Author: Astrid Noren-Nilsson, Lund University
As 2021 drew to a close, three events seemed to encapsulate the state of Cambodia’s long-standing political camps: the announcement of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s successor, the splintering of the opposition and the death of Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
On 24 December 2021, a Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) congress endorsed Sen’s eldest son Hun Manet as the party’s next prime ministerial candidate, following on from Sen announcing his backing for Manet earlier in the month. In a string of statements, Sen delivered contradictory messages about the timeline of dynastic succession, ranging from him remaining in power for a further 6 to 10 years to opening for succession after the 2023 elections.
Sen also clarified that Manet cannot assume the premiership as long as President of the Cambodian National Assembly Heng Samrin, Senate President Say Chhum, interior minister Sar Kheng and defence minister Tea Banh, who ‘carried Manet [when he was young]’, still lead the CPP. The creation of a yet-to-be-disclosed cabinet-in waiting suggests the imminent replacement of older elites by their scions, setting Manet up to lead a party and government of the young.
Sen’s announcement appeared inspired by how a few days earlier, opposition leader Kem Sokha for the first time since the 2017 dissolution of their Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) publicly distanced himself from his political ally Sam Rainsy, writing on Facebook that ‘Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha are not united as one person’ — irredeemably refuting Rainsy’s ‘one person’ slogan.
On the same day, Ranariddh passed away in a French hospital, having never recovered from a traffic accident before the 2018 elections that saw his second wife killed. Beyond symbolic, Ranariddh’s death drew the curtain on the lingering suggestion of political royalism offered by his mere presence on earth.
None of these developments were surprising, other than in terms of their synchronicity.
2021 was indeed marked by the steady solidification of the new project of rule built by the CPP since cataclysmic political change in 2017 and 2018, progressing discreetly in the shadow of the pandemic. Epitomised by the ubiquitous slogan ‘thank you peace’ (orkon santhepheap), Cambodians were encouraged to be grateful for Sen-style peace. This rendition of peace, which included the quashing of the opposition’s alleged colour revolution, vastly overshadowed the 30-year anniversary of the internationally brokered Paris Peace Agreements.
Opposition supporters and government critics at home faced mass trials. Most were charged with treason and incitement over Rainsy’s attempted return to Cambodia in 2019. While the government narrative prevailed in disciplining discourse about the trials at home, the arrest of and lese majeste charges against young environmental activists stirred a hidden pool of discontent.
Cambodia’s opposition leadership abroad faced different and distant anxieties. In March 2021, Rainsy and other senior leaders of the dissolved CNRP were handed prison sentences ranging from 20 –25 years after being denied entry into the country to attend their own trial. Rainsy has sought to reconnect with his support base in the Cambodian diaspora but has also made time for leading an association for COVID-19 survivors in France.
Ahead of local elections in 2022 and national elections in 2023, a CPP decision on whether or not to return to more competitive politics appears almost arbitrary. There is no real need for the safety valve for popular expression offered by competitive elections. The rift between Sokha and Rainsy may increase the odds of the CPP conceding Sokha some formal political role, leading or supporting a new and pliant opposition party in 2023. A reasonably credible opposition party on the ground may represent the best hope for a gradual shift back to politics with some competitive elements.
With or without Sokha, the emergence of small parties with links to the CNRP will inevitably confuse opposition voters. Unlike in 2018, some of the recent self-styled successor parties seek to provide a genuine alternative to the CPP.
Cambodia’s 2022 role as ASEAN chair will likely be defined by Hun Sen’s wishful attempts to achieve progress on the Myanmar crisis through direct engagement with the military government, despite a deep divide in the bloc over the approach already manifest.
The United States’ announcement of an arms embargo on Cambodia and new export restrictions in December, as well as plans to review Cambodia’s inclusion in a privileged trade scheme, pushes Cambodia further into China’s orbit at a time when China’s mounting difficulties could have encouraged a softening of the ‘ironclad’ friendship.
Yet for most Cambodians, the year was dominated by the ultimately depoliticising COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic hardship. The government’s successful mass vaccination campaign reached complete coverage of the population above 18 by early November. The country has since entered a new phase of ‘living with the virus’.
Tourism, construction and real estate activities have decelerated, with some estimates projecting the pandemic to cost six million jobs in the informal economy. The World Bank has projected Cambodia’s real GDP growth to reach 2.2 per cent in 2021.
While economic recovery will depend on the return of tourists and foreign investors, social stability does not hang in the balance.
Astrid Norén-Nilsson is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, Lund University.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2021 in review and the year ahead.
The post Hun Sen future-proofs Cambodia’s politics first appeared on News JU.