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The Promised Land of Democracy: Cambodia’s Need to Realise Free and Fair Elections

Written by: Chea Sameang, a graduate with a Bachelor's degree in International Relations from Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia Photo Credit: Jerry Redfern On March 1, 2020, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that Cambodia will hold commune elections on June 5, 2022, and that the general election shall be held in July 2023, under the theme of  “free and fair” - and in monsoon season humidity. In theory, it might be a “free and fair” election for multi-party democracy, with nearly 50 parties competing with the long-ruling party CPP in the commune election. But in reality, it might be a bridge too far, with competitors unlikely to even touch the CPP’s tail. However, we can never be too sure of what will happen in Cambodia’s next election in 2023. Do citizens care to invest in democracy and vote, after the pandemic shot out their daily bread and the staunchly right-wing party was kicked to the ground, setting like a sunset in 2017?  With this op-ed, I am not going to provide readers with foresight or prediction on the Cambodian election in 2023, as I know well that Cambodian youth and political observers already understand what is going to happen in the next election. Who is going to win all the seats? And, who is going to rule the country? Prime Minister Hun Sen already claimed at the Peace Palace on August 1, 2021, that he would stay in power until he “no longer wants to do it anymore.” Instead, with this op-ed, I am simply going to walk readers through my explanation of why free and fair elections could be the solution to improve Cambodia's democracy in the future.  Signs of Decay After the Crackdown  After the crackdown on the outlawed CNRP from the political boxing ring in 2017, the CPP won all the power, with nearly 90% of the ballots, and then eliminated almost all that remained of the CNRP - members, supporters, and activists - with threats, intimidation, and prison terms.  The alleged conspiracy, incitement to commit a felony, and social unrest become the most powerful tools to freeze those former CNRP activists and members, linking them to the so-called “Color Revolution” to overthrow the Cambodian government.  Nonetheless, many NGOs urged the Cambodian government to release the imprisoned opposition members, and establish a neutral political landscape for minor parties to participate, and show voters that the Cambodian government is not a violator of human rights. However, the outcome was quite the opposite, with the Cambodian government showing no intention to take such action while ignoring the criticisms.  From this brief alert, we can see that the future of democracy in Cambodia has been debilitated, making its shadow fragile and uncertain. The issue was deepened by the crackdown of independent media organizations, inducing the Cambodia Daily to be hit with a multi-million-dollar tax and forced to shut down.  According to Lee Morgenbesser, an Australian political analyst who has written multiple journal articles about Cambodia’s political situation, Cambodia is heading towards “Hegemonic Authoritarianism”. Elliot Brennan of the Lowy Institute warned that “If Cambodia democracy is allowed to fall without a whimper from the West, the contagion of despotism will be hard to contain in Southeast Asia.” On the other side, NEC spokesman Dim Sovannarom told the  Khmer Times on August 3, 2021, that “We are working based on the law and we are balanced, not like others say.”  Thus, to the question of whether Cambodia's election is going to be free and fair, the answer lay in the eyes of Cambodian youths and political observers. As a political analyst, Em Sovannara told VOD News: “their participation in the 2022 and 2023 elections is just to beautify the garden of democracy.”  However, without true intention from the government to improve the landscape and image of Cambodia’s democracy by allowing those minor parties to realistically challenge the rule of the 70-year-old Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which retains control of the armed forces, the competition will be little more than just a game, like riding a horse without holding the reins.  Why does Free and Fair Matter?  Yet, while Cambodia’s democracy, inherited to obey and practice since 1993, continues to decay, the end of the CNRP party is not the end of Cambodia’s democracy. Despite nearly four decades of political change, the process of free and fair elections seems to be in reverse. However, if both the government and other minor parties are willing to play the game only as a show to the Cambodian people, then I believe that the hope for free and fair elections will remain at a standstill.  In the game of elections, both actors should play the cards of “free and fair,” demonstrating to the audience that they can be satisfied with ideas of the “win-lose” theory. However, in the Cambodian game of elections, where the minor players are just newly registered entrants to the political system with no power in hand, they will have no sword to fight with CPP. Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan himself told local news that the CPP welcomes the participation of all political parties in the upcoming elections, but that the minor parties “could not be compared to the CPP.” Cambodia’s government always claims to uphold democracy and, thus, free and fair is essential to that democracy. Moreover, to ensure that individual electoral rights can be exercised effectively, and to ensure the commissions are not dominated by pro-government representatives, freedom and fairness must be promoted and implemented.  Thus, to ensure and promote a free and fair election for Cambodia’s future democracy for the next generations, there are three steps that must be taken.  First, the Cambodian government should staff the National Election Commission (NEC) independently in order to avoid rumors of internal bias. After the NEC was nominated by the ruling party CPP, many criticisms were aired: that it’s not neutral or independent and remains under the influence of the ruling party. Simply put, to uphold the integrity of the NEC as the mandated actor to organize, oversee, and monitor all aspects of the elections from registration of voters and parties to ultimately verifying the accuracy of the final results, the election body must not be undermined by a real or perceived bias towards the CPP government. Second, the Cambodian Government must respect the basic principles of human rights and fix its own problems by not weaponizing the criminal code to target the opposite party’s supporters and other human rights activists. The government should give amnesty and allow them to engage with the freedom to establish political associations and participate with any party they choose. To continue to target and threaten them will only act as a threat to the next youth generation and a deterrent to participating in the political landscape. Since the Cambodian government always speaks of upholding democratic principles and respecting human rights, free and fair elections must be demonstrated to the public.  Third, small parties should merge together into one or two parties, as the Human Rights Party (HRP) and SRP (Sam Rainsy Party) did to confront the CPP in 2018 after both parties had endured fewer votes from supporters in 2013. Being a new and small party attempting to compete with the long-ruling CPP, does not arouse much interest in voters. Without a strong string, a kite will easily be cut free. Simply put, people aren't interested in supporting small parties, but they might choose one big party that can oppose the strong one. Conclusion The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed some major shortcomings in both Cambodia’s political and health care systems. The resulting economic insecurity and inequality - in which the rich get richer, the poor get poorer - makes it hard to maneuver free and fair elections in Cambodia. Moreover, since there is no party that could even touch the tail of the CCP and no neutral national institutions to organize and oversee the elections, the 2023 general election would just be little more than a show, leaving the political landscape in a state of limbo and turmoil. However, if the government and existing minor parties genuinely seek to improve the situation, then anything is possible. Together, they can compete in solidarity and stop criticizing each other, carrying out their jobs to benefit the Cambodian people, as is their responsibility, rather than serving their own interests. Cambodia's democracy may be at a crucial turning point - free and fair elections are possible and the next generation would be proud to follow their legacy.   

