Seems Fair

01.09.15 10:45 AM ET

Cambodia’s Smoke-and-Mirrors Democracy

In his 30 years at the country’s helm, Prime Minister Hun Sen has perfected the art of disguising his ruthless regime in the trappings of a free and open society.

“In the Western mind, Cambodia is nearly synonymous with the terror and mass murder that engulfed the country in the mid-1970’s,” when the genocidal Khmer Rouge laid waste to the country, writes Sebastian Strangio in Hun Sen’s Cambodia, his workmanlike evisceration of the Cambodian prime minister’s 30-year regime.

Cambodia was occupied by Vietnam in the ’80s, and in 1992 the United Nations installed in the country what was then the largest peacekeeping mission in its history. “Cambodia was repackaged as a democracy,” says Strangio. The general assumption among foreign donors and governments is “that Cambodia had been wiped developmentally clean by the Khmer Rouge, and was thus an ideal test for new theories of peace building and democratic development. Guilt about the Western role in Cambodia’s past intersected with hope about its future. Cambodia became a subject for rescue, a new ‘White Man’s Burden’.”

The international aid community became entrenched and was soon followed by adventure seekers, backpackers, entrepreneurs, druggies, and sex tourists, there to partake in the brothel scene that arose around the U.N. mission. (Visiting in the late ’90s, the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain called Cambodia “a dream come true for international losers.”)

While Cambodia was wild and dangerous in the early days of peace, today it has the outward appearance of stability and its many expats are, for the most part, of a higher caliber. In the early 2000’s, when I was a reporter for The Cambodia Daily, the capital, Phnom Penh was still a sleepy place where “Pizza Hot” was the closest thing to an international chain. Today, the city is an Asian hipster outpost, with shopping malls, clothing boutiques, and mixologist-prepared cocktails. Compared with neighbors Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos, Cambodia appears to have a blossoming civil society.

Cambodia, with its seemingly free press, is also a haven for foreign journalists. Strangio is a former reporter and editor for The Phnom Penh Post—the country’s other English-language daily—and Hun Sen’s Cambodia is his first book. Both the Post and the Daily are touted by Hun Sen as evidence of an open, free society, something we heard a lot when I worked at the Daily. Cambodia is manna for visiting journalists as well. If they want, for example, to write and re-write salacious stories about human trafficking or child prostitution—both very real problems there—countless charities are at the ready with victims and experts to remind the West that Cambodia needs its help—and money.

Strangio is at his best when exposing what appears to be a flourishing civil society in Cambodia. He frequently uses the term “mirage” to describe the appearance of reform, democracy and rule of law that Hun Sen presents to the West. “Beneath a surface sheen of modernity and pluralism,” he writes, is the dictator Hun Sen, who rules “in the old way, through guile and force, through gifts and threats, through an intricate hierarchy of status and power.” Elections are tampered with, dissent is squashed, enemies are punished in corrupt courts, natural resources are plundered, and substantial foreign aid is stolen, according to Strangio, while basic services like education and healthcare are vastly insufficient.

Strangio writes that “a canny manipulation of his country’s history” is crucial to Hun Sen’s rule. Domestically, the prime minister maintains the dubious line that he is the only man who can keep the still-fragile peace. To the West, he presents Cambodia as a country that, because of its scarred past, deserves some slack when it misses the development mark, a narrative abetted by the foreign press. Almost no story about Cambodia, including this one, can fail to mention that around 1.7 million people died when the Khmer Rouge, a communist regime bent on radical agrarian reform, ruled the country from 1975 to 1979. (Hun Sen was a Khmer Rouge deputy regimental commander, earning a glass eye when he was wounded in battle before defecting to the Vietnamese, who backed his rise to prime minister in 1985.)

By creating a setting where nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and a supposedly free press proliferate amid an expatriate-friendly business environment and a low cost of living, Hun Sen has allowed Phnom Penh (which has acquired the objectionable nickname “Play Penh”) to become a haven for foreigners fleeing first world constraints and responsibilities, where sex and drugs are still cheap, and where a weak rule of law can provide a consequence-free environment.

The Post and the Daily, says Strangio, “provide high quality reporting and valuable training for young Khmer reporters, but they also form their own part of the mirage—a highly visible advertisement of the government’s ‘commitment’ to press freedom. They are only given such freedom because they have little impact.” The majority of Cambodian journalists—or Khmers, as they are known locally—are either affiliated with the ruling party or harassed by it. Indeed, when I worked at the Daily, there was risk of intimidation, but it was shouldered almost entirely by our Cambodian colleagues.

Like the press, Cambodia’s large aid community has become a tool of Hun Sen’s. Cambodia receives an average of a half billion dollars in foreign aid every year, according to Strangio, and there are 2,600 NGOs registered with the Cambodian government, employing some 43,000 people. In Cambodia much of the aid community is foundering, its leaders unwilling to be the ones responsible for pulling the plug on a failing project. “A spell in Cambodia is generally a comfortable step on the way to somewhere else, and everybody wants to leave with a gold star on their CV,” Strangio says.

Hun Sen’s henchmen, meanwhile, derive substantial income from bilking donor money, writes Strangio, which makes the government less accountable than if it relied on income from taxpayers. Meanwhile, the NGOs provide an array of basic services that the government doesn’t. Less tolerated, however, are NGOs that promote judicial reform, environmental protection, or human rights—those organizations often face banishment, or worse: the prominent Cambodian activist Chut Wutty, an opponent of illegal logging, was killed in 2012 by military police in front of two Cambodia Daily journalists. For many foreign aid workers, though, “life is good enough in Phnom Penh that it’s easy to let things slide, to accept a broken system, to drift through a posting,” writes Strangio. “The result is more than an aid economy; it’s an aid society, marked by relationships of dependence at every level, between donors, government officials, NGOs, and ordinary people.”

Western aid money, however, is becoming less important to Hun Sen, writes Strangio, as China emerges as a preferred partner in Cambodia’s development. Keen to exert its influence in the region, China gives generously with few strings attached—especially those strings related to human rights and democracy. 

“Central to the Cambodian experience” for expats, according to the satirical Twitter feed @HunSensEye, is “strongman-driven stability.” But that stability can be withdrawn as easily as it was granted. In the 2013 elections, Hun Sen’s party fared poorly, despite polls that were widely believed to have been rigged in its favor. Subsequent protests were met with a violent response.

Thanks to a younger populace, less resigned to Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule, the prime minister’s prospects in the 2018 election are not promising. It’s unlikely, though, that the man who calls himself the “Illustrious Prince Great Supreme Protector and Famed Warrior” will accept electoral defeat. There’s nothing about his tenure so far that suggests he’ll relinquish power peacefully, which could mean the end of the mirage—and a serious inconvenience for the inhabitants of “Play Penh.”

A freelance writer based in New York and London, David Shaftel has contributed stories to The New York Times, The Financial Times’s Weekend edition, and Smithsonian Air & Space magazine, among other publications.