Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Is There an Alternative to Hun Sen?

The signs of an election campaign Cambodian style are beginning to show all over Cambodia, from pennants, bunting, little flags, to party symbols. Hardly a day goes by without some announcement or political statement by the protagonists. Speeches by politicians abound, albeit still without much of substance. Cleaning up the streets seems to be all the rage these days.

Hun Sen, the wiliest of them all, stole the show by persuading some higher-ranking opposition party members to join his party. He confirmed himself that he rewarded them with lucrative advisory positions in his government. He thus conveyed the impression to the population as a whole that the CPP must be the better party when even opposition party members defect the SRP and join the CPP. To the people on the street it is just normal you get a reward if you do something that’s good for somebody. After all, this is the country where you can obtain the title of Okhna from the King by donating $100,000 to the public coffers.

He cited his authority to hire these people as advisers in the face of an outcry by some other opposition politicians. It is rumored there are about 500 such advisers in total at a cost of $24 million per year, which undoubtedly would be a big drain of public funds, especially in the face of roughly half the national budget being financed by foreign aid.

No doubt, Hun Sen is a very controversial figure, berated and condemned by his opposition and most humanitarian organizations for his tolerance of corruption, presumed active participation in violations of basic human and civil rights, shady business dealings, and cronyism, among others. Certainly, his failures and shortcomings are abundant. Foreign governments and their diplomats express their misgivings and reservations in more guarded tones, couched in convoluted diplomatic language. But one has to hand to it to him; Hun Sen has learned how to play this game very adeptly.

But then, Cambodia has seen an economic growth unparalleled by any other country in S. E. Asia, a fact which underlines the donor nations’ contention that economic development and material well-being are the first step in a nation’s development and will automatically lead to better living conditions for everybody and the respect for human and civil rights. Additionally, donor nations no longer engage in ‘nation building’, as the U. S. president once called it. They assist but don’t really want to interfere directly or even meddle in another country’s affairs, especially a country without strategic and economic value. This hands-off policy has sometimes led to tragic consequences, as in Darfur, but those consequences are nowhere near reality in Cambodia, in spite of rampant land grabbing and forced evictions.

Hun Sen follows a time-honored Cambodian political tradition by playing off one power against the other. China has become the largest benefactor of Cambodia. Officials gleefully note that China is the best friend of Cambodia because it helps without any strings attached. Authoritarian China does not pay much heed to human rights either, so what right would they have to admonish other countries? If the West doesn’t want to lose its influence in part of SE Asia entirely they must play along, and play along they do. The donor nations have recognized that Cambodia needs Hun Sen more than it needs a regime change. They are aware of the detrimental consequences of a regime change to the country and its current stability, even if some see it as precarious.

Given the internal structure of the government and the fact that Cambodia is ruled by an oligarchy with Hun Sen at the helm, it is very doubtful there is any one person in Cambodia today that could replace him. He has shown great adroitness in handling and keeping in check both his opponents within his party and the military as well as conveying to the people as a whole that he is the best leader for Cambodia. The resistance any of the other contenders would meet would be too great to overcome. He would most likely be a failure once in office. Hun Sen has achieved progress on the economic front, established political stability, and personal freedom (although with limitations), with promises of more to come.

And the people are listening and they believe him. His message is the most credible one. There is no taste for political upheaval in the population. They just want to go about their lives and try to enjoy it as best as they can. 75% live in the countryside. They see what’s happening in Phnom Penh and the provincial capitals, and they believe and hope that these things will spill over to them sooner rather than later. Corruption is a fact of life for them. History has ingrained it into their minds. Outside the educated urban population, most don't even know the size and loss to the economy caused by it. To them the rich wield the power, and if it means they get richer because of that power, their stoicism accepts this also as a fact of life.

And all these people don’t really see any personality with substance that could lead the country better than Hun Sen on its path to prosperity and eventual more freedom. One runs on an anti-government platform and is seen as too weak by the majority – this includes the recently more affluent population in Phnom Penh. Another one runs on human rights and is dismissed as a non-starter. The royalists are in a shambles. Who else is there?