Opinion: Paris Peace Accord Should Move Past Controversy After 30 Years

Written by: Han Noy, a 2rd-year student majoring in International Relations at Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia. Edited by: Sao Phal Niseiy, Editor-in-Chief at The Cambodianess and Deputy Editor-in-Chief at Thmey Thmey News Photo Credit: (AFP PHOTO/ERIC FEFERBERG) October 2021 marks 30 years since the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement, the first multilateral peace deal accomplished following the end of the Cold War. The agreement aimed at ending the decade-long civil war in Cambodia, paving the way for the United Nations to administer the country temporarily through a peacekeeping mission to disarm the conflicting parties and ensure the repatriation of the refugees. In addition, it also provided a legal foundation for the country to organize a free and fair election while enabling it to move toward multi-party democracy, in which those in power are held accountable for upholding and defending human rights.   Thanks to the 1991 Paris Agreement, Cambodia remains at peace with stability and harmony, and with these, it can achieve rapid development. However, even on its 30th birthday, the view toward the agreement has continued to be controversial among politicians and civil society groups. The government side has always claimed that the agreements were irrelevant as the major points of it had been incorporated into the constitution. As seen, the government even removed Paris Peace Agreement Day from the list of the public holidays.  On the other hand, the opposition parties and civil society groups generally argue that it has been still binding upon all signatories including the Kingdom itself as it has not informed all stakeholders of its official decision to annul the agreement.  As a young Cambodian, who was born years after the creation of this agreement, I am disappointed to witness that contemporary Cambodia continues to suffer from endless disagreement and misunderstanding of the 1991 agreement, which, of course, lead to more tensions, discrepancies, and even conflicts among people with different political tendencies.  I think what people should understand here is that the contested historical narrative does not serve the purpose of national development, prosperity, and peace. Instead, by not walking away from this obsolete narrative and myth, what we will achieve is only creating a more polarized and divisive society because we choose conflict over solidarity, tensions over co-existence, and isolation over cooperation. It demonstrates that whether to claim this agreement is dead or not, will lead to nowhere. Therefore, our political leaders and other stakeholders should learn to move beyond this never-ending disagreement. To me, we all must accept the fact that the agreement provided our country with political settlement to end over two decades of armed conflicts. It, more importantly, allowed us to bring forward national reconciliation as well as pursue liberal democracy and human rights. Without this historic event, our country would not have been in harmony as it is right now.  In addition, I also want to accentuate that the Paris Peace Agreement Day should once again be commemorated and remembered. It also should be regarded as the day that Cambodia got out of the political quagmire, and intimately found the way to perpetual peace. By saying this, I believe it is more than possible that each of us can live up to the spirit of both the 1991 Paris Agreement and the 1993 Constitution as they are the founding documents of modern Cambodia. But speaking of the acknowledgment, what I think remains a challenge is whether all political elites, especially those in the ruling party are willing to respect and put into practice the principles stipulated in the Paris Agreement and the Constitution or not.  Moreover, the spirit of honoring the extraordinary day should be cherished, not undermined. It means all Cambodians should be free to commemorate the day without any disturbance or prevention and any efforts to politicize this event should be ended.  More importantly, this historic day should be the day on which our political elites reflect on whether they have already done enough to comply with these documents fully. If they have not, they have both legal and moral obligations to push themself harder to adjust and correct their course of actions. It can manifest their genuine conscience and intention to place national interests at the heart of their positions while trying to avoid the pursuit of their vengeance and political ambition.  In the meantime, I still see the importance of them reinventing their traditional political culture as the current one is already old-fashioned and doesn’t serve the benefits of the people. As we all could see, "instead of working for a better future for Cambodians, politicians of both sides spend their time insulting, mocking, insinuating, accusing, framing, and labeling one another almost for the sake of provocation alone.” Unfortunately, this sort of political culture does not either safeguard or drive development and prosperity, but only leads to destruction, polarization, and reduction. If we continue to be split by different political narratives of the same event, our dream of transforming and achieving inclusive and sustainable growth will just be at stake.  For our compatriots, we all also have a responsibility to uphold the principle of unity and keep in mind that “unity is strength while division is weakness.” History has already revealed that the divisions among us only resulted in power decline and territorial losses.   As we could see these appalling consequences, why can't we just find a way to work together to make our country strong again? Our politicians can do a lot more by dedicating their time and effort to finding solutions to address pressing social challenges, such as rampant corruption, land grabbing, human rights violations as well as environmental degradation, and illegal immigration?  All in all, the spirit of the Paris Agreement should be revived and commemorated, and the documents are still relevant and significant for modern Cambodia. The multiple elucidations perceived by politicians regarding the Paris Peace Accord Day should not continue to be the source of hostilities, political confrontation, and tension within Cambodian society. It rather should be the day that we have “another chance to live, unite, and work together to achieve the Cambodian dream.”  Also, the debate on whether the agreement is invalid or not brings us nowhere. Thus, all stakeholders need to rethink and seek common ground to address socio-economic issues facing contemporary Cambodia. We should not let the past haunt our future; we need to take our past lessons thoughtfully and seek constructive and innovative means to map out and plan for the future. The fate of our country indeed lies in the hands of all Cambodian citizens; it is, therefore, high time for us to be committed to building true national unity, supporting each other, and working together to make Cambodia great again.  Politikoffee accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed. Responsibility rests solely with theindividual authors.                    

What should be the proper ways for Cambodian monks to participate in politics?

