It's a mistake to consider Cambodia a nation under authoritarian rule by a single party; it comes down to a single man – Prime Minister Hun Sen, a new paper argues.
Published on Tuesday and authored by Australian scholar Lee Morgenbesser, the report makes the case that Hun Sen, not the ruling Cambodia People’s Party, has “unconstrained and discretionary authority” over “personnel, policy and the distribution of rewards”.
Hun Sen does this, Morgenbesser writes, by gate-keeping appointments to high office, appointing his relatives to the upper echelons of the military, controlling a paramilitary force, monopolising decisions in the party’s leadership and controlling who is part of that leadership.
“Personalist dictators such as Hun Sen are far more likely to end up being killed, jailed, or exiled than the leaders of strictly military or party regimes, regardless of whether regime change occurs,” the report reads.
But there is a “saving grace” for those who entwine their personal power with a party “that can help protect their interests”.
“What is unique about how Hun Sen personalised power is how long it took (20 years from beginning to end in my view) and how widespread the process was,” Morgenbesser said via email yesterday.
“This certainly puts him in an elite pantheon amongst dictators around the world.”
He said that a failure to understand Hun Sen as the nexus of power could have serious implications for both scholarship and policy.
“A stark example is the [CNRP] claim that the changes to the Law on Political Parties threaten Cambodian democracy. How can Cambodia be a democracy if Hun Sen exercises this much power?” he said.
The grooming of Hun Sen’s sons - including Hun Manet, head of the National Counter-Terrorism Special Forces, and Hun Manith, commander of the Defence Ministry’s Intelligence Department - hinted that a rare succession of power could take place.
“The fact Hun Sen is making moves towards political succession suggests he is aware of the limits of his power and how quickly he can lose it,” he said.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan yesterday slammed Morgenbesser’s assessment.
“I really dislike and am pissed off when they say my prime minister is a dictator. He is a hero to Cambodia,” he said.
Even though he is the chairman of the ruling party, “Hun Sen cannot do anything by himself, he has to convince his party”, Siphan added.
The report comes in the same week that the National Assembly passed sweeping amendments that threaten to dissolve Hun Sen’s main political opposition a move observers decried as “the triumph of dictatorship”.
Also on Tuesday, election watchdog Comfrel slammed the “dictatorial” National Assembly, while analyst Lao Mong Hay, a former adviser to opposition leader Kem Sokha, said Hun Sen had a “magic mouth” that could bring words into action.