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Cambodia's new leader may sound like a reformer in Australia next week, but little has changed back home

Published in The Conversation, 29 February 2024

When Cambodia’s new prime minister, Hun Manet, visits Melbourne next week for the ASEAN Australia Summit, he may seem a welcome change from his long-serving authoritarian father Hun Sen. But hopes for a democratic and human rights renaissance in this genocide-ravaged and long-misgoverned country remain sadly misplaced.

Hun Sen, who had ruled Cambodia for 38 years, transferred power to his son, the 45-year-old Hun Manet, last August.

In Australia next week, the soft-spoken, Western-educated and technocratically savvy Hun Manet will likely present himself as the face of a modern, developing Cambodia, talking the talk of economic reform and more effective governance. However, his father’s talk back home is jail for his critics. And his father continues to call the shots that matter.

Hun Sen, still only 71, remains president of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and is in practical control of what effectively remains a one-party state. And he is, for good measure, the de facto constitutional head of state, as well.

As the expected new president of the Senate, he will act for King Norodom Sihamoni when he is out of the country – as the king often has been, not least when controversial legislation has been signed into force.

The governing CPP has successfully used broad defamation laws to prosecute government critics in the courts. Last year, an opposition leader, Son Chhay, a dual Cambodian-Australian citizen, was ordered to pay $US1 million (A$1.5 million) in damages for saying the CPP bought and stole votes. Jail awaits if he cannot pay.

Commenting on this case, the deputy head of one of the country’s leading NGOs, Soeng Sengkaruna, whose long record of defending human rights was detailed in co-author Gordon Conochie’s book A Tiger Rules the Mountain – Cambodia’s Pursuit of Democracy, said the CPP should stop using the courts to silence the opposition.

This led the party to sue him this month, too, seeking US$500,000 (A$770,000) in damages. Knowing the prospect of the courts defying the CCP’s wishes, he and his family have now fled the country.

Power concentrated in one family

With Hun Sen doing the heavy lifting in controlling the political environment, Hun Manet has been able to concentrate on managing government departments and delivering public services, keeping one step away from allegations of human rights abuses. This has encouraged some media and diplomats to dream he will grant liberal freedoms when given the opportunity.

But there is no reason to believe a few years studying in America and Britain will lead Hun Manet to discard the authoritarian and paternalistic culture in which he has been immersed for most of his life.

This is a political culture, much influenced by Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, where family trumps the individual, economic rights trump political rights, liberal freedoms need to be constrained lest they brew discord and disorder, and wise rulers should not be held back by the separation of powers.

However, a great many Cambodians, including reportedly some in the CPP itself, have not been persuaded that family values justify so many powerful roles being occupied by Hun Sen and his progeny. In addition to Hun Manet now serving as prime minister:

Cambodia is growing economically and the cityscape is now gleaming with skyscrapers. But it ranks 158th out of 180 countries for corruption. And a country where one family dominates government and commerce, and leaders are appointed because of their family connections, is at profound risk of kleptocracy.

Cambodia’s democratic and human rights deficit remains profound, with:

The government’s obsession with control extends to the diaspora: Cambodian-Australians joining protests in Melbourne may put their families back home at risk of visits by the authorities.

Australia should use its leverage

Australia should continue to support the economic and social development of Cambodia, but also those Cambodians who are striving for democracy and freedom of expression. Targeted sanctions against those accused of human rights violations can and should be applied.

Australia recently consulted with 14 Cambodian ministries on its new Development Partnership Plan for Cambodia – but no alternative civil society voices. We have leverage, and should use it – not just to promote economic development, but the decent governance so many Cambodians want and deserve.

The CPP has called liberal democracy unattainably “pure and perfect”. However, Cambodia’s own constitution – accepted as part of the peace process following the civil war, in which Australia played a prominent part – says this is exactly what the country should be.

The millions of Cambodians who vote when they can, rally for human rights and risk jail to protest abuses show that belief in true democracy is not a minority aberration. Australia should be standing with them.

Gareth Evans, Distinguished Honorary Professor, Australian National University. Gareth Evans was Australia’s foreign minister (1988–1996) and played a leading role in initiating the Paris Peace Agreements that ended Cambodia’s civil war.

Gordon Conochie, Adjunct Research Fellow, La Trobe University. Gordon Conochie is author of the new book, A Tiger Rules the Mountain - Cambodia's Pursuit of Democracy.

This article was first published in The Conversation on 29 February 2024. It also appeared in a slightly different version as 'Cambodia in Thrall to Hun Sen' in The Age on 2 March 2024.