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Authoritarian rule shedding its populist skin in rural Cambodia

We won’t know until the July 2018 elections whether this radical redrawing of the Cambodian political landscape is a ‘new normal’ of naked authoritarianism. What is happening is truly bad.

lead lead Indigenous woman who has been involved in struggles to retain her community's land since the mid-2000s, in rice cultivation field in Northern Cambodia. Author's pic.

This article is part of a series on ‘confronting authoritarian populism and the rural world’, and linked to the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI). The article opening the series can be read here.

In Cambodia, political violence in the run-up to the 2018 general election signals a move away from an explicitly populist authoritarianism towards a deeper authoritarianism. Cambodia burst onto global news headlines in late 2017 when the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition party, but behind this political spectacle lay a series of smaller legal changes, political violence and geopolitical shifts that set the stage for the turn to deeper authoritarian rule.

Cambodia’s brand of populist authoritarianism

For more than thirty years, the world’s longest serving Prime Minister has been the archetypal populist strongman. He and his party (the Cambodian People’s Party, or CPP) combine terror and censorship with personalised political handouts, promises of post-war stability, and a veneer of democracy.

CCP leader President Hun Sen election banner in the 2013 elections.

This regime depends on funds channelled through networks of political and business elite who are awarded land and mineral concessions in return for donations to the ruling party. At the same time as rural areas have become ‘sacrifice zones’ for the enrichment of domestic and international elite, rural voters have long been the most consistent and reliable supporters of Hun Sen’s government. In Cambodia’s post-genocidal context, many rural people crave the stability and the ‘gift giving’ that Hun Sen’s regime has provided.

In Cambodia’s post-genocidal context, many rural people crave the stability and the ‘gift giving’ that Hun Sen’s regime has provided. This has allowed the party to marginalize opposition and build an elaborate system of mass patronage and mobilization.

Opposition party election rally, 2013. Authors' pic.

But in the past decade, land grabbing and logging have had serious impacts and rural people have become more outspoken and connected with disaffected urban voters. The 2013 national election was the ruling party’s worst outcome since 1998, with a united opposition (the CNRP) winning 44% of the vote. Strikes erupted in the aftermath of the election and persisted for half the year until military police shot dead five protesters. Then, in the June 2017 sub-national (‘Commune’) elections, the CNRP shocked the ruling party by winning almost half the popular vote and gaining 482 commune seats, up from a mere 40 seats in the previous election. This was a wake-up call that the CPP were at risk of being unseated in the 2018 National Election.

Authoritarianism sheds its populist skin in rural areas

After the commune elections, the ruling party stepped-up press censorship, extra-judicial violence and threats of military intervention. A series of quiet law changes have facilitated the criminalisation of civil society and political opposition.

The Law on NGOs and Associations limits the ability for people to gather without registering with the Ministry of Interior and increases surveillance of NGOs. Amendments to the Law on Political Parties led to the resignation of long-time leader of the opposition, Sam Rainsy, in February 2017. Further legal moves that year introduced legislation that allowed the government to easily disband political parties, which was used to shut down the main opposition party eight months later. The media is also targeted; changes to the national media code enabled the government to shut down 19 independent radio stations as well as the long-running newspaper The Cambodia Daily. A series of quiet law changes have facilitated the criminalisation of civil society and political opposition.

By late 2017, with critical media outlets silenced and activists fearful of open protests, the way was opened for the government to launch an outright attack on the political opposition. Just after midnight on Sunday 3 September (the day before shutting the Daily), over one hundred armed soldiers broke into CNRP leader Kem Sokha’s house and detained him without warning. He was later charged with treason.

In November, the Supreme Court dissolved the opposition party, re-assigning its seats and banning 118 individuals from political activities for five years. In February 2018, the National Assembly passed Thai-style Lèse majesté laws that forbid insults to the monarchy, along with a series of vague changes to the Cambodian Constitution, including a change that would allow the permanent removal of voting rights for convicted felons.

As the CPP close media outlets and attack opposition parties, they are also bolstering their own propaganda machine. The Phnom Penh Post was slapped with a phony tax bill and sold off in May 2018 to a CPP-aligned businessman who has claimed full editorial approval, causing the editor in chief and key journalists to quit to maintain integrity.

The state news app, “Fresh News”, spreads pro-government propaganda across Facebook and other state-run media. New pro-government research institutions, a ‘spy school’ to develop surveillance technologies, and the creation of an inter-ministerial working group to produce anti-opposition propaganda are being used to justify state violence.

Cambodia has been emboldened by the rise of China’s infrastructural support outflanking western donor funds to Cambodia, and Trump’s near-total disengagement on Southeast Asia, coupled with his own attacks on US media. Hun Sen has seized upon people’s latent anti-western sentiment, aggressively deploying ‘us/them’ rhetoric to draw suspicion over the opposition party and western-funded media and NGOs.

Rural people left in the dark

What we see in Cambodia currently is the failure of a populism built on the backs of natural resource rents. Support for the government has broken down as the population grows tired of naked resource extraction, cronyism and inequality.

House on Economic Land Concession land that soldiers have threatened to burn down. Author's pic.

We won’t know until the July 2018 elections and its aftermath whether this radical redrawing of the Cambodian political landscape is a short-term crackdown prior to the 2018 election, or a ‘new normal’ of naked authoritarianism.

We do know that what is happening is truly bad. In late 2017, we interviewed fifteen journalists who work with rural communities. They told us repeatedly about the pervasive loss people are experiencing in the wake of the crackdown: loss of media’s potential to hold the political elite accountable; loss of rural people’s voice; and loss of hope for rural social movements. Journalists were especially critical of what is left: social media platforms that authoritarian actors can easily co-opt to reshape what is considered ‘news’. From the journalists’ vantage point, the closure of independent media has left rural people “in the dark… their voice is lost”.

However, rural activists and networks of farmers throughout the Cambodian countryside are resilient and creative; they show that there is potential for things to be otherwise. The darkness is not total.

About the authors

Alice Beban is a Lecturer in Sociology at the School of People, Environment and Planning, Massey University of New Zealand. Her research addresses land rights, agricultural production and gender concerns to understand people’s changing relationships with land. 

Laura Schoenberger is a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Ottawa as of June 2018, having completed her PhD in Critical Human Geography at York University, Canada. Her research interests are in political ecology, agrarian transformations, state power, conflict and land.

 


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