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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Cambodia at a crossroads

Grégoire Rochigneux

Texte intégral

1May 2006

2The recent amendments of the Cambodian Constitution, which reduced the majority required for a vote of confidence for the government in the National Assembly, resulted in giving more power to the Prime Minister since the forming of the Royal Government of Cambodia thirteen years ago. Hun Sen, who has held office since 1985 under the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, was forced to compromise with the royalists (Funcinpec) soon after the 1993 legislative elections and formed a coalition with them in three successive governments. Clan fights and conflicting interests slowed down the country’s development when they did not end in violent clashes. As the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) no longer needed the Funcinpec, several ministers, state secretaries and governors were politely dismissed in the last couple of weeks, following their leader, Prince Ranariddh, President of the Royalist Party, after he resigned from the Presidency of the Lower House.

3The new era that began with the 1991 Paris Accords seems to be a thing of the past. All the parties gathered around the same table with a sense of agreement that would be incorporated into the first royal government in 1993 without the Khmer Rouge. Norodom Sihanouk then succeeded in establishing a coalition government, at the risk of forcing the peculiar union of Norodom Ranariddh’s (his son) Funcinpec and Hun Sen’s CPP, with the two men becoming joint Prime Ministers. As each ministerial post was divided in two, every decision was held up by negotiations.

4Brought to a halt by frictions and contradictions, this strange two-headed body erupted into a violent clash in July 1997. The battles ended in the neutralisation of Funcinpec’s military power and the exile of its leaders. Thanks to the international community’s insistence on reaching a compromise, these leaders were, however, able to return to Cambodia in 1998 to take part in the second round of legislative elections that gave rise to the same governmental platform, but this time with only one Prime Minister, since Prince Ranariddh accepted leading the Presidency of the Assembly.

5The 1993 Constitution laid down the rule that any new government should obtain a vote of confidence of at least two-thirds of the MPs and this continued to weaken election results until 2003. As the CPP had won “only” 73 of the 123 Assembly seats, it had to once more seek an alliance with its former partner. Even then, they took eleven months to find a consensus solution – a government – the largest in the world with 332 members, which once again favoured factionalism, prevarication and inertia.

  • 1 Delux, L., “The absolute majority for the vote of confidence adopted by the Assembly.” (La majorit (...)

6On 2nd of March last year, 96 of the 97 MPs present adopted the amendments to the Constitution, which allowed the Assembly to give its vote of confidence to the government through a simple majority. On leaving the House, Sam Rainsy, MP and leader of the Opposition, who emerged from the 2003 elections as the second strongest Cambodian political force, expressed his hope that in the next legislative elections in 2008, “a single party would be at the helm, thus avoiding the creation of pointless government posts and the resulting corruption1”.

  • 2 The World Bank, Cambodia at the Crossroads – Strengthening Accountability to Reduce Poverty, Phnom (...)
  • 3 The Economic Institute of Cambodia, 2005, p. 41.

7In December 2004, the seventh meeting of the group of sponsors (Consultative Group, CG) opened with two subjects, that of good governance and poverty reduction. Help of around 504 million dollars had been promised against the acceleration of various reforms, especially those concerning legal machinery, administration, the fight against corruption and public finance management. A month earlier, the World Bank (WB) had published a report in which it expressed its concern that the level of corruption is “endemic and high”2. The document also called into question the evaluation and work protocols of the sponsors, estimating that the lack of seriousness of certain among them had led to waste and misuse of funds. The Economic Institute of Cambodia even feels that the Cambodian public institutions “are believed to negatively affect the development process3”.

8A year later, the press note published after the eighth CG meeting, reiterating yet again, but diplomatically, that Cambodia “needs to act now to consolidate the progress it has made to date and accelerate its reforms in order to address remaining challenges”. The list that followed included the Anti-corruption Law (but its content, still in the discussion phase, still seemed far from international standards), infrastructure development or improvement in public services.