The Cambodian people also want continuity after the civil war and the turmoil of the past Communist regimes. Half the population is under 21 years of age. They did not experience that past. They have different things on their minds and are following in the footsteps of their Western counterparts in their materialism. With more economic development and wider-spread affluence, current idealistic thinking among the young urban population will wane, and they will be absorbed into the mainstream and become part of the establishment.

As unfortunate and sad as it may be to some, the answer is no. There is no alternative to Hun Sen. Discounting the years before 1993, Hun Sen has been prime minister for 15 years and will most likely continue to head the country for the next 5 years. The more progress he accomplishes in the coming years the longer he will be in power. In Europe there are no term limits and they have seen heads of state serving longer than 15 years, so Hun Sen’s reign is not unique.


Anonymous said...

for all the bad things happen in Cambodia, Cambodian people are the ones to be blamed. Not necessarily Hun Sen or the opposition. And KJE, If you know Khmer, you may tune in
a radio program on FM 90 everyday from 7pm to 8pm. You may find a different voice from that of the ruling party and the opposition.

Anonymous said...

It is inconceivable to imagine that Hun Sen is irresplaceable. To advocate for a Hun Sen everlasting rule is like advocating for an everlasting dictatorship. Cambodia has many able, even though untried, leaders. there are alternatives to Hun Sen- Sar Kheng, Sok An, Chea Sophara and Sam Rainsy. Sam Rainsy had been a finance minister for a very short period of time and he cleaned up the mess and the income, through taxes from smuggling, eliminate corruption etc, flowed into the state treasury. Unprecedented economic growth in SE Asia? you can't compare Cambodia to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore or even Vietnam- they have gone through this 30 years ago. The boom in Cambodia at present is only in appearance, but the real benefits have not been passed to the real needy- the poor on the countryside. Only a few corrupted government officials, businessmen, in Phnom Penh enjoyed this sort of boom. The construction boom that we seen in Phnom Penh doesn't translate into real benefits for the nation. The lands for the construction were often given to developers in concessions or bought at pittance and the proceeds went to corrupt government officials instead of the state treasury. Often the original owners of lands are forced out with very little compensation. After the construction was finished the buildings/apartments,residence blocks are sold to Cambodians and the foreign/Korean developers took the money home leaving Cambodia with only the buildings. See, what can Cambodia benefit- the developers get land for free/pay little and sell to Cambodians when buildings are finished and take money home. You only need to go to the countryside to see how the poor people live. Some hardly earn enough to live from day to day. Why? because of corruption where $500 million dollars, which would have gone into state treasury, went missing every year. Would you say that some of great American presidents like Lincoln, JFK, Reagan, Washington were irreplaceable and there were no alternatives to them? Over 200 years of changing the leaders have seen America become what it is today. Thailand had changed many leaders and it became what it is today. Hun Sen had been in power for 29 years and Cambodia is still a backward country even though the international community had footed the bill to the amount of $600 million dollars a year, while $500 million of Cambodian money had gone missing in corruption every year. I don't mean to launch a personal attack but as a Westerner who have enjoyed the fruit of democracy in your native country, it is very hard for me to imagine that you advocate for a dictatorship in another country, especially a poor country like Cambodia. If there is no alternatives to Hun Sen, as you have suggested, would you advocate that Cambodia remain under Hun Sen for 100 years or forever? Ridiculous proposition!

Liberal Free-Thinker said...

The article does not claim Hun Sen is irreplaceable but only draws the conclusion that in the present circumstances there is no real alternative . I don't think the people mentioned are viable alternatives. Sok An is Hun Sen's mentor. Mentors never succeed their students. With the two factions in the CPP itself it would be rather difficult for somebody other than Hun Sen to get that position.

Yes, Hun Sen has nominally been in power for 23 (not 29) years, but he has been wielding real power only since 1997. The years under the Vietnamese occupation and the period of the co-premiers must be discounted for obvious reasons.

And Sam Rainsy is just too weak as the article mentions. He simply has no real plan for the future. Platitudes and slogans do not make for change. More importantly, he does not have the support of the bureaucracy and the nomenclature. The country would sink into chaos. Your depiction of him as Mr. Clean during his time as minister is misleading. The situation you describe worked as long as the French administrators were in the country. Once they left it was a free for all. I was there. I know.

