The ruling Cambodian People’s Party national congress opened on Friday as a reflective, reform-centred affair that would seek to lay the ground for the 2018 national elections by injecting new blood and new thinking into the party’s leadership.
But analysts, rights groups and the opposition party yesterday said the massive expansion of the party’s Central Committee that ended the congress on Sunday, despite being unprecedented in size, signalled that its modus operandi remained unchanged, especially as it appeared partly designed to tighten the CPP’s grip over state security forces.
“I don’t think there are any [real] noticeable changes,” said Dr Lao Mong Hay, a veteran analyst recently appointed as an adviser to opposition deputy leader Kem Sokha.
“They have added more people, [but] this is a [longtime] feature of CPP policy. Instead of replacing people with new ones, they prefer to add more,” he said.
Despite the appointment of a host of younger members to the central decision-making body, including more than a dozen children of party elders – Prime Minister Hun Sen not excluded – it would be business-as-usual within the CPP “until you have new leaders or new people in key positions”, he added.
Senior opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua agreed.
“For three days, they looked inside their own party. They pointed out the corrupt judiciary as one of the problems, nepotism as one of the problems, and then they turned around and nothing changed,” she said.
While the CPP elected 306 new party members to its central committee, no changes were made to the more powerful standing committee that remains stacked with party veterans and the heads of the country’s most powerful institutions.
Significantly, however, at least nine deputy National Police commissioners, in addition to several powerful generals and military commanders, some of whom directly ordered crackdowns on political protests after the July 2013 election, were elected to the central committee.
The list includes Phnom Penh police chief Chhuon Sovann, Deputy RCAF Commander and chief of the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit Hing Bun Heang and Phnom Penh Military Police Commander Rath Sreang.
The advanced age of senior CPP leadership “dictates that deputy commanders and younger officers need to [be] co-opted into the party in order to ensure its political longevity”, said Dr Lee Morgenbesser, a researcher on authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia at Australia’s Griffith University.
“This sort of elite integration is standard practice for many autocratic regimes around the world,” he said in an email.
Morgenbesser added, however, that the size of the expansion that occurred this weekend was “extraordinary”.
“Without a doubt, the expansion of the central committee to include even more of the key decision-makers within the military and police ensures these institutions – including most lower-level officers within them – will remain loyal to the CPP during forthcoming elections,” he said.
As a result, if the opposition CNRP wins the 2018 election, a peaceful transfer of power appears unlikely, he added.
But Sochua insisted the CNRP believes the rank-and-file of the security forces will not follow orders from above to block a peaceful transfer of power if it won the election, citing the recent experience of Sri Lanka’s opposition.
“They won because the army and the security forces at the end did not agree to follow orders from the top. We totally believe that this will also be the case in Cambodia,” she said.
Rights groups yesterday, including Licadho and CCHR, also condemned the further politicisation of the security forces as a dangerous move.
A number of senior police and military officials either could not be reached or declined to comment.
On Sunday, Defence Minister Tea Banh told reporters that adding more army officials into the central committee was “a means to make it strong”.
Mong Reththy, a tycoon, senator and newly elected CPP central committee member did not deny accusations of nepotism against his party yesterday, but said “nepotism is everywhere, not only in the CPP”.
He added, however, that the party has a new reform strategy and that the central committee expansion was a key part of it.
“But there are some secrets of the party that we cannot talk about,” Reththy said.