Phnom Pens Up Cambodia’s Democracy: A Brief Guide to Muzzling the Masses


In Cambodia, political violence in the run-up to the 2018 general election signals a move away from an explicitly populist authoritarianism towards a deeper authoritarianism. Cambodia burst onto global news headlines in late 2017 when the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition party, but behind this political spectacle lay a series of smaller legal changes, political violence and geopolitical shifts that set the stage for the turn to deeper authoritarian rule.

Excerpted from Authoritarian Rule Shedding Its Populist Skin in Rural Cambodia, by Alice Beban, sociology lecturer at the University of New Zealand, and Laura Schoenberger, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa. For the full post from July, see OpenDemocracy.

This regime depends on funds channeled through networks of political and business elite who are awarded land and mineral concessions in return for donations to the rural party. At the same time as rural areas have become “sacrifice zones” for the enrichment of domestic and international elite, rural voters have long been the most consistent and reliable supporters of Hun Sen’s government.

Gifted Politics

For more than thirty years, the world’s longest serving prime minister has been the archetypal populist strongman. He and his party (the Cambodian People’s Party, or CPP) combine terror and censorship with personalized political handouts, promises of post-war stability, and a veneer of democracy.

In Cambodia’s post-genocidal context, many rural people crave the stability and the “gift giving” that Hun Sen’s regime has provided. This has allowed the party to marginalize opposition and build an elaborate system of mass patronage and mobilization.

But in the past decade, land grabbing and logging have had serious impacts and rural people have become more outspoken and connected with disaffected urban voters. The 2013 national election was the ruling party’s worst outcome since 1998, with a united opposition (the CNRP) winning 44% of the vote. Strikes erupted in the aftermath of the election and persisted for half the year until military police shot dead five protesters. Then, in the June 2017 sub-national (“Commune”) elections, the CNRP shocked the ruling party by winning almost half the popular vote and gaining 482 commune seats, up from a mere 40 seats in the previous election. This was a wake-up call that the CPP was at risk of being unseated in the 2018 national election.

After the commune elections, the ruling party stepped-up press censorship, extra-judicial violence and threats of military intervention. A series of quiet law changes have facilitated the criminalization of civil society and political opposition.

The Law on NGOs and Associations limits the ability for people to gather without registering with the Ministry of Interior and increases surveillance of NGOs. Amendments to the Law on Political Parties led to the resignation of long-time leader of the opposition, Sam Rainsy, in February 2017. Further legal moves that year introduced legislation that allowed the government to easily disband political parties, which was used to shut down the main opposition party eight months later.  The media is also targeted; changes to the national media code enabled the government to shut down 19 independent radio stations as well as the long-running newspaper The Cambodia Daily.

By late 2017, with critical media outlets silenced and activists fearful of open protests, the way was opened for the government to launch an outright attack on the political opposition. Just after midnight on Sunday 3 September (the day before shutting the Daily), over one hundred armed soldiers broke into CNRP leader Kem Sokha’s house and detained him without warning. He was later charged with treason. In November, the Supreme Court dissolved the opposition party, re-assigning its seats and banning 118 individuals from political activities for five years.

As the CPP close media outlets and attack opposition parties, they are also bolstering their own propaganda machine. The state news app, Fresh News, spreads pro-government propaganda across Facebook and other state-run media.

What we see in Cambodia currently is the failure of a populism built on the backs of natural resource rents. Support for the government has broken down as the population grows tired of naked resource extraction, cronyism and inequality.