Written by: Han Noy, a 2rd-year student majoring in International Relations at Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia. Edited by: Heng Kimkong, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at Cambodia Development Center and a Ph.D. Candidate in Education at The University of Queensland, Australia. Monks at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap province, Cambodia. (Eugene Hoshiko / Associated Press) Introduction Buddhism came to Cambodia in the early 5th century when Hindu trading merchants brought it from India to the Mon kingdoms (present-day Myanmar and Thailand). Since then, Buddhism has played a significant role in Cambodian society. As the nation embraces it as the state religion, Cambodian Budhhist monks have been very active in taking part in their country’s social, economical, and political affairs. During the period of the French colonization (1863-1953), Khmer people were living under control, oppression, and sorrow. The liberty and rights were snatched away, and heavy taxes were required, making it virtually unendurable for Cambodian people. Within this context, Buddhist monks played a critical role in Cambodian society. They contributed to the cultivation and promotion of Khmer values and Khmer nationalism. They tried to preserve Khmer culture and bring the country out of danger of cultural extinction.  In 1942, after the arrest of Achar Hem Chieu, one of the prominent monks who was leading people against the French colonization, there were between 1000 to 3000 monks, lay people, and the laity who participated in a demonstration, led by monks from all pagodas in Phnom Penh. At the time, about 500 monks carried umbrellas, an event known as an “ Umbrella War”.     Our history suggests that Cambodian politics and Buddhist monks have been intertwined with each other for centuries. There are, however, still some critiques and praises from people regarding the involvement of monks in political activities, particularly as regards demonstrations and other forms of public gatherings. Today monks’ political activism has been labeled as improper, resulting in monks being arrested, defrocked and/or accused of violating monks’ code of conduct by the Cambodian authorities. Essentially, these have demotivated many monks from participating in their country’s public affairs, and the role of monks in Cambodian society seems to have faltered. So is it wrong that monks participate in politics or exercise their political activism? What should be the proper ways for monks to participate in politics? Is it wrong for monks to participate in politics?   Before knowing whether it is right or wrong when a monk participates in politics, we need to define the term “politics'' first. In a general view, politics is the art of competing for power to lead a state based on our own political vision. It is the goal and ambition of politicians to compete in politics and to govern a country. As Hans Morgenthau, an influential realist, once said, politics is “the struggle for power.” In this regard, it is not a duty of Buddhist monks to engage in politics to gain power to control the state just like what politicians do. In the Cambodian context, when people think of monks in politics, they generally picture monks joining public gatherings or assemblies only; they do not see anything beyond this. Nobody ever stops and thinks whether it is against monks’ discipline or not that Buddhist monks join demonstrations. The answer to this can be yes or no. It is a yes, if monks adhere to good and quiet manners by respecting the value as a monk, while it is a no when monks scream, yell, raise hands, and use any other inappropriate gestures which are considered illicit in monks’ code of conduct. Thus, even though it may not be right for monks to participate in politics, they still can do so as long as they can comply with the monks’ codes of conduct. In fact, monks can take part in politics to show their care about their country's public affairs in a similar way as lay people and other citizens do. In a democractic society, everyone has equal rights to participate in politics. Monks can therefore do so as long as they do not violate monks’ codes of conduct.  In fact, the goal of Buddhist monks is enormous; being monkhood is not for gambling, entertaining, avoiding housework, saving wealth, and seeking for ranks, but it is about digging out the truth of life to alleviate all suffering and to ultimately save and free the world from misery. In addition, they have the very significant responsibilities to help their people from any sorrow through preaching Dhamma, and participating in politics when people and country face danger, injustice, and/or instability. If we look at the Dhamma, there is no statement from Buddha which prevents monks from associating with political, social,and economical affairs but only advises them to assist and extricate people out of crisis and hardship. In addition, as stated in Article 31 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, “ Every Khmer citizen shall be equal before the law, enjoying the same rights, freedom and fulfilling the same obligations regardless of race, color, sex, language, religious belief, political tendency, birth origin, social status, wealth or other status.” Likewise, Article 35 states that “Khmer citizens of either sex shall have the right to participate actively in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the nation.” Based on the Cambodian Constitution, Cambodian citizens have the right to participate in politics for the sake of national development. Thus, in accordance with our country’s Constitution and the Buddhist principles of the middle path, it seems that monks are not prohibited from participating in politics to contribute to the development of their nation.  Furthermore, Article 15 of the 1997 Cambodian law on political parties states that “Religious priests, members of judiciary, members of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (R.C.A.F) and National Police Forces may join as members of political parties, but they must not conduct any activity for supporting or opposing any political party. A political party must not organize its organizational structure inside the religious bodies, Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and in the National Police Forces.” This means that the law does not exclude anyone, particularly Buddhist monks from society; everyone has an equal opportunity to be members of any political parties, although the law does not allow religious priests to conduct or organize any activities to oppose any sides or parties. In this sense, monks are authorized to be in any political group, but they cannot explicitly proclaim which parties they are in and criticize another side. Buddha once said, “living in a suitable place is the blessing.” Monks will be living in happiness, tranquility, and peace when their country is prosperous, peaceful, stable, and just, but all of these will be taken away, including a chance to chant Dhamma and do meditation, when there is no peace, prosperity, stability, and justice in their country. As we can see, during the Khmer Rouge regime, when the country was in darkness and crisis and people experienced starvation, torture and death, monks suffered and were targeted for execution as well. Achar Hem Chieu used to say that “The monks’ rice pot remains with the people, if the people are miserable, have nothing to eat, so do the monks.” This indicates that when people live under slavery, oppresion, and starvation, monks will also suffer. Hence, they need to find a way to help, guide, and encourage their people​​ to fight for freedom, independence, and total peace. They cannot just eat, stay, and chant Dhamma in pagodas seeing their country going to collapse and people living in misery. They need to do whatever they can to bring their country and people out of despondency and suffering. The proper ways for monks to participate in politics. Buddhist monks have played important roles contributing to national evolution. There are still, however, some bad views regarding monks' engagement in politics. Thus, I wish to offer three possible means for them to take part in politics. First, preaching Dhamma. It is an effective way to spread knowledge, philosophy and Buddhist concepts that are helpful for our people since monks are oftentimes invited to give sermons when Cambodian Buddhists conduct any ceremonies inside and outside of pagodas. Hence, it is a great chance for them to talk about the real Dhamma left by Buddha comprising a lot of good advice which can be applied to build a prosperous country and promote good governance in our country as well.​ Additionally, they can extend their talk beyond Buddha's theory and speak about Khmer identity, culture, democratic principles, and Cambodian laws because these are very important knowledge that must be cultivated and shared to Cambodian people, especially youth. Buddha spent 45 years after enlightenment to focus on teaching, explaining, and addressing Dhamma to people. His teaching is extremely impactful, not just for ordinary people but also for kings or country leaders. Second, writing and publishing articles and/or books. Writing is an art to disseminate our vision, perspective, and Buddha’s philosophy to the public. It is helpful and influential, especially when our ideas are written down, it is very critical and lasts a long time; it can be passed from one generation to another. For instance, we can take a pattern from monks during the French colonization, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, and the Khmer Republic; they have done a very good job related to this, and their concepts and opinions continue to exist and have influence on our recent time and in the future. Unfortunately, as not many Cambodian Buddhist monks spend time to write academic papers or books, their perspective, and Buddha's concept have not been promulgated widely to people even though Cambodia people are 95% Buddhist.This is the real problem that must be fixed and keep improving in the field of academic writing. Likewise, according to Yos Hut Khemacaro, head of the Khmer Buddhist Foundation in France, in order for monk’s contribution to be constructive “they require greater education on the teachings of Buddhism as well as a more sophisticated awareness of the world outside the monastery. Only then can they effectively instruct and provide guidance to the people'' and contribute to social progress .This can be a good way for them to indirectly play a role in politics without violating monks’ code of conduct.  Third, participating in politics by adhering to non-violence and the middle path. As Cambodian monks participate in political activities to challenge injustice, human rights violations, and rampant corruption are mostly seen as partisans by the authorities, it is crucial that monks be strategic and follow the middle path. Perhaps non-partisan activism is the way forward. Monks need to ensure that their activism does not appear to be linked to any party or political ideology. Importantly, monks need to help promote peace and the principles of the middle path. For example, there was a Dhammaryietra peace march in 1992  guided by Venerable Maha Ghosananda to bring the message of hope and motivation to all Cambodian people after decades of civil war. This massive peace demonstration was well received by the public and even the government officials. This event proves to us that through the power of universal values of compassion, non-violence, and solidarity, monks can play a crucial role in promoting peace and harmony in society.   Conclusion  Cambodian monks do distribute significantly to Cambodia's social, political, cultural, and economic development. Therefore, monks’ roles in society and in politics should be supported, not undermined. Moreover, the government and concerned stakeholders need to empower, support, and cooperate with monks; All stakeholders must ensure that there is no excuse to prevent monks from participating in politics since sometimes it is not about monks violating their code of conduct but rather about fear of monks mobilizing political dissent. Allowing Buddhist monks to enjoy civil rights and decide on matters of general concern would be greatly essential for the country's development. Limiting their rights and roles to only religious affairs and preventing them from public affairs are not a smart choice since monks’ roles go beyond what happens in pagodas. They can also contribute to ensuring that the government implements its policies effectively. However, Buddhist monks themselves must be aware of who they really are. Their participation and contribution need to be balanced between religious virtue and the country's laws. Monks can be part of the solution, not the problem! When everyone can play their part in contributing to national development, our country would be more prosperous, democratic, and civilized.

