A Tiger Rules the Mountain

The world's longest serving Prime Minister and Cambodia's pursuit of democracy

Cambodia looks to Singapore not America

How attractive is democracy given recent government in America and Britain?

I was on Australian Radio National Saturday Extra with Geraldine Doogue talking about today’s Cambodian election. She asked whether Western sanctions serve to reinforce Cambodia’s ties with China, which is an interesting question. A CPP official had previously told me, “If you stop the Everything But Arms [trade agreement], of course we cannot wait to die. We have to find other options. We go to China and then they blame us for going to China!

If in Australia, listen to the interview here:

Or you can listen to a recording of the interview below. A transcript is after this blog post.

The reality of course is that the Cambodian government was already partnering closely with China, and had notoriously done so in 2012 when it chaired the meeting of leaders from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Cambodia’s Foreign Minister refused to agree to a statement that most other Foreign Ministers did which criticised China’s incursions in the South China Sea and Hun Sen then announced that ASEAN countries should negotiate with China individually, despite ASEAN not having agreed this as policy.

It is not to China that Cambodia looks to as a model for development though – it is to Singapore. And the point I make in the interview is that when you look at America or Great Britain recently, both floundering and bumbling, why would you not think of Singapore as being better governed, even if it only ranks 70th in the global Democracy Index.

Geraldine Doogue  00:12

First today to Cambodia, where Cambodians have an ancient proverb that says one mountain cannot have two tigers meaning only one ruler and no sharing of power. In other words, the opposite of democracy, which is very much the system on offer in this weekend’s so called election. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power now for a staggering 38 years, has done everything in his power to cement an ongoing autocracy. He stamped out any political opposition ruthlessly, and he’s even engineered a brazen family succession plan. The result of tomorrow’s election seems a foregone conclusion in other words, so what of the country’s future – will it move further from the west and into China’s orbit as their economic integration develops? Gordon Conochie will offer us more context. He lives in Melbourne now. But he was a longtime resident of Cambodia where he worked with the World Bank among others. His new book A Tiger Rules the Mountain covers Cambodia’s pursuit of democracy. Welcome, Gordon.

Gordon Conochie  01:15

Good morning.

Geraldine Doogue  01:17

Tell us what you what you personally think might happen at these polls compared with the last election in 2018. And those previous to that I mean, any opposition to speak of?

Gordon Conochie  01:29

No, no, there’s not and Cambodians know that. They know what the result will be. And they’ve kind of, you know, reconciled themselves to that as well. This election is going to be the same as the 2018 election, where the CPP so Hun Sen’s party, won every seat in Parliament. And at the last election they did that because they dissolved the opposition party just about eight months before the election. And before this election, the ruling National Election Committee excluded the biggest opposition party because it couldn’t provide its original Certificate of Registration, which the party said it had been lost when the police raided its offices. So yes, the Cambodians know what the result will be and there’s only going to be one winner.

Geraldine Doogue  02:15

In the book you introduced us to two key opposition figures from the now dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha. Now, maybe before we get back to some of the amazing things that are being introduced in this this election, maybe you could talk about that time in 2017 when the party was finally crushed, because until then, opposition parties had been tolerated. Is that correct?

Gordon Conochie  02:41

Yeah, that’s correct. The story really starts just before the 2013 national election, when Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, who had previously led two separate opposition parties united. They came together because they realized that to defeat Hun Sen they needed a united opposition. And Sam Rainsy returned from exile in France just before the 2013 national election, and it set off a chain reaction of protests and rallies for the opposition throughout the country. And on that 2013 election day, millions of Cambodians went to the ballot box, hoping that change would happen. Now change didn’t happen. But the opposition party did do very, very well and nearly got over 40% of the seats in the National Assembly. And from there, it was building on that momentum. And that took us all the way up to the 2017 elections where it had huge gains against the ruling Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party and at those elections the CPP lost control of many councils throughout Cambodia and it realized that it was on the precipice. It was on the precipice of losing the 2018 national election and it realized that it would have to take extreme measures to stop that happening. Now those extreme measures meant Sam Rainsy being threatened with arrest and he went back into exile. Kem Sokha, who took over leadership of the opposition party was arrested at midnight, pulled from his home. And then just a month after that the opposition party were completely dissolved by the Supreme Court and 118 of their leaders banned from politics for five years, many others put in jail, and many fled Cambodia for their life crossing into Thailand and other countries.