9Faced with the government’s results, the sponsors grew impatient, judging them too slow and weak, having seen that the CG had paid out almost seven billion dollars from 1992. Admittedly – and it was no mean task – Hun Sen succeeded in bringing peace back to the country by breaking up the Khmer Rouge guerrilla from 1996 to 1999. However, fifteen years after the intervention of the peacekeepers, it must be noted that the “wild” capitalism in which Cambodia became resolutely involved did not benefit the majority of people.

10In 2005, the economy saw a growth of around 7%. The clothing industry exported 2.2 billion dollars’ worth of products last year (10.6% more than in 2004) belaying the fear that it would lose many contracts with the Multi-fibre Arrangement ending on 1st of January 2005. That year, the Chinese, who are the leading investors in the kingdom, already anticipated the customs barriers that the Europeans and Americans would no doubt impose on imports from the People’s Republic of China by consolidating their production facilities in Cambodia. Today, the clothing industry remains the country’s leading employer with more than 280,000 workers. Tourism is also developing rapidly. The number of people using the Siem Reap international airport has multiplied by fifty from 1998 to 2005. The Ministry of Tourism registered 1.4 million foreign visitors in 2005, an increase of 35% from the previous year. However, as healthy as these two sectors are, they cannot overshadow the poverty nor take in the majority of the 200,000 young people who enter the job market every year. Cambodia still belongs to the LDC (Least Developed Countries) and a large part of the population is isolated from development. The poverty level is stagnating at a critical level (around 35% of the population) and 36% of Cambodians are suffering from hunger.

11In the rural areas where 75% of the population lives, life is still very harsh. Due to the population boom in the 1980s, despite demining and clearing many wooded zones, plots of land are scarce and there are simply not enough space to go around. Furthermore, since the late 1990s, many city-dwellers who have become wealthy in cities prefer to invest in property development rather than in businesses that are legally taxed by the State and illegally by corruption. Those who can afford this type of investment obviously go away with the best deal, causing farmers to move further away, far from the markets where they can sell what they have left, if anything at all.

12In addition to the poor infrastructure, the countryside suffers cruelly from the poor soil and exceptionally bad water resources, as the waterworks, which were destroyed by American bombings during the 1970s, were never repaired by the State and are rarely maintained by local communities. Agriculture is still fighting for survival and families are insecure, with both being at the mercy of climatic disasters or a disease that could ruin them.

13This essentially agricultural country is incapable of producing fruit and vegetables needed to feed the country, so they are imported, from Vietnam, in particular. They do not have the means to either invest in diversifying their production or in new agrarian technologies and are afraid of being robbed of their land once it is put to use. After the Khmer Rouge regime, land registers were abolished. From 1989, once private property was re-established, most farmers did not know how to register their land properly, and cases of land grabbing were widespread. The new National Authority for Resolving Land Disputes (ANRLF), which held its first meeting on 10th of April last year, has officially listed around 3,000 cases to be settled in the country. The powerful seek to assert themselves, making people fear them and abusing their power without any punishment. The weakening of the State’s role and community relations from the early 1990s has led to the “brutalisation” of a society where the inequality gap is wide.

  • 4 For more on this subject, see Grégory Mikaelian, «Pour une relecture du jeu politique cambodgien: (...)

14Corruption, cronyism and violence are ills that are neither new nor unique to Cambodia (Thailand and the Philippines also come to mind) and which fuelled the revolt in the 1960s. However, since the intervention of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), the generosity of international aid has been so great that it has stimulated a gold rush. Factions, protected by their militia, regularly spent this aid to strengthen their powers and their alliances4, with individuals taking advantage of this opportunity. What then occurred was inflationist bidding for important positions, the kind that could be turned to profit by selling the “power of their signature”. Today, all levels of the administration are affected like never before.