Should Cambodia Consider Term Limits for Its Prime Ministers?

Written by: Soth Chhayheng, a 2nd year student at Thammasat University, Bachelor of Political Science Program in Politics and International Relations Edited by: Heng Kimkong, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at Cambodia Development Center and a PhD Candidate in Education at The University of Queensland, Australia Photo Credit: AFP/CAMBODIA NATIONAL ASSEMBLY Cambodia’s constitution adopts the principles of liberal multi-party democracy. Since 1993, every five year Cambodian people go to cast their vote in the general election to elect their leaders. Over the past few decades, the Kingdom has changed significantly. However, if there is one thing that has not changed ever since, it is its prime minister. Prime Minister Hun Sen has enjoyed ongoing support from the supporters of the Cambodian People’s Party. While at the same time receiving harsh criticisms from the opposition over his long tenure in holding Cambodia’s highest political office. Presently, he is one of the 15 world’s longest-serving leaders. According to its constitution, Cambodia does not have a restricted term limit for the prime minister. This loophole has allowed Prime Minister Hun Sen to continue running as a Prime Ministerial candidate for the Cambodian People’s Party in every general election since 1993. “I will rule until a point that I feel I no longer want to rule,” said Prime Minister Hun Sen during a recent press conference at Calmette Hospital after getting vaccinated for COVID-19. The rationale behind the executive term limits can be traced back to ancient history. Aristotle highlighted that “no office should ever be held twice by the same person” as a key characteristic of democracy. In most democratic states and even many communist regimes, there is a clear restriction on how many years or terms one person can be the leader of the executive branch. Cambodia’s neighbors such as Thailand have set two term limits for prime ministers who shall not hold office for more than eight consecutive years. Against this backdrop, should Cambodia consider setting term limits for the Prime Ministerial position? This article aims to advance the arguments in favor of term limits, although there are other arguments that can be used to counter the arguments presented in this article. Yet, readers shall define an answer to this question on their own. This  article only offers one perspective, which may constitute a basis for informed discussion and debate on this issue.  Yes, Cambodia should set term limits for prime ministers  History has taught us that one of the major reasons that contributed to Cambodia’s decline was the unclear and turbulent transition of power from one leader or ruler to another; that is, the change of rulers often resulted in civil war and destruction of the country. During the Oudong period (1618-1863), we saw the internal struggle between several kings that fought to claim the throne, allowing the two neighboring countries to interfere. Later the country experienced  endless suffering and the loss of sovereignty, territory, and independence. After receiving independence from France in 1953, Cambodian people held high hope that peace would last under the rules of King Father Norodom Sihanouk. However, it turned out to be  another tragedy, after General Lun Nol and Prince Sisowath Siri Matak staged a coup to overthrow Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970. Five years after the coup, the darkest cloud flew across Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979). Immediately following the collapse of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia experienced the internal struggle of power for another decade between four political factions.  Now Cambodia is finally at peace and stability – at least by the traditional definition of peace which is the absence of war. One of the most concerning questions for the Cambodian people right now is “What is next after Hun Sen?”. The Prime Minister himself had asked the same question. This question arises due to the long tenure of Hun Sen as the Cambodian Prime Minister.  Setting term limits for prime ministers is a political agenda that can determine a proper political norm for Cambodia’s future. Considerably, politicians can look at the following points. First, if five years per each term is reasonable, we shall keep it as it is. Second, as for the matter of how many terms should be set for this particular position, a two-term limit is reasonable, which should be considered.  This means that one person can have a chance to be a Cambodian prime minister for a maximum of 10 years. With this timeframe, it is more than practical for the leader to carry out efficient and effective policies to leave the office with legacy and dignity. Reasons for setting term limits for prime ministers  There are several credible reasons as to why Cambodia should set term limits for its prime ministers. First, it is a crucial step of political modernization to create a fundamental political norm that can  ensure more transparent and effective governance, increase strong accountability, decrease corruption, and strengthen the rule of law. Above all it is to ensure a predictable, stable, and peaceful transition of power. Leaders would be more likely to focus on the matter of running the country in the most efficient way to leave the position with credible legacy rather than spending much of their time thinking of ways to eliminate their potential competitors and on how to extend their time in office. Setting a clear line of tenure for prime ministership would prevent any leader from attempting to build up his/her own dynasty in the Kingdom. It would also contribute immensely to strengthening state institutions. The absence of term limits allows one person to rule for too long, which is not the best course of action for Cambodia’s prosperous and sustainable future.  Second, the term limits of the highest political position can potentially guarantee a healthier political culture in Cambodia. Setting term limits for prime ministers is an effective approach for Cambodia to achieve broader democratic reforms by widening political space for active and constructive political engagement from all levels and improving political representation. The fact that many politicians and activists have been arrested and forced to live in exile indicates the deterioration of the human rights situation which is caused by the unhealthy political culture that Cambodia has. This is not to mention that many Cambodians are afraid of talking and playing their civic duties in political engagement. All of these reflect the current development of Cambodia's political context. There have been calls for discussion and collective action to improve our political culture and political environment. As concerned citizens, we all have a part in this. But how would a clear set of term limits for prime ministers help improve our political culture? The change in the highest political office would lead to a better political environment of competition between politicians. Mutual understanding and compromise would be promoted in the political sphere. The change of political leadership would potentially encourage Cambodian people, particularly the younger generation to rise and engage in politics more actively and constructively. These groups of people will bring with them new ideas, policies, and strategies that can shape the development of the Kingdom. Thus, a healthier political culture is very much needed for Cambodian people, and setting term limits for prime ministers is a positive step toward that end. Peace and stability should be guaranteed by a democratic system, not by a person, or else it won’t last.  Third, having clear term limits for the prime ministers is a viable means to prevent Cambodia from descending into authoritarianism and to decrease structural social injustice. Countries with leaders who stayed in power longer than two decades are almost universally authoritarian. However, perhaps Cambodia has not reached that point yet, even though scholars have suggested that Cambodia is leading Southeast Asia's authoritarian ways. Authoritarianism denoted any political system in which power is concentrated in the hands of a leader or a small group of elites. Structural social injustice is very much likely to occur in an authoritarian state. The abuse of power, improper check and balance between different branches of the government, the absolute or nearly absolute power of a particular leader and group that violate the rights of the people, systematic corruption, and the drives to eliminate potential political competitor either within or outside the party are all the signs of an  authoritarian state and structural injustice in  society. These issues lead to endless deadly political rivalry among politicians and resentment toward the ruling elite from the people who suffered from the system. In the end, it will result in  a more divided society.  Last but not least, setting term limits for prime ministers would be helpful for the future of Cambodian politics. The advantages of having clear term limits for Cambodia’s highest political leader are much more than the disadvantages. For the best interest of the people and the country, politicians should seriously put their personal and group interests aside and choose what is best for the country. For far too long, the argument that there is only one capable person that can play this leadership  is not true. In fact, there are many potential capable leaders both from within and outside of the ruling party. For instance, Prime Minister Hun Sen has mentioned the current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy and Finance Aun Pornmoniroth as his potential successor. There are also other potential candidates for prime ministership such as Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng and Lieutenant General Hun Manet.  So should Cambodia set term limits for its prime ministers? I hope you have an answer for this question. For me, it is a resounding yes!   

