountains, largely disconnected because of underdeveloped infrastructure.

This unenviable position subjected Cambodia to instability throughout the Cold War. Cambodia is a transition zone between west and east mainland Southeast Asia and has porous, poorly defined borders. As its neighbors, especially Vietnam, strove to secure their own positions, they were compelled to meddle in Cambodia. During the series of Indochina wars from 1946 to 1989, Cambodia was buffeted by changes in Vietnam, where Soviet-backed North Vietnamese insurgent groups fought first the French and British and then the United States. Successive Cambodian governments dealt with this in different ways: The postwar royalist system (1953-1970) took advantage of the French war with North Vietnam to obtain independence. Later, the U.S.-supported military government under Marshal Lon Nol adopted an openly anti-Vietnamese stance. The 1975 U.S. withdrawal from Indochina enabled the Khmer Rouge to take power, supported by China — and later by Washington as well — as a bulwark against the newly reunited Soviet-backed Vietnam. The Vietnamese then invaded Khmer Rouge Cambodia in 1978, installing their own puppet communist government.

Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge cadre, emerged amid this backdrop, becoming the prime minister of communist Cambodia in 1985. Constrained by Cambodia's inherently weak regional position, he quickly proved to be an adaptive leader. The initial phase of his rule stretched into the 1990s, through a period of U.N.-brokered transition. Around this time, Hun Sen aligned with Vietnam, once and for all dissolved the Khmer Rouge (still waging a low-level insurgency from the eastern jungles) and, in effect, enabled the country to move on. From 1998 onward, his CPP has maintained tight, centralized rule. It has delivered steady economic development, despite dips in 1997 and 2009, and has averaged greater than 5 percent GDP growth over the past decade. It also initiated a process of industrialization to take advantage of low-end manufacturing as China moves up the value chain.

New Challenges

Over time, Hun Sen built a power base underpinned by the patronage spoils of rapid growth and abundant flows of foreign aid, and, after the all-consuming trauma of the Khmer Rouge regime, a widespread desire for peace and stability. Today, the 63-year-old prime minister is Southeast Asia's longest reigning leader and is vague about how long he plans to remain in power. What is clear is that he does not plan to stage a managed transition like that carried out in Myanmar or in 1990s Indonesia.

In fact, over the past five years, Hun Sen has further centralized the government around himself, chiefly by placing family members in key government positions. His oldest son, Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, is deputy commander of a powerful praetorian guard that rivals the national military. Two other sons have also risen to the rank of general. All have been touted as potential successors. Meanwhile, the CPP establishment elite is deeply entrenched in the political and economic system, with deep bureaucratic ties. Moreover, Cambodia is ethnically homogenous, without the major regional cleavages of Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam. With a strong grip on the military, rural electorate and bureaucracy, there have been no real institutional competitors to the CPP in Cambodia

But this framework of power has proved increasingly challenging to maintain, particularly as the peace dividend Hun Sen deftly exploited in the initial post-war era fades. Of the four general elections held since Hun Sen came to power, virtually all have been plagued by fraud allegations, contentious negotiations and government interference — the price of centralized rule. The biggest challenge to Hun Sen's continued rule came three years ago. In the July 2013 elections, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won 55 seats in parliament, including 22 from the CPP — the strongest-ever performance for a Cambodian opposition party. Still, the vote was marred by irregularities, compelling opposition leader Sam Rainsy to stage massive protests in the capital of Phnom Penh. (Rainsy, a former finance minister and lawmaker, has been trying to unseat Hun Sen since 1998.)

The uprising was magnified by a surge in discontent among garment sector workers calling for higher wages and was a near crisis for Hun Sen. The garment sector is a vital part of the Cambodian economy, generating 80 percent of export revenue, 18 percent of GDP and a third of industrial employment in 2013. Garment workers receive relatively low wages, making Cambodia competitive but also putting pressure on workers. With nearby economies — namely Bangladesh, Laos, and Myanmar — competing with Cambodia, Phnom Penh is trying to keep wages low without fostering unrest.

The CPP managed to weather both storms, cracking down on unrest in January 2014 and preventing follow-up protests from regaining the same level of strength. And the following July, after a nearly year-long boycott marred by violent protests, the CNRP agreed to take its seats in parliament in exchange for an election commission overhaul. Nonetheless, parliament is closely divided between the two parties. And the inescapable conflict between wages and competitiveness in the garment sector — combined with the sector's vulnerability to regional and global economic forces — poses a persistent risk of destabilization.

The inescapable conflict between wages and competitiveness in the garment sector — combined with the sector's vulnerability to regional and global economic forces — poses a persistent risk of destabilization.

Signs of Stress

The ruling party's anxieties are evident by its attempts to consolidate power long before the next election season arrives. Last October, for example, CPP-backed demonstrators attacked two CNRP lawmakers outside of the parliament building. Days later, deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha was removed from his position as first vice president of the National Assembly. And in November, Rainsy was stripped of his lawmaker status and parliamentary immunity, paving the way for his arrest in an earlier defamation case. At its annual party conference in January, the CPP unveiled plans to regulate troublesome unions, raise garment sector wages, and extend support to the bureaucracy by raising salaries.

Already, CNRP pressure has managed to get CPP to move elections forward from July to February 2018. As the vote approaches, the pressure on the CPP will only mount. Cambodia's economy is growing, a boon for the establishment, but its benefits have been felt unevenly. Moreover, the growth is leading to demographic and workforce changes that could prove challenging for the government to manage, creating new constituencies to please or neutralize. The majority of Cambodians now have no memory of the conflict period — or the Khmer Rouge — and have less tolerance for the abuses of power that come with a stabilizing strongman. Cambodia also has a large non-profit community and, with increasing Internet access, more awareness of international norms. More tangibly, the populations of Cambodia's cities are growing and, with the industrial workforce concentrated in Phnom Penh, increasingly throwing their weight behind the CNRP.

The CPP will have to move nimbly to accommodate these shifts without alienating those that make up the party's foundation of power. Perhaps most challenging, Cambodia — like other Southeast Asian governments — will need to prove adept at seizing economic opportunities in the rapidly changing region and at taking advantage of competition among its neighbors, while also finding ways to insulate itself from outside forces. Hun Sen may be digging in, but his future, like that of Cambodia, will be determined in part by factors far beyond his control. 

Connected Content

Regions & Countries

Article Search

Copyright © Stratfor Enterprises, LLC. All rights reserved.

Stratfor Worldview


To empower members to confidently understand and navigate a continuously changing and complex global environment.