Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cambodia's Hun Sen looks safe despite some unease

By Ek Madra

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Trouble is mounting for Cambodia's long-serving prime minister, Hun Sen, with rising unemployment and an economic slowdown on top of growing criticism from diplomats, rights activists and political rivals.

But analysts see little threat to his power or the long-term investment outlook in a country that has made great strides after decades of poverty, brutalilty and instability.

"Things are far from perfect in Cambodia, but democracy is a slow process and we have to see the bigger picture," said Pou Sothirak, a senior research fellow at Singapore's Institute of South East Asian Studies (ISEAS).

"Hun Sen's priority has been the economy, social order and the avoidance of conflict, and the current situation is a significant improvement from the past."

Hun Sen's government has come under fire recently, accused of corruption, abuse of power, and undermining the judiciary, raising concerns about future stability and its sincerity about carrying out long-awaited reforms.

Tens of thousands of people have been driven out of their homes in a slew of land seizures, while critics have blasted Hun Sen for filing lawsuits they say are merely attempts to intimidate journalists, activists and political opponents.

However, Hun Sen gets plenty of plaudits as well, and some analysts say the firm hand of the undisputed strongman is exactly what Cambodia and its economy needs.

"It's easy to criticise Hun Sen as a single-party ruler, authoritarian and totalitarian, but he's a pragmatist -- he does what he needs to do," said Ian Bryson, a regional analyst for Control Risks.

"There's no reason to forecast any instability in the near future. Cambodia's pretty rock solid. Hun Sen is healthy and he really is quite well-regarded."

Given the steady turnaround in Cambodia's fortunes since Hun Sen came to power 25 years ago, the popularity of the Khmer Rouge defector and former farmer and monk, comes as no surprise.


Six years after Vietnamese invaders ended the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 "killing fields" reign of terror, Hun Sen became premier and cultivated a reputation as a moderate, investor-friendly democrat, which helped put Cambodia on the road to recovery.

Until the global economic crisis struck, Cambodia had seen four straight years of double-digit growth fuelled by Hun Sen's pro-business policies, which created new jobs and infrastructure and raised living standards among the rural poor, many of whom live on less than $1 a day.

With backing from the poor, his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) scored 73 percent of the vote in 2008 elections, which observers said had only minor irregularities, to win its first outright majority after years of bickering coalition governments.

"I see no party that can challenge the CPP. They've improved the livelihoods of the poor and boosted their hopes and expectations for the future," said a Cambodian political science lecturer, who asked not to be named.

"The criticism Hun Sen has received does not reflect the overall situation. I can see the ruling party will continue to hold power ... and foreigners will continue to invest here."

Analysts say complaints about graft, cronyism, lawsuits and forced evictions from donors, rights groups, diplomats and financial institutions have irked Hun Sen, but will have little impact on his popularity.

The biggest challenge for the CPP, they say, is to revive the economy and ensure jobs are created to minimise the threat of social problems or civil disorder that could undermine its grip on power.

Foreign direct investment has slowed since the global financial crisis took its toll. Economic growth slowed to 5.5 percent in 2008 and the economy is forecast to shrink by 0.5 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

With a slump in demand from key markets like the United States, at least 130 garment factories have closed since late last year, prompting an estimated 50,000-60,000 lay-offs in an industry that brought in $3.8 billion in 2007.

But analysts say workers have accepted this is not the fault of government mismanagment, and that it looks unlikely to pose a threat to Cambodia's stability.

Neither, they say, will long-running diplomatic disputes with traditional foe Thailand over border demarcations, near the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple and in the Gulf of Thailand, where oil and gas deposits have been found.

Both sides have beefed up their military presence in the areas and seven soldiers died in skirmishes over the past year. But too much is at stake for both countries, and that is preventing the disputes from escalating significantly.

"It's been a bumpy ride for Cambodia, but stability is, and will remain, very much intact," added Pou Sothirak of ISEAS. "And for that reason, I expect foreign investors will return when the global economic situation improves."

(Additional reporting by Martin Petty)

Reuters India

Although this is an article that appeared in August it still has validity and describes the true situation in Cambodia today. This is from neutral journalists who are not blinded by political parties' pronouncements or denouncements.

This is how the majority of people in the countryside, in Phnom Penh, and also the majority of the foreign business community in Cambodia sees it.

It would behoove Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua well to see the reality as it is. Seeking help from foreign parliaments won't bring about any change in Cambodia. The European Parliament's powers as such are limited to the competencies conferred upon the European Community by member states. Hence the institution has little control over policy areas held by the states and within the other two of the three pillars of the European Union. (Quote from Wikipedia) And you can see what happened to the much ballyhooed H.R 820 in the U. S. Congress - nada.


Anonymous said...

From my recent trip to Cambodia Cambodian people are still very mcuh besieged by nthe feeling of fear. The CPP rules no different from Pol Pot, instilling fear in people. Every I opned my mouth, my relastives would say: Don't talk to loud, we are not free yet. Yet, they are CPP affiliates.

This feeling is reflected across Khmer society. But to westerners who treat Cambodia as a tourist destination, this sentiment is not detected, even among tose expats who claim to be an insider.

KJE said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KJE said...