As US-China Rivalry Grows, Will Cambodia’s Tragedy Return?

Author: Vann Bunna, a Co-founder of The Thinker Cambodia and a Research Fellow at Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP). All views expressed are his own. Editor: Heng Kimkong, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at Cambodia Development Center and a PhD Candidate in Education at The University of Queensland, Australia. Photo Credit: Asia Time Cambodia has been increasingly seen as a centre point of the US-China competition for influence in Southeast Asia. The recent allegation of China’s potential military presence in Cambodia is a critical point to test the Kingdom’s resilience and capability in navigating contemporary international politics of great power rivalry. Amid the US-China geopolitical competition, the issue of the Ream Naval base seems to be a matter of great concern that can trap Cambodia in the middle of great powers’ geopolitical and geostrategic struggle, potentially turning it into a battlefield. Cambodia’s tragedy in retrospect Cambodia’s tragedy in its modern history occurred when Cambodia abandoned its neutral foreign policy during the Cold War. It is worth remembering that after gaining independence from France in 1953, King Norodom Sihanouk had adopted a determinedly neutral foreign policy, aligning neither with the US-led liberal bloc nor the Soviet-led communist bloc. To King Sihanouk, the neutral policy was the best diplomatic stance for Cambodia to prevent itself from being caught in the Cold War. Unfortunately, Cambodia was no longer able to maintain its position of neutrality. It gradually engaged with the Communist bloc as evidenced by the visits of King Sihanouk to Moscow and Beijing. In May 1965, King Sihanouk cut off diplomatic relations with the United States. In so doing, he abandoned Cambodia’s neutral international course to establish alignment with communist China. Remarkably, that became a turning point in Cambodia’s history – the country flung into a proxy war and protracted civil war for a few decades. Some scholars argued that King Sihanouk’s decision to break Cambodia-US relations to align with China gave the latter leverage to pressure Phnom Penh to allow Viet Cong to build routes along the Vietnam-Cambodia border. The result of this unbalanced foreign policy was the bombing by the US which killed around 500,000 civilians. Consequently, as King Sihanouk was heavily aligned with China, the US supported General Lon Nol and Prince Sarik Matak to stage  a coup to oust Sihanouk from power in March 1970. After seizing power, Lon Nol and his associates established a pro-liberal bloc Khmer Republic in October 1970. The Khmer Republic pursued a bandwagoning foreign strategy towards the US amid the Cold War. The US later used part of Cambodia’s territory as a battleground to contain Communist influence in Southeast Asia, especially to fight against Vietnamese communist Viet Cong in the Indochina war. Between 1965 and 1973, the US dropped 2.7 million tons of explosives on Cambodia - more than the bombs that the Allies dropped during World War II. Tragically, hundreds of thousands of civilians lost their lives. Their houses and properties were damaged. More unfortunately, the US-backed Khmer Republic collapsed when the US lost the Vietnam war and withdrew its troops from Southeast Asia in 1975. The US -  at the end of the day - abandoned Cambodia and handed it over to the butcher –  the Khmer Rouge. Prince Sirik Matak was very disappointed with how the US treated Cambodia. In a letter to the US Ambassador John Gunther Dean, he wrote: As for you and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection and we can do nothing about it. You leave us and it is my wish that you and your country will find happiness under the sky. But mark it well that, if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad because we are all born and must die one day. I have only committed this mistake of believing in you, the Americans. After the US left Cambodia, Khmer Rouge took control over the country on April 17, 1975. Democratic Kampuchea led by Pol Pot was officially established. This genocidal regime supported communist ideology and was aligned with the Communist bloc during the Cold War. The Democratic Kampuchea gradually isolated itself and pursued the isolationist foreign policy towards the outside world – having relations only with a few foreign countries, one of which was China, its strategic partner and major ally.  At the time, China’s aid to the Khmer Rouge was around 90% of the regime’s foreign aid. Interestingly, Andrew Matha – author of Brothers in Arms: China’s Aid to the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979, noted that “Without China’s assistance, the Khmer Rouge regime would not have lasted a week.” More remarkably, because of China’s aid, the Khmer Rouge could extend its purge campaign to eliminate people they considered as internal enemies of the regime. The purge campaign targeted the intellectual, monks, urban bourgeois and officials from the previous regime. Within a few years, the Khmer Rouge regime pushed Cambodia to the brink of extinction, killing around 1.7 million Cambodian people. After the Khmer Rouge collapsed in 1979, a successor regime, called the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, was established. This new regime was always distrustful of China’s intentions as China was a key ally of the Khmer Rouge. As Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen used to say, “China was the root of all that was evil in Cambodia”. Will tragedy return to Cambodia? Our history has taught us that tragedy occurred when our country heavily relied on or depended on a single great power. A small and weak state like Cambodia should never over depend on one great power, at the expense of its relations with the other major power. Any unbalanced alignment with great powers warrants vulnerabilities and risks. Cambodia can and should learn from its past lessons to avoid repeating its strategic mistakes. Amid the great power rivalry, Cambodia is seen as China’s closest ally in Southeast Asia. China is now Cambodia’ increasingly significant trading partner, largest aid donor, major foreign investor, and key supporter of the current regime. Since 2010 when both countries established their Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, Cambodia has increasingly become dependent on China economically, politically, and strategically.  Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan has enthusiastically praised China, saying that “Without Chinese aid, we go nowhere.” Recently, at Nikkei’s Future of Asia Conference, Prime Minister Hun Sen bluntly emphasised Cambodia’s reliance on China, saying that “If I don’t rely on China, who will I rely on?” This statement is worrying as it indicates a clear trend that Cambodia is falling into China’s orbit.  While Cambodia enjoys its honeymoon relations with China, its bilateral ties with the US face challenges. In addition to the deterioration of Cambodia’s democracy and human rights record, rumours and allegation of potential Chinese military presence at Cambodia’s Ream Naval base has further weakened Cambodia-US relations. At a recent meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, for example, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman expressed serious concerns about the Chinese military presence in the Kingdom and urged Cambodia to maintain an “independent and balanced foreign policy”. This statement indicates the US’s views of Cambodia, seeing it as China’s close ally. The US is clearly not pleased with Cambodia’s increasingly tight alignment with China. In the midst of the increasing geopolitical competition between the US and China, Phnom Penh’s heavy reliance on Beijing does not bode well for Cambodia’s future. The Kingdom seems to play a risky game that might lead it to tragedy again if its strategic calculation fails.  The recent allegation of the Chinese military presence on its soil serves as a sign indicating that Cambodia could gradually become a battleground of great power rivalry as seen in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite this, some may argue that this line of thinking is only a Cold War mentality that does not reflect the current world situation. Of course, King Sihanouk, Lon Nol or Pol Pot might have thought the same, arguing that their alignments with a single great power were right in their circumstances; unfortunately, they had brought unforgettable tragedy to the country in the end. More importantly, either in Cold War or at any time, great powers always fight for their supremacy. As a renowned neorealist scholar John Mearsheimer convincingly argues, “great powers always compete with each other” to be the number one in the system. The concept of Thucydides trap also reminds us that a rising power always threatens to displace an established power, which will result in a major war. Thus, to minimize the possibility of any tragedy happening again, Cambodian leaders and policymakers should be mindful of Cambodia’s tragic past and must try to avoid repeating the same strategic mistakes that made the country become a victim of great power rivalry. Cambodia, as a small state with limited resources and leverage power, should embrace multilateralism and regionalism as a policy option. It should try its best to pursue a “balancing” and “hedging” foreign strategic approach rather than adopt a “bandwagoning” foreign policy towards great powers. The Kingdom must also adhere to the principle of “permanent neutrality and non-alignment” enshrined in Article 53 of its Constitution. It is crucial that Cambodia should carefully calibrate its foreign policy to avoid falling victim to great power competition and to achieve its development vision to become an upper-middle income country by 2030 and a high-income country by 2050.  