15The state is considerably weakened, ruined by the people running it (often to its detriment). They seem worried about their own future as if they fear that what they succeeded in acquiring today will be taken away from them tomorrow. How else can one explain the hungry and predatory appetite and the urgency with which certain leaders sell off or seize public assets for a lower price, such as a university, ministry or hospital?

16Now that there are much fewer of them in business, members of the Funcinpec will find it more difficult to take advantage of the generosity of the large sponsors or indulge into national resources. It remains to be seen whether Hun Sen will use it to good to restore order in his ranks, significantly reduce embezzlements and accelerate the race for development. He is obviously aware that in land-grabbing cases, for example, the guilty parties are often men from his own party, which could go against him during the next elections. However, in the same way that we can hope for the best, we can also fear the worst. The departure of the royalists could also whet the appetite of those who have remained in power and deepen the rift between the CPP clans. If Hun Sen feels that he is in danger, he could be persuaded to maintain order by resorting to force.

17In any case, the international community is being very understanding as far as he is concerned, no doubt because Hun Sen was considered their only possible correspondent. Declaring their satisfaction with the strong economic growth in 2005, fund providers decided to renew their confidence in the Royal Government in March by promising a total of 601 million dollars. The sponsors are continuing to pay out of their pockets for many reasons, perhaps out of guilt after leaving Cambodia high and dry during the genocide, then giving the Khmer Rouge its UN seat until 1991 and no doubt because of their interest, as nobody wants an unstable country in the heart of ASEAN between Thailand and Vietnam, two of the main driving forces of regional growth, and certainly also because they would not want to see Cambodia fail after all they have invested in it.

  • 5 For more on this subject, see the comments of the Japanese ambassador to Cambodia in Soren Seelow, (...)

18It is also true that in a context where China and America are sizing each other up, Cambodia is attracting attention because of its geostrategic position and because, paradoxically, everything is possible if you have money. On 17th of January, the Assistant Secretary of State, Christopher Hill, inaugurated one of the most striking US Embassies in Asia, expressing his pleasure at deepening diplomatic relations between the two countries. Was this construction planned even when the rumour was going around that Washington was negotiating with Phnom Penh on the setting up of a military base in the south? In any case, Beijing has no intention of sitting back. During his official visit, on 10th of April last year, Premier Wen Jiabao announced the grant aid for this year, which amounts to around 300 million dollars for the kingdom, half of what was promised by the CG to which China does not belong. In 2004, Chinese investment projects approved by the Council for the Development of Cambodia were worth more than 450 million dollars, accounting for more than 57% of total foreign projects. Beijing clearly seeks to be a dominant regional player, capable of suppressing American and Japanese influences5, thus earning a corner in the heart of ASEAN, without demanding anything in return for its generosity nor any legal reforms or efforts for the transparency of power.

19The recent discovery of oil deposits in the Cambodian waters in the Gulf of Thailand with reserves of around 500 million barrels of crude and deposits of natural gas that could reach a hundred billion cubic metres, could generate an annual profit of two billion dollars from 2009 onwards. Is it a stroke of luck for the kingdom? The energy race between the US and China could find a new running track here that could make the rival between them stronger. The international situation of the 1970s threw Cambodia into civil war. Thirty-five years later, is the country managing foreign interference in a more constructive manner?

  • 6 Philip Short, Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare, London, John Murray, 2004.

20Just as international and humanitarian organisations took over power that would never have been given to them elsewhere in South-East Asia, will the setting up of the genocide tribunal be another lesson in paternalism or a way of cleansing one’s conscience? We cannot be sure that the average Cambodian really understands why the West and the United Nations are so keen on judging men whose guilt is so obvious to all. This would no doubt make sense if this were the opportunity for Cambodia to gain full awareness of the past (the Pol Pot regime does not appear in school text-books) that would allow freedom of speech, as urged by the film-maker, Rithy Panh. However, is bringing justice to the victims the main purpose of the exercise? As Philip Short writes, “to officials such as Madeleine Albright, President Clinton’s Secretary of State, who launched the American initiative to bring the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders (supported by Washington in the 1980s) to trial, their condemnation for genocide, the most heinous of crimes, would allow the US to turn the page with honour and regain the moral high ground6”. A mere handful of old people were to be judged and only for their actions between 1975 and 1979. Is it possible that Cambodia might only be an excuse?

