Fault lines in Cambodia
24 Jun 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Michael Coghlan

It’s almost 20 years since Cambodia’s last military coup, but the country’s domestic security situation remains fragile. Over the last two years a number of events hint that the political and security situation in this Mekong state may be taking a turn for the worse.

While this trend is at a very early stage, Cambodia’s modern history demonstrate how quickly the nation’s security environment can change. In an already fragile state, even small events can act as fault lines leading to an increasingly unstable Cambodia in the run up to its 2018 election.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s praetorian guard are now operating numerous prepared defensive positions in and around central Phnom Penh. These troops are well trained, well-armed and fiercely loyal to the Prime Minister. In the riverside tourist district, more conventional government security forces carry assault rifles, ready for any potential unrest. There is an air of uncertainty that arises from such visible security measures. More worrisome still, is that for the first time in many years men in civilian clothing are increasingly being seen in Phnom Penh carrying AK-47 rifles.

Recent conversations with government officials, diplomats and expatriates alike consistently revealed a great deal of concern over Cambodia’s future. Their concerns focused on a climate of increasing political uncertainty and Hun Sen’s possible reaction to political challenges or civil unrest.

Hun Sen has maintained his political power for over 31 years through a combination of charisma, power broking, influence and the application of ruthless force. He has survived Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, the United Nations and FUNCINPEC. He worked with the United Nations through the nineties to introduce enough democratic change in Cambodia to remove the country from the international agenda. But that change has always been a thin veneer for his autocracy and grand plans for a dynasty like that of Singaporean statesman Lee Kuan Yew.

As the security situation in Cambodia stabilised after the 1997 coup, Hun Sen recognised that a new kind of power and influence was needed to maintain control over the nation. With increased physical security, Cambodians wanted greater economic security: and with a reduced international presence Hun Sen traded influence with business leaders.

Hun Sen modified his traditional autocratic network of military and political elite to include friends from the private sector. The reality of those newfound business friends was different to what was promised to the nation. Whilst Cambodia’s natural resources, such as timber, were quickly exploited little benefit was received by the average citizen. The growing divide between rich and poor in Cambodia, along with systemic corruption and the sale of influence have been contributing factors in the erosion of Hun Sen’s popular support.

Hun Sen has made it clear that he intends to stay in power for at least another 14 years, after which it’s rumored that he has plans for his son, Han Manet, to assume power. And through his network of influence and natural charisma he had, until the 2013 elections, maintained popular support.

Hun Sen’s declining popularity will likely see increasing challenges to his autocratic power. The consequences of such challenges are also likely to be bloody, as was seen in January 2014 when four unarmed anti-government protesters were shot dead, and 20 others wounded, by his personal guard force. Add to the mix the increasing military presence in Phnom Penh and further violence in Cambodia’s near future seems almost inevitable. But given the strength of his power, influence and networks, a coup against Hun Sen is unlikely to be successful for the foreseeable future.

A failed coup, or ongoing civil disturbances in Cambodia could endanger the wider stability of the greater Mekong region: more specifically Laos and Myanmar. Finding a release valve for this increasing domestic security pressure is no easy task. It’s clear that ASEAN will avoid getting involved in matters of domestic security, out of respect for Cambodia’s sovereignty. Cambodia’s ongoing diplomatic disputes with its neighbors Vietnam and Thailand rule out their bilateral involvement as well.

As a major aid donor and regional neighbor, Australia has a significant interest in trying to defuse the situation. Given France’s long-term political and social links with Cambodia, it’s an obvious partner for Australia.

France and Australia already make significant contributions to aid projects in Cambodia focused on supporting the millennial development goals. Given the nature of the emerging fault lines in Cambodia there are three additional development assistance focal points worthy of Australia and France’s consideration.

The first involves projects targeted at delivering improvements to the rule of law in Cambodia, with specific focus on police and military reforms. At an operational level that could include increasing the public order response capability of the Cambodian police and military. The second involves providing much needed support to Cambodia for the implementation of the United Nations Convention against Corruption. The successful implementation of the UNCAC articles will provide much needed anti-corruption and bribery measures.

Finally, there needs to be substantial aid investment in improving public sector accountability in Cambodia. Such projects need to focus on the development of regulatory and compliance frameworks.

Cambodia is no longer the dangerous frontier land it once was some 20 years ago. A growing sense of dissatisfaction with Hun Sen’s autocratic regime is now placing all of Cambodia’s success to date at risk.  There are already very clear fault lines forming in Cambodia, and without early intervention the post 2018 election period is likely to be another bloody period in the country’s history.