Cambodia as ASEAN Chair in 2022 From A Youth Perspective

Written by: Houy Sivly, a 3rd year student majoring in Political Science and International Relations at Paragon International University Edited by: Sao Phal Niseiy, Editor-in-Chief at The Cambodianess and Deputy Editor-in-Chief at Thmey Thmey News (Photo Credit: This photo was posted on ASEAN Facebook page.)   On 30th April 1999, Cambodia was admitted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Since then, the country undertook the role of ASEAN chairmanship twice, the first in 2002 and the second in 2012. With the chairmanship experience, I can observe that Cambodia did not perform well. One of the most commonly raised examples is ASEAN, under Cambodian leadership, failed to deliver the joint communique for the first time in 45 years after its establishment.  And in less than six months from now, Cambodia will once again take the ASEAN helm. Many expect the country to take its leadership role to promote ASEAN unity and solidarity while working closely with all member states to address the complex regional issues. Besides, Cambodia will act in accordance with the ASEAN Principle of non-interference and respect sovereignty while concurrently pursuing the national interest, particularly in the economic sphere. But personally speaking, what is more important is that Cambodia's chairmanship will encounter many critical issues such as regional and international health crises, regional intra-states conflicts and great-power rivalries in Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific. Some daunting challenges Cambodia will handle  As the ASEAN chair in 2022, Cambodia will face many complex and identical challenges, but I want to highlight a few. First is the South China Sea dispute, which has been hampering ASEAN unity for many decades.  In addition, assuming that the political crisis in Myanmar will prolong without parties reaching any agreeable solutions, Cambodia will likely have to navigate the regional grouping in dealing with this complicated issue. This crisis, if not managed well, could jeopardize the ASEAN credibility, unity and values. The stake is extremely high as currently, anti-Junta protestors and members of the National Civil Disobedience Movement have repeatedly lambasted ASEAN's slow action and even spoken out of leaving the bloc.  Another challenge is the COVID-19 pandemic. As the chair, Cambodia also needs to ensure that all members in solidarity can set out a clear path toward recovery. Therefore, the region can effectively deal with all adverse economic and social impacts and other arising post-pandemic challenges. What should Cambodia prepare for 2022 ASEAN chairmanship?   Speaking of South China disputes, Cambodia should always clearly identify its national interest and work in parallel with the ASEAN principles, be they the basic principle of state sovereignty and consensus. Even though Cambodia is not a claimant state, Cambodia arguably has been caught between the United States and China amid the great power competition.  Therefore, the country must retain a balance and neutrality to avoid losing friends and benefits. In light of the recent concern over the potential Chinese military presence at the Ream Naval base, Cambodia must also prioritize its stance in strictly upholding its constitution while pursuing a smart and flexible foreign policy amidst the fast-changing regional security landscape. As Prime Minister Hun Sen already declared, Cambodia should never take any decision that appeases any country, eventually causing detrimental effects to the nation and the people. By mentioning neutrality, given that Cambodia is a small and developing nation, it can demonstrate its eagerness and perform the role of the mediator, encouraging all parties to move forward with consultation and negotiation to maintain regional peace, security, and stability. As the current chair, Brunei is unlikely to bring the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea to a conclusion this year, one of the main goals during Cambodia's chairmanship would be achieving it.  Meanwhile, Cambodia should also seek to promote ASEAN-led rule-based regional order while strengthening its economic diplomacy to promote diversification of its trading partners and comprehensive economic cooperation within the region. Concerning the Myanmar political crisis, Cambodia should recognize that attaining a balance between the national interests and ASEAN Principle on mutual respect to avoid offending any parties is very critical. As the chairman, Cambodia should proactively support the solution-seeking process for the Myanmar situation in a position and format that are consistent with the ASEAN principles, and doing so will be acceptable and fair for all parties involved and prevent any regional disunity. It also has to bear in mind that any acts that appear to be taking sides will risk the region's unity and stability. Besides, the Cambodian government should also seek out opportunities that allow the country to engage constructively with relevant parties at bilateral and multilateral levels and in formal and informal ways. Given that the crisis in Myanmar is intricate and Cambodia is small, as long as Cambodia is genuinely keen on helping Myanmar find a way out, there will always be a possibility. Then, it will eventually deliver better resolutions, which can guarantee win-win results once and for all.  Last but not least, it is undeniable that addressing the COVID-19 pandemic impacts will be one of Cambodia's top priorities. Therefore, it should take the initiative to discuss and develop practical action plans and policies to address the current economic and social problems driven by the pandemic. Not only the current problems the bloc has to pay attention to, but it also has to be prepared in responding to the rising impacts in the post-pandemic time.  Tackling the impacts driven by the COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented work. Therefore, Cambodia should underline these three important tasks that all members must prioritize and work to achieve. These include delivering effective and speedy recovery, developing a regional public health system that can withstand public health shocks and strengthening regional resilience and competitiveness.  *This blog is produced with the financial support from the European Union and The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency through Transparency International Cambodia and ActionAid Cambodia. Its contents do not reflect the views of any donors.

