In March of 1970, Cambodia experienced a coup, in which Lon Nol deposed Prince Norodam Sihanouk and establishing the Khmer Republic, a United States-backed military dictatorship. In response to this event, Hun Bunal, a 17 year old student in residence at a Phnom Penh monastery, abandoned his religious education and joined the armed resistance to this new regime, an organization known as the Khmer Rouge. By the time the Khmer Rouge seized power five years later, he had become an important military leader in the organization, and had changed his name to Hun Sen. About two years into the Khmer Rouge’s notorious genocidal regime, Sen cannily anticipated his number may soon be up in the next of the many “internal purges” that marked that regime’s rule, and defected to Vietnam along with a number of soldiers who remained loyal to him. He then became an important figure in Vietnam’s proxy war against his former comrades. A few years after Vietnam had driven the remnants of the Khmer Rouge into the Cardamom Mountains and installed a puppet regime, they chose him to lead the country. In early 1985, at 32 years old, he was appointed as the Prime Minister and Chairman of the Council of Ministers. While the extent and official nature of his power has changed over time, he has never left. Now 70, he is up for re-election on Sunday and he will win, in an election that is widely regarded at home and abroad as a sham. While there was a brief moment of meaningful democratization in the 1990’s that forced him into a coalition government, that ended with a 1997 coup he orchestrated. Since then his authoritarian tendencies have only grown, and this election will be the least democratic of the many dubious elections that have affirmed and prolonged his rule:
On Sunday, around 9.7 million Cambodians will see 18 political parties on their ballots. But only one of them is truly viable—the ruling Cambodia People’s Party—after the Hun Sen administration decimated all the major opposition parties.
In 2017, a highly-politicized Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of the popular Cambodia National Rescue Party and barred them from contesting in future polls. And in May, the Candlelight Party, which made some inroads in local elections last year, was disqualified by the national election committee over dubious registration technicalities.
Hun Sen’s crackdown also extended to the media. In February, he shuttered one of the last remaining vestiges of an independent press in the Southeast Asian country, Voice of Democracy, over unflattering reports about his son Hun Manet. And earlier this week, Cambodian authorities ordered internet service providers to block another independent public information portal and other media outlets.
Oppositionists have tried to be creative with fighting back against Hun Sen’s leadership, but they’ve only been met with further repression. Former Candlelight Party leader Sam Rainsy, who is now in self-exile amid his criminal convictions under the Hun Sen government, called on voters to spoil their ballots in the upcoming election. In response, the Cambodian government amended election laws to penalize politicians who encourage election boycotts. Hun Sen also warned voters that there may be “legal consequences” should they decide to spoil their ballots in protest.
I spent some time in Cambodia in 2007, and while the next general election was a year away, the country seemed to be awash in contestatory politics. Unlike any other Southeast Asian country I visited, campaign signs were everywhere–in some parts of the country it seemed like a home or business was more likely to have one posted prominently than not. If my memory serves me correctly, there were open displays of public support for Sen and his party, and those were perhaps a plurality of expressions of political support, but by no means a majority. I saw nearly as many signs indicating support for liberal reformer (now in exile) Sam Rainsy, and an extensive array of minor parties as well. Everything I’m reading about this election suggests a much less open and free environment, with such open dissent from Sen’s regime far less common and far more dangerous. The BBC has a good piece the democratic backsliding of the last decade of Sen’s rule. There’s little point in prognosticating about the electoral fates or minor parties; at this point the next meaningfully democratic election in Cambodia, should there be one, will not occur until Sen is no longer in the picture.
Another personal aside: My teaching assistant for the first political science class I took in college was Doug Ericksen, a recent graduate of Cornell pursuing a Master’s Degree at WWU while trying to break into local Republican politics. He was successful, winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 1999, and transitioning to the State Senate in 2010. A wildly enthusiastic Trumper, he took a job with the Trump administration as comms director for the EPA in 2017, while retaining his seat in the State Senate. (One of my great personal disappointments in the 2018 election was him managing to cling to his quickly blue-shifting seat by a mere 58 votes.) I bring him up here because, just as Hun Sen was taking another dark turn in an ever more authoritarian direction, Ericksen added a third job to his resume: paid Hun Sen propagandist. (This was a minor scandal in the Cambodian community in the state, causing some embarrassment for the Washington State GOP.) Unfortunately (well, for him anyway) he would not live to see the next electoral victory of his sponsor. After spending much of 2021 embracing the new Republican anti-vaxxerism, railing against vaccine mandates, sponsoring legislation to prevent them, and generally demonizing that miraculous, life-saving medical breakthrough, he flew to El Salvador to
line up his next authoritarian sponsor “monitor the election,” contracted COVID and somehow found his way to Florida where he died in a hospital, all while keeping his Senate colleagues in dark about his whereabouts and conditions. His seat is now held by a liberal economics lecturer at WWU. Here’s hoping Ericksen and Hun Sen are reunited sooner, rather than later.