I agree with you that some, repeat, some people are fearful to voice criticism of the government. Indeed, I used to employ a driver who had the same fears for unknown reasons. When I asked he could not substantiate them. But this feeling certainly is not across Khmer society. That is a wrong impression you got from your visit. Just as tourists come away with only a superficial impression, overseas Khmer visiting their homeland oftentimes don't get the whole picture. There were polls taken by the International Republican Institute that definitely reflect the realities as described in the article.
Am I an insider? I don't know but after so many years dealing with and in Cambodia, and living there, I do actually believe I am very knowledgeable about the people and the country.

wattanak said...

My Eternal Friend KJE,

You can as much stop me from going to your blog as much as I can stop you from writing unfair criticism of Opposition parties and unfair praises for the Strong Man. It is true that by giving yourself the rights to censor comments contributed by fair-thinking Khmers, you have the power to make sure my contributions will never get read by others you want to read your blog.

Regarding your accusation of me trying to sabotage your blog, or whatever your fantasy takes you, please be assured that my many many years living in a truly democratic society have taught me to be open to all beliefs and opinions. So I have not even thought of wrecking your contributions to the continued misery and oppression in Cambodia.

As for your comment about me being one of the "pitful overseas Khmer full of hate", please spare me your pity and your false accusation. Reserve your pity for those who are now supposed to lead Cambodia but all they do is oppress their own people while appease their foreign masters. Sooner or later history will judge them as it judged the KR, and they along with those supporting them will be found to be traitors to the Khmer nation.

KJE said...


You are so biased that you don't see the world for what it is any more. Actually, you are pathetic. You must be one of those old Khmer codgers who still live in the past and have not found out that we live in the 21st century. Ever heard of the term 'realpolitik'. If you mean the U.S. when you talk about 'democratic society' you should read both Amnesty International's and Human Rights Watch report on that country.
Anyway, for you it's time to go. Just like Sihanouk.

KJE said...


A small P. S.
What are you doing about all the misery in Cambodia?

Anonymous said...


I don't take any side and i do hope you too as well. Many poor khmer people remain living in fear, the fear that tomorrow, their land or houses could be confiscated by the Hun Sen's govt and his elites.

Since you are a Caucasian, khmers usually value you and show some respect. Tell me why at airport, those officials targeting only khmer visitors and begging for some change? It's seen unprofessional conduct.

Without the CPP's running the country, we have plenty of of PhDs around to manage the country well too.

KJE said...

I think I commented on the fear-factor above. The people I meet, and I meet a lot, don't have any fear of the government or some higher-ups grabbing their land. There is a problem with land-titling. Rural people have no idea how to go about it. This is a big problem. But LMAP is still going on, although at a very slow pace.

The airport practice is, of course, unprofessional. I know about it and my wife herself was asked once or twice. But to be honest we don't mind. But it is not good, that's for sure.

Show me those PhDs. I would think they are mostly abroad. Sorry to say this, but like most overseas Khmer, highly educated Khmer people like money more than idealism.

Wattanak said...


I hope that your statement "..for you it's time to go. Just like Sihanouk", does not mean that you wish me dead. For that is what people mean when they talk that way about him.

As much as I disagree with Sihanouk (I do not profess to be an expert on Sihanouk, just an interest in what he has said and done) and you, I have not at any stage wished for your or his death.

It would be a shame to learn that a person who espouses non-comformity, independence, etc. can turn so quick to anger and death upon another person. If that was your intention, and I am giving you the benefit of the doubt here, you have truly made a hypocrit of yourself. It should be me calling you pathetic. If your intention was different, then perhaps you can explain what you meant by "to go".

As for my contributions to ease misery in my motherland, like you I do whatever I can. I still have family there and unfortunately they do not own rubber plantations or riches like those in your circles. They are poor. They survive by making, selling, growing whatever they can. Everytime I visit, it costs me more in helping my family and general donations than in flights and accommodation for myself. Furthermore, from time to time I and like-minded Khmer friends collect money to dig a few wells, and provide bits and pieces for schools. Now, if the Cambodian government that you seem to support so strongly was doing its job, using the $500 million USD it receives in aid every year, then I and other overseas Khmer would not have to help twice like we do- once through our governments using our tax money, and again through our own wallets.

So consider this. Would the country be in such grinding poverty if the government was doing its job? Whatever official taxes you are paying at the moment, would you be paying the same amounts if your business was States-side? Have you ever wondered how your tax money is used? Or don't you care so long as they leave you to run your operation? Laissez-faire at its extreme seems to be the preferred economic policy amongst the Cambodian elites at the moment.

And one more thing, whatever you do, do not ever ever doubt my and other overseas Khmers' love for our place of birth. We came to be overseas through no fault of our own. After losing so many of our own through wars and starvation, we decided to try our luck in another country. And I can tell you that the welcome we got here was not the same warm welcome that Khmers would have bestowed on you when you entered Cambodia. We have made good, comfortable lives here in our adopted countries, through sheer hard work and will power. In our struggles to establish ourselves here, we had not hurt anyone, let alone maim or kill. We did not use or abuse anyone. And we followed the laws. We pay our taxes and are happy to do so because we can see that the money is spent on infrastructure and services that the country needs. Having gone through all of that, our minds and hearts are still with Cambodia. Our not being there physically does not mean for one moment that we forget the hurt, the suffering, the injustices that present day Khmers are going through becasue we ourselves suffered the same. So, KJE, do not dismiss us so contemptiously. You had not gone through the things we went through. Your being there for the last few years, living in your well-appointed villa(s), sending your kids to International Schools, having drivers taking you around everywhere, does not qualify you to pass judgement on us.