Does Cambodia Take Shelter from China? What Does Cambodia’s Foreign Policy Tell Us?

Written by: Phit Phariya, a 4th year student majoring in International Studies at The Royal University of Phnom Penh Edited by: Heng KimKong, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at Cambodia Development Center and a PhD Candidate in Education at The University of Queensland, Australia   (Photo Credit: This photo was posted on the Facebook page of Prime Minister Hun Sen on February 5, 2021)   Sino-Cambodian diplomatic relations have been formally established since 1958. Since then, regular high-level exchanges have taken place between the two countries. Nonetheless, there shall be noted that at times, particularly during the 1980s, the Sino-Cambodian relationship deteriorated to its lowest point in history. Following 1997, their bilateral relationship took  a significant detour, with the gradual development of trust and confidence leading to increased political, military, and economic cooperation. China has provided substantial bilateral aid, and economic ties have significantly grown over the last two decades. Cambodia and China have enjoyed very strong economic and political ties under a comprehensive strategic partnership. China’s influence in Cambodia has rapidly increased, driven mainly by Cambodia’s development agenda and China’s strategic interests. Amidst this development, Cambodia has been accused of being a client state of China. So does Cambodia take shelter from China? And how does its foreign policy position tell us? What Is Shelter Theory? Shelter theory refers to the series of strategies that small states adopt to alleviate the inherent vulnerabilities of being small. It is a form of alliance relationship with great powers, regional, or international organizations whereby the small state yields effective control of its political decision-making in specific areas. Simply, it means that small states have to sacrifice their natural resources and political autonomy (decision-making) to receive protection in order to survive in the international system. Shelter theory is about the external dimension of the inherent involvement of an external relationship to minimize the risk or threat during the crisis or after the crisis. It is a unique form of alliance with great powers, regions, and international organizations, which focuses on four main aspects: political, security, economic and social shelter. First, political shelter refers to small states yielding specific control on political decision-making in a specific area. By giving up political control to the bigger power, they gain political protection in return. Second, a security shelter involves a direct military security means such as hosting a military base in the small state’s soil. Third, economic shelter includes direct economic assistance from external powers to provide financial benefits, support, and incentives to smaller states in order to help them to survive. Lastly, social shelter involves diffusion of foreign people’s ideas to avoid social stagnation while the bigger power seeks to promote its culture in small states. Sometimes these four aspects come together when the bigger state has more control over the smaller state, allowing the former to have influence and control over these four aspects. However, shelter theory is not a new form of modern colonization because it is just an agreement between state and state without using force; that is, small states voluntarily seek protection from the bigger power and they can terminate it anytime. Shelter theory is not only limited to the state level as the international system can also provide shelter to smaller states as well.  China’s growing presence and influence in Cambodia  The utmost strong ties of the Sino-Cambodian relations are always questioned by other foreign states regarding Phnom Penh’s overdependence on Beijing in the area of  politics, economy, and security. China’s presence in Cambodia has grown dramatically over  the previous two decades, especially in terms of foreign direct investment and military collaboration. Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen has justified Cambodia’s strong ties with China, citing Beijing's huge financial contributions to his small country. China is Cambodia's most powerful political ally and the greatest donor of development aid, supplying billions of dollars into infrastructural projects. The Hun Sen administration called the criticism about Cambodia’s close alignment with China "unjust" while addressing remotely at Nikkei's Future of Asia conference, held in Tokyo last month. Additionally, he said, "If I don't rely on China, who will I rely on? If I don't ask China, who am I to ask?" Cambodia has extensively and actively cooperated in China's One Belt One Road program (OBOR) since the economic growth opportunities generated by this initiative are thought to be enormous. With Chinese assistance, more than 2,000 kilometers of roads, seven major bridges, and a new container terminal were built at the Phnom Penh Autonomous Port by the end of 2017. Nearly 3 billion dollars has been invested in authorized airport projects including  a new international airport in Siem Reap, the Dara Sakor International Airport in Koh Kong province, and an international airport in Kandal province. The state-owned China Communications Construction Company sponsored the 2-billion dollar Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville Expressway Project, now under construction. Moreover, more than 7.5 billion dollars has been invested in hydropower facilities, and around 4 billion dollars has been invested in coal power plants. China has also invested in approximately 30 agricultural and agro-industrial projects in the energy sector.  Besides, China has also invested in constructing the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone (SSEZ), which has attracted more than 100 enterprises from China and other nations, with a total investment of more than 3 billion dollars as of 2017. The SSEZ has produced approximately 20,000 jobs in the local community. Apart from this, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen paid a special visit to Beijing in early 2020, in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak, to show China Cambodia's full support in the fight against the outbreak. During their conversation, President Xi told Prime Minister Hun Sen that “a friend in need is a friend indeed,” referring to the fact that Cambodia  stands with China  at this critical time.  While Cambodia is experiencing an intense coronavirus outbreak, Prime Minister Hun Sen mentioned the importance of making COVID-19 vaccinations widely available and removing barriers to the cross-border flow of medical goods and services. "Without assistance from China," he also claimed, "maybe we will not have vaccines for our people.” According to the Cambodian government, all Chinese investments and infrastructure development projects in Cambodia have been made transparently, openly, and inclusively. It also claimed that the Chinese debt is manageable. However, Cambodians are increasingly concerned about China's growing dominance. Despite the economic benefits, too much reliance on China carries a high level of commitment and danger. Reliance on Chinese funding might lead Cambodia into a debt trap, resulting in a loss of sovereignty and deterioration of relations with other ASEAN members. In Cambodia, the lack of openness and accountability of China's initiatives is producing social and environmental problems. Civil society actors frequently complain that Chinese firms are racing to exploit Cambodia's resources while ignoring international best development practices. Cambodia’s neutral foreign policy  Despite fierce criticism, Cambodia has always interpreted the language of its foreign policy by standing on the principles of neutrality and non-alignment, that is,  adopting a middle position. Cambodia has pursued a multi-vector foreign strategy rather than focusing solely on one power. Being a small country sandwiched between two larger and more powerful countries, it maintains its foreign policy of permanent neutrality and non-alignment and pursues a policy of peaceful coexistence with its neighbors as well as with other nations around the world. Cambodia has also tried to make as many friends as possible. Its foreing policy is driven by its  primary goal to maintain political stability, peace, and social order in order to achieve human dignity, economic prosperity, and poverty alleviation.  There have been accusations that Cambodia allows China to place military bases on its land. However, Hun Sen and senior government officials have denied any plans to do so at a naval base where the Chinese government is assisting in the expansion of facilities. Hun Sen  cited Cambodia's Constitution, which states that foreign military outposts are not permitted within the country. He went on to say that any country may deploy ships to Cambodia, reflecting his sentiments on development aid that Cambodia always welcomes. "We do not close the door to anyone in accepting assistance for building the country," he said. Basically, Cambodia really needs protection from China; however, the Cambodian government may not want to do so,  as it can jeopardize Cambodia’s long-term interests.  To conclude, I do not think Cambodia wants to go in that direction as we need to think about our long-term interests and future. Obviously, Cambodia wants to take shelter from China but we truly understand the risk of depending only on China. No doubt, Cambodia needs ASEAN and its neighbors. Cambodia does not want to be too dependent on China and under the protection of China forever. I believe this is what the government of Cambodia is trying to do and for sure Cambodia needs China now, yet Cambodia also needs other countries as well. Cambodia has its own policy and strategy to justify its partners. Cambodia wants to make more friends and be nice to all powers, be it China, the US or other countries.  *This blog is produced with the financial support from the European Union and The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency through Transparency International Cambodia and ActionAid Cambodia. Its contents do not reflect the views of any donors.  