21Today, the country teaches as many lessons on the consequences of thirty years of civil war on a society, as on the irrelevance, inconsistency and indolence of the international community. However, these issues are hardly analysed.

22In the on-line catalogue of the University Documentation System (SUDOC), the key word “Cambodia” yields about a thousand references in French, of which many date back to the 19th century. When scrolling down the whole list, you will see that the country has given rise to all kinds of publications, from the most learned studies on religion, the colonial period, medicine or plants, to the most fanciful novels. However, two topics have particularly inspired authors, that of the Khmer Rouge and Angkor.

23The early work of finding and maintaining the ancient capital, the early deciphering of inscriptions in ancient Khmer, the large reconstruction work through anastylosis, which is being continued even today, especially the Bapuhon giant puzzle, were undertaken under the guidance of archaeologists and architects of the École française d’Extrême-Orient, established a century ago at Siem Reap. Returned to the Cambodians by their French colonisers who had taken it back from Siam, Angkor has become an emblem. Since independence in 1953, the monument was placed on all the national flags, including that of Pol Pot’s iconoclastic Democratic Kampuchea, as if to reaffirm the power of founding myths and the glorious ancestors who had built it and to proudly keep at bay the frustration that remains the most shared sentiment in the country.

24Decolonisation caused French orientalism to lose its base in the Indochinese peninsula. The closing of Cambodia in 1975 deprived researchers of their country for at least a decade. The successive disappearance of several scientific institutions, such as the CEDRASEMI in the late 1970s, the CHEAM and the CACSPI in the 1990s, followed by budget restrictions that have been affecting the social science for some years now have all contributed to fragmenting and marginalising research on the country. The prospects of improvement seem dim, since research laboratories and institutions are becoming increasingly captivated by China. Jacques Népote has left our team suddenly, leaving unfinished several studies he had begun with his usual enthusiasm. It is unsure whether his position at the CNRS will be given to a young specialist on Cambodia. There is still so much to understand and clarify…


1 Delux, L., “The absolute majority for the vote of confidence adopted by the Assembly.” (La majorité absolue pour le vote de confiance adoptée par l’Assemblée), Cambodge soir, 2006.

2 The World Bank, Cambodia at the Crossroads – Strengthening Accountability to Reduce Poverty, Phnom Penh, 2004.

3 The Economic Institute of Cambodia, 2005, p. 41.

4 For more on this subject, see Grégory Mikaelian, «Pour une relecture du jeu politique cambodgien: le cas du Cambodge de la reconstruction (1993-2005)», in Alain Forest (éd.), Cambodge contemporain, Paris, Irasec-Les Indes Savantes, 2008, 25 p.

5 For more on this subject, see the comments of the Japanese ambassador to Cambodia in Soren Seelow, “Inauguration of the Institute of International Relations: Cross-theory on the new world order and the emergence of Chinese power.” (Inauguration de l’Institut des relations internationales. Réflexions croisées sur le nouvel ordre mondial et l’émergence de la puissance chinoise), Cambodge soir, 20 April 2006: “Japan hopes for the transparence of Chinese aid. Currently, we do not know exactly the projects or the programmes that China is implementing in this country, nor its political objectives.” (Ce que le Japon espère fortement, c’est la transparence de l’assistance chinoise. Actuellement, nous ne connaissons pas clairement les projets et les programmes que la Chine met en place dans ce pays, pas plus que ses objectifs politiques.)

6 Philip Short, Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare, London, John Murray, 2004.


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