You misread the article, I believe. I am not advocating anybody's rule. It was an assessment of the situation as it is in Cambodia in 2008.

Anonymous said...

I do believe that there are many alternatives to Hun Sen, provided that Hun Sen abided by the dicision of the people or his party. Every time his party wanted to replace him he threatened them with force. Sok An is Hun Sen's mentor and is smart enough to succeed Hun Sen. He hold the rein of some sections of the military, police, the public servants and even Sar Kheng is a very respectable person within the CPP. Hun Sen had been in power, one way or another, since 1979. A Foreign Minister up until 1985 and a PM since then until now. The period of 1993-1997 should not be discounted because, even as a 2nd PM, Hun Sen still wielded the power. Ranariddh was just Hun Sen's puppet.
Sam Rainsy is not weak. It is Hun Sen, through the use of state resources such as the military, court, police to constantly weaken and get rid of him. He built a party from scratch in 1995 to be able to achieve what he had done today. If election was held as fair as under UNTAC Rainsy would have won fairly and squarely. Hun Sen, to put him in Rainsy's shoes (Sen is Rainsy and Rainsy is pounding Sen's head like what Sen is doing to Rainsy everyday), will never be able to achieve anything like what Rainsy had achieved.
The corruption, after the UNTAC left, will surely exist but it will not be at the present level, if, say, Sam Rainsy is the PM. The corruption at present is unprecented in the history of Cambodia. The Angkor Wat concession to Sok Kong, the toll charge on highway to Sihanoukville, land concessions, forest concessions, island concessions etc, etc. are very secretive and not transparent. Who pocket the money?
The country would never sink into chaos if Hun Sen abide by the change and don't incite or orchestrate any chaos. It is Hun Sen, every time when he is under threat of losing power through election or his party's decision, has instigated some sorts of chaos. Like I said, the boom at this time is only cosmetic. It doesn't translate into real benefits to the real needy- the poor rural people. It only benefit a few corrupt govt. officials and corrupt businessmen and corrupt foreign investors. The honest, law-abiding investors would never succeeded in a corrupt system like Cambodia.

Liberal Free-Thinker said...

Again, the article says there is no alternative given the present circumstances. Sam Rainsy is indeed weak. If you lived in Cambodia you would know that he is all talk and no action. He can't organize his party properly and can't motivate his own party stalwarts. He uses populist rhetoric to inflame the masses, but they are tired of this and just want to go about their lives peacefully.

The chaos would not result from Hun Sen's unwillingness to give up power, and he said he would step aside if he lost. It would result from the bureaucracy who would see their source of income dry up. Sam Rainsy can't raise wages/salaries to a normal level as the budget is just not there for it, despite the alleged $500 million lost to corruption. And how to salvage that $500 million?

It's not as easy as you folks seem to believe it is. Sam Rainsy espouses just populist themes. There is plan of action ready to back up his rhetoric.

The land and building boom is not just cosmetic but an event dictated by the forces of a free market economy - a simple supply and demand situation. The demand is strong so prices rise. And contrary to you statement, there is at least some benefit, albeit small, to the working people. The building sector employs about 250,000 people right now, unfortunately at dismal wage of about $5.00 a day.
However, if you look around you in PP you will see many of the people who prospered because of that land boom. They sold their rice paddy and drive around in an SUV now. How about that? And there are many ordinary people who used that money and reinvested it in a long-term business or in more land. I myself own land and have been following this situation from the beginning.

And you may not believe it. There are honest people who can survive and be successful in Cambodia. My Khmer family is one example and, another surprise, Kith Meng, probably the richest man in Cambodia now, has never short-changed poor people. Yes, he greased plenty of hands to speed along his endeavors, as is also common in the West, but he has always been fair to the indigent folks whenever they were affected.

Don't make the mistake of most overseas Khmer that believe a solution to all the problems is just around the corner. Reality is much more complex than this.

Liberal Free-Thinker said...

It should, of course, read:'....there is no plan of action....'