Myanmar Crisis to Pose Challenges for Cambodia’s ASEAN Chairmanship 2022

Written by: Vann Bunna, a Master Student of Political Science at Jamia Millia Islamia University, India, and a Research Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. All views expressed are his own.  Edited by: Heng Kimkong, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at Cambodia Development Center and a PhD Candidate in Education at The University of Queensland, Australia Credit: "The ASEAN Agenda: Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen" by World Economic Forum is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Cambodia is expected to assume the annually rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2022 for the third time since it joined the regional bloc in 1999. The political crisis in Myanmar will pose great challenges for Cambodia as an ASEAN chair in 2022 if the issue cannot be solved timely under Brunei’s ASEAN chairmanship this year. Myanmar military staged a coup and seized power from the democratically elected government on February 1, 2021. It detained the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior members of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD). A few ASEAN countries have expressed their concerns on the military coup. However, Cambodia has yet to express a clear position on the Myanmar issue. Cambodia’s stance on the crisis has swayed remarkably. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen previously declined to comment on the Myanmar military coup as he considered it as an “internal affair” of Myanmar. The Cambodian government has also asked civil society not to interfere with Myanmar’s affairs as Cambodia adheres to ASEAN’s non-interference principle. Nevertheless, given the increase of violence on anti-coup protesters, sanctions from the international community on the military regime, and China’s support of the ASEAN role in addressing the issue, Cambodia has changed its position on Myanmar. Cambodia has expressed its concern on the escalation of violence and demonstrated its willingness to put Myanmar on a path to normalcy through the ASEAN framework. Moreover, given that the Myanmar issue may place a considerable burden on Cambodia’s ASEAN Chairmanship in 2022, Hun Sen recently joined ASEAN’s special meeting alongside several other ASEAN leaders to discuss solutions to the crisis. He also shared his experience in implementing the win-win policy to successfully end a prolonged civil war in Cambodia with military junta leader Ming Aung Hlaing. Remarkably, ASEAN reached a five-point consensus on the situation of the Myanmar crisis in last weekend’s summit. The consensus included (a) the immediate cessation of violence; (b) the commencement of constructive dialogue among all parties concerned; (c) the appointment of ASEAN special envoy; (d) the provision of humanitarian assistance; and (e) a visit by the special envoy and delegation to Myanmar to address the issue. Even though ASEAN could conclude the consensus with the junta, Myanmar’s political crisis may not end easily. ASEAN’s solutions on Myanmar may not be a success unless the junta commit to honour the agreements. However, the junta’s political will to implement the ASEAN five-point consensus on Myanmar seems low. For instance, in a statement after the ASEAN’s Myanmar crisis talk, the junta said that it would consider the ASEAN’s proposals “after stabilising the country” and their priority at the moment was to “maintain law and order” and “restore community peace and tranquillity”. This shows that the junta is unwilling to honour the ASEAN’s five-point agreements. In this regard, Myanmar’s political crisis is likely to continue for a long period of time, which will threaten regional peace and stability in general and give burdens to Cambodia as the next ASEAN chair in particular. Myanmar’s political crisis may give Cambodia a tough assignment in its role as an ASEAN chair in 2022.  Sustaining peace and stability in the bloc will be one of the most important priorities for Cambodia in 2022. However, political instability in Myanmar would be a major barrier to Cambodia’s performance as an ASEAN chair and its diplomatic bid to become an important player in promoting peace and stability in the region. In the worst-case scenario, the crisis would plunge Myanmar into a civil war, providing a great opportunity for great powers to advance their geopolitical interests. If this is the case, Myanmar will suffer a proxy war of great power rivalry, potentially putting the whole Southeast Asia region into their battlefield. All of these will weaken ASEAN centrality, especially in terms of addressing the regional challenges, and make ASEAN less relevant to international politics. Considering these challenges, it seems that Cambodia will have little room to make itself proud as a 2022 ASEAN chair. Another significant factor is that the crisis in Myanmar would add to the existing challenges that Cambodia needs to handle in 2022. Given the South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) has yet to be signed,  it will be passed to Cambodia as ASEAN chair, giving the Kingdom more headache to facilitate ASEAN and China to reach an agreement. With failure to reach a consensus on COC under its ASEAN chairmanship, the Kingdom may once again be in trouble of losing face and credibility as it experienced in 2012 when it was an ASEAN chair. At the time, Cambodia was strongly blamed for failing to issue an ASEAN’s communiqué for the first time in ASEAN’s 45-year history. Amid this unfortunate scenario, the political crisis in Myanmar would be another heavy storm for Cambodia as it takes the helm of the ASEAN ship in 2022. To minimize the challenges, Cambodia needs to play an active and constructive role as much as possible to help Myanmar through the ASEAN mechanism and other regional and international diplomatic platforms. The Kingdom should play a role as a facilitator and mediator to the conflict in Myanmar and help its ASEAN peer to find a peaceful solution to the crisis. Even though the military junta seems unwilling to solve the ongoing issue for the time being, and Cambodia does not have much leverage over Myanmar, there will still be a room for the Cambodia to act. Cambodia needs to try its best to continue to constructively and actively engage with all relevant stakeholders in solving the crisis in Myanmar. Cambodia needs to demonstrate to ASEAN and the world that it has played its part as a responsible ASEAN member. This will help advance its image as “a small country with a big heart”.