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  • Geoff Donald

Cambodia: The Kingdom of Wonder - Part Two

As was noted in our previous post on Cambodia, the country has seen significant successes since the end of the Khmer Rouge regime. Cambodians are living longer; personal incomes are up, and the country is no longer wracked by civil war.

Yet despite these successes the country still faces significant challenges moving forward. In examining what Cambodia’s challenges are, we will examine two internal issues and one external one.

Internal Challenges

First up, internal challenges.

The biggest internal challenge that Cambodia faces is its current political structure, leadership, and future succession. The primary risk in Cambodia’s political structure is that it revolves completely around one person – Hun Sen.

Hun Sen has been Prime Minister of Cambodia since 1985, is the leader of the Cambodia Peoples Party which is the only party in the National Assembly, and whose personal guard unit has tanks and rocket launchers and is better armed and trained that the Cambodian Army. In recent years at Hun Sen’s direction, questioning government ministers has been banned, rival political parties have been banned and their leaders have either fled into exile or been arrested for treason.

In addition to political power, Hun Sen controls significant portions of the Cambodian economy and media either directly or indirectly through family members, close associates or through government ministries.

Global Witness, a London-based watchdog, state in a report that there is a “huge network of secret deal-making, corruption, and cronyism which is helping to secure the prime minister’s political fortress.” The report shows the ever-increasing control of Hun family control over the media, power companies, gas station companies, mobile phone networks along with partnerships with Western countries looking to sell products into Cambodia.

At this point, the Hun family has complete control over the political structure of Cambodia and potentially effective control over Cambodia’s economy as well. This means that any change in Cambodia’s political leadership when it comes will be magnified across the country.

To protect and extend his family control, Hun Sen has secured the appointment of his eldest son – Hun Manet – to be his eventual successor. Hun Manet, who holds a doctorate in economics, is a West Point Graduate, the head of the Prime Minster elite bodyguard unit, was officially nominate to this position in December 2021 when the CPP congress endorsed him as Cambodia’s next Prime Minister.

Conspicuously absent from the endorsement of Hun Manet as the future Prime Minister was any timeline for him rising into that role. As Cambodia’s next national elections are scheduled for July 2023, it is possible that Hun Manet could be the CPPs official candidate for Prime Minister but that would require Hun Sen to step down. But since Hun Sen is only 69 years old and has been in power for over 35 years, it is likely that he will choose to compete in the 2023 election and then turn the Prime Ministership over to his son at some point in the future.

A second major internal challenge for Cambodia is the environment but specifically the Mekong River and the Son Lap Lake. Cambodia’s recent economic and growing population has driven increasing urbanization and demand for power while the government’s energy policies have resulted in huge increase in the number of dams on the Mekong River.

Experts and Cambodians have questioned the number of dams, their locations, whether the dams are needed, and for help in mitigating the risks from these dams. While the Cambodian government has agreed to no longer build dams on the main Mekong river, construction on the river’s tributaries will continue. The impact of these dams has already been felt with fisheries yields decreasing as fish can no longer navigate the river to their spawning grounds while local communities have been uprooted from their traditional areas and moved away.

The Mekong River also supports Tonle Sap Lake - the most productive inland fishery in the world. Tonle Sap supports around 500,000 tons of fish every year while the annual flooding of the river system purifies the water, brings in the necessary nutrients and allowing the Lake to grow five times in size. Recently due to climate change and the twenty-four upstream dams between Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River headwaters in China, the amount of water flooding into Tonle Sap is less and arriving later than in previous years. This is resulting in less fish being caught and lower yields on crops that are grown on Cambodia’s river system.

The Mekong River and Tonle Sap are not only important economically to Cambodia, but they are important culturally as well. A continued decline of Cambodia’s river system will not only impact Cambodia’s economy and environment, but it also has the potential to impact Cambodia’s society.

A collapse of Cambodia’s river system represents both a short- and long-term economic and environmental risk to the country. A collapse of the river system would also be a massive political risk that would spark calls for political change within the country, despite the Hun’s family overwhelming control of Cambodia.

External Challenge

Cambodia’s foreign policy and how it interacts with other countries is a major external challenge for the country. For many people inside and outside the country, the primary issue with Cambodia’s foreign policy is the lack of balance and the perception that Cambodia is nothing but a proxy for China in Southeast Asia.

The views have been re-enforced by issues such as Cambodia’s blocking of an ASEAN communique on the South China Sea in 2012, to Hun Sen’s willingness to engage with the Myanmar junta, to Hun Sen’s answer of 'If I don't rely on China, who will I rely on?” in response to a question in 2021 on China’s economic support to Cambodia. The closeness between the two countries is seen in Cambodia’s response to the COVID19 outbreak. China has made over seven shipments of COVID19 medicine to Cambodia and over 90% of all COVID19 vaccination shots in the country have come from China.

Yet the improving bilateral relations between China and Cambodia has also meant that Cambodia’s foreign relations are now relying heavily upon one country for support. This reliance has led some pundits to ask what the cost of this relationship is to Cambodia. While denied by all sides, media reports of a secret agreement that Cambodia has allowed the Chinese People Liberation Army Navy exclusive access to the Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand. The denials are less believable as Chinese companies have been spotted upgrading sections of the naval base while marine dredgers have spotted deepening the harbour.

Furthermore, the more the China – Cambodia relationship deepens, the more the relationship that Cambodia has with other countries seems to worsen. ASEAN countries are becoming increasingly frustrated with Cambodia, the EU has removed economic benefits due to Cambodia’s ongoing human rights issues while United States views Cambodia’s actions through a China lens rather than on a bilateral basis.

A major problem with Cambodia’s foreign policy is domestic in nature. The complete control of the Cambodian government by Hun Sen means that the country is operating a foreign policy focused more on what is best for the leaders of the Cambodian government instead of the country of Cambodia itself.

Despite the increasing close ties between the Cambodian elites and China, the general population of Cambodia is much more wary of the relationship. With a general feeling amongst the Khmer that their government putting foreigners before locals, it is not surprising to see anti-Chinese sentiments on the rise across the country.


Can Cambodia continue its success going forward?

After almost thirty years of peace and economic growth Cambodians has seen some incredible success in their lives but the internal and external issues that they face going forward are significant and intertwined.

Yet any changes to Cambodians current course in order address these issues would threaten the existing influence and power of Cambodia’s rulers thus making these changes less likely. While may be possible for Cambodia to successfully navigate these challenges, it is becoming increasingly difficulty to see that path.

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