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Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen runs to dictatorship

picture:Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen shaking hands at the opening ceremony of Cambodian-Japan Cooperation Center (CJCC)  ©The International Development Journal Co., Ltd.


『International Development Journal』 2019 November edition

Hun Sen’s distrust to the United States

“Hun Sen is attracted by China’s one-party dictatorship”. Such views on Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, are spreading internationally. In particular, the United States and European countries are feeling the danger of human rights abuses as democracy declines.
In September 2017, the opposition first party, the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, Kem Sokha, was arrested for alleged attempts to overthrow the state with US support. Subsequently, the Supreme Court ordered the party disbanded and a five-year suspension of political activity involving 118 people. On August 23 this year, Vice-President of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, Mu Sochua arrived in Japan and told a newspaper interview that they should “regain democracy and overcome excessive dependence on China.”
In the 2017 local councilor election, the Rescue Party gained a vote of 43.8%, compared to 50.8% of the Cambodian People’s Party led by Hun Sen, a result that exacerbates Hun Sen’s sense of crisis. Indeed, a political force has emerged that undermines Hun Sen’s standing. Thus, under a judicial system suspected of neutrality, he would have legally buried his political opponent.
Secondly, the Hun Sen Administration has ordered the closure of media and NGOs criticizing Hun Sen. For example, the English-language newspaper Cambodia Daily has been discontinued, as well as the US-supported radio stations Radio Free Asia and Voice of America closed in Phnom Penh. In relations with NGOs, NGOs that monitor elections have been shut down, and the NGO Cambodia Human Rights Center has been warned under the NGO law of suspension.
Hun Sen’s distrust in the United States is deep. For Hun Sen, distrust of the US may stem from the Vietnam War, itself. In addition, the US, feared of communization of the Indochina Peninsula, in 1970 when Norodom Sihanouk, then head of state, was ousted in a coup by Republican General Ron Knoll during one of his excursions. It is alleged that Hun Sen’s distrust of the US deepened.
For Hun Sen, it may be perceived that US internal interference has begun under the name of democracy and liberalism. However, even if Hun Sen states that “Cambodia has Cambodian democracy”, it is clear that the current Hun Sen style is trying to defeat political opponents and proceed to a one-party dictatorship.

“Gorbachev in Cambodia”

Here is a book titled “Cambodian PKO Diary (December 1991-September 1993)” by Yasushi Akashi, a former special representative of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which contributed to rebuild Cambodia. In this book, he said that Hun Sen is the other protagonist of the peace process after Sihanouk and became the leader in Phnom Penh’s administration on behalf of Hen Samling. (Hen Samling, along with Hun Sen, joined the Pol Pot faction in 1978 and escaped from the faction, fled to Vietnam. They advanced to Cambodia with the support of the Vietnamese military, and expelled Pol Pot.)
The beginning of Cambodian peace began in December 1987 with a meeting between Sihanouk and Hun Sen in France. The People’s Party, led by Hun Sen, governed virtually all of Cambodia and was the only party with an executive branch. Hun Sen, himself, was also good at practical skills and became one of the party leaders at a young age, according to the diary.
Mr. Akashi mentioned that Hun Sen, as “Gorbachev in Cambodia”, changed the People’s Party from a rigid old socialist constitution, and, at the same time, worked hard on UNTAC’s peace process.
However, what is the view of Hun Sen more than 25 years ago, Akashi stated in his diary: “Although the general election is largely democratic, there is concern that PM Hun Sen’s stance is becoming somewhat dictatorial. Among the political protagonists at the time, Norodom Sihanouk’s death in 2012, the first Prime Minister, Ranariddh, effectively lost his power struggle with Hun Sen and left the Cambodian political scene. After Pol Pot died in 1998, Khieu Samphan representing the Pol Pot’s faction, he was also tried as a defendant in the Cambodian Special Court judging the murder during Pol Pot’s era”.
In other words, none of the leaders who participated in the creation of new Cambodia date before Hun Sen. It points to Hun Sen’s tenacity. It is not unusual for Hun Sen to be a strategist and a schemer at the same time.
It is difficult to understand that the feeling that “the new Cambodian is Hun Sen”, but if you are going outside of the main course of democratic governance and use power to your advantage, he is a dictator. It is also different from the one-party dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party, which Prime Minister Hun Sen is recently committed to. The unity of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is at stake.

Responsibility of Japan as a major donor country

A word at the end. In the early days of the Cambodian nation during the UNTAC era, Hun Sen sometimes suffered two casualties, and in the subsequent nation-building he built a steady economic and living infrastructure. Only Japan has implemented human resource development using official development assistance (ODA). At this rate, Hun Sen will be fully incorporated into China. Already, the issue of territorial rights in the South China Sea has been incorporated into China’s claim to turn away from ASEAN’s intentions. Hun Sen’s actions are now a major issue for ASEAN unity. That could also undermine Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision.
Until now, Japan has maintained in a position of non-interference in domestic politics. It is clear from the past that Japan prioritized commercialism and trade-oriented policy to get along with every country. Japan didn’t intervene at all in the administration of Philippines’ President Marcos, Indonesia’s President Suharto or the Thai military government, when they had serious human rights issues.
If Japan continues to provide its ODA to Cambodia, Japan should cleverly advise Prime Minister Hun Sen on the idea of fostering a healthy democracy in Cambodia. That is desirable for ASEAN and a healthy ASEAN is also desired for Japan in Asia.

By Mitsuya Araki, Editor-in-chief of IDJ

羅針盤  独裁へ走るフン・セン首相 日本は良き助言者たれ







『国際開発ジャーナル』主幹 荒木光弥

『国際開発ジャーナル』 2019年11月号掲載記事

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