Geraldine Doogue  04:38

Yeah, so it’s it’s completely ruthless. I mean, there’s, I mean, it’s, it’s amazing to compare and contrast what’s happening in Thailand at the moment and we’ll get to that in a moment. So it’s obviously, you know, some of the Southeast Asian countries, they’re just not they’re not even going to toy with democracy or they or they’re just going to play with elections. Is that how you see it?

Gordon Conochie  04:59

Yeah, I think, you know, Hun Sen, the prime minister there, he had previously said that he was willing to eliminate 100 to 200 opposition leaders if that meant keeping control of the country. So you’re right about the ruthlessness. He certainly sees his role, and maybe his duty, to maintain what he sees as peace and stability within Cambodia at any cost. And that means, you know, vanquishing opposition jailing people, and certainly reducing freedom of speech, dismantling the media, restricting trade unions. He will do anything to maintain control of his table. And I guess we have to remember that it was only, you know, 30 odd years ago that Cambodia was still in the middle of a civil war. And democracy is a relatively new concept. You know, it was 1993 when the UN administered elections in Cambodia, and that was the first time for many people that they were ever voting. And there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of Cambodian people understanding and valuing the principles of human rights, of democracy, freedom of speech, concepts are generally Western and coming from the Western world and are not present in the countries as you said that they see around them, or that they, you know, naturally look to

Geraldine Doogue  06:31

Look. What about the handover to his son, Hun Sen’s son – is it Manet? I mean, he’s been already groomed. So he’s been, really in a way Hun Sen’s making himself one of the ancient Cambodian kings and he’s going to take up a seat in the parliament, Manet, he’s a soldier, and that power will eventually pass to him. And that’s just accepted is it?

Gordon Conochie  06:54

Yes. So Hun Manet is the eldest son and he’s currently the commander of the armed forces. An interesting man he graduated West Point. Also has a master of economics from New York University and a PhD in Economics from Bristol University in England, well educated and certainly been groomed and primed to be the prime minister after his father. The ruling party had a vote to endorse this. And this was certainly an arranged procession. It wasn’t as if there were open campaigning amongst many candidates. The question really is when will this transition take place? Hun Sen has actually talked just in the last few days about it happening quite soon after the election. And I think many Cambodians, that’s the question on their lips is this Hun Sen’s last election. But what many people recognize and accept is that even if he steps aside for his son to take over, he’s still going to be the power behind the throne. He’s still going to be the ultimate decision maker. And nobody’s going to move against his son as long as Hun Sen is around.

Geraldine Doogue  08:02

Interesting. Look, final question. Hun Sen is very close to Beijing. China’s overtaken the US as the biggest aid donor and investor and most importantly, trade partner, would you say this has furthered Sen’s anti democratic drive like, you know, have the West sanctions just served to reinforce this?

Gordon Conochie  08:23

Yeah, it’s interesting. I was speaking to one of the ruling CPP members last year and he said, you know, if you criticize us, if you cut ties with us, if you, you know, punish us economically, then of course, we’re going to look to China. Who else are we going to go to? So there’s definitely that argument. However, I think no matter what the West were going to do, then the role of China has just been growing and growing, and certainly because of their support Hun Sen has felt powerful enough, protected enough to dismantle the opposition, to suppress free speech and human rights. Because he knows he’s got the support of China. So what the West can do is, is kind of small in comparison to the benefits he’s getting from the trade and investment in China. Interestingly, though, it’s not to China that Hun Sen is looking in terms of a model and it’s not to America or Britain or the West either, it’s to Singapore. And that’s the attractive model, you know, economically it’s obviously very prosperous – third highest national income per capita in the world. It’s a stable well run, organized, well governed country. And you can understand when you look at maybe what’s happened in terms of governance in America or Britain which are looked upon as as you know, examples of democracy, over the last few years that Singapore might be an attractive option compared to those two.

Geraldine Doogue  09:51

Oh, that’s …I hadn’t heard that before. Gordon, thank you very much indeed for those insights.

Gordon Conochie  09:57

Thank you very much.

Geraldine Doogue  09:57

Who’s your publisher by the way for A Tiger Rules a Mountain?

Gordon Conochie  10:01

Yes. So that’s Monash University publishing. The books are available in book shops throughout Australia and online and internationally as well.

Geraldine Doogue  10:09

Okay. Thanks very much indeed. Gordon Conochie

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