Author Predicts ‘Evolutionary’ Shedding of Cambodia’s Old Politics

By Sophat Soeung

WASHINGTON—Editor’s note: The strong performance of the Cambodian opposition in the 2013 elections and subsequent call for leadership change surprised many observers. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Hun Sen continues his rule and has recently marked 30 years in power. Sebastian Strangio, a former reporter for the Phnom Penh Post and author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” recently joined VOA Khmer for a TV interview at the Voice of America studios in Washington, to discuss the future of Cambodia’s political system.

You moved to Cambodia in 2008, the year there was an election that was arguably the height of the popularity of Hun Sen and the ruling party. Did the results in the elections five years later surprised you?

They did, yes. I think there were very few people who guessed what was going to happen. 2008 was an overwhelming victory for the CPP. And it seemed as if they had established their dominance to such an extent that it is now beyond challenge. But what 2013 showed is that we were mistaken about a lot of this, or we overlooked many of the social and economic changes that had taken place, not only over the past five years, but over the past two decades.

After the elections, the ruling party promised deep reforms. To what extent do you think they can deliver on that promise?

Well, it’s always going to be a challenge for them. I think that Hun Sen realizes the importance of reform and that if he doesn’t do it, doesn’t take steps to improve things for ordinary people, that the party is going to have a very difficult time being reelected in 2018. You can already see that they have started to take steps in education and environmental policy, but the problem with the Cambodian political system is that Hun Sen relies so heavily on a class of tycoons and business people and powerful military commanders and government officials. And his rule has been based on keeping these people happy. Now the $60,000 question is whether he will be able to reform the system enough to keep people from switching their vote to the opposition while still maintaining the power and support of these individuals who have supported his rule for so long.

What is your sense of that?

So far the contradictions remain. The government has taken some positive steps, reforming education, for instance, but when it comes to challenging the entrenched economic interests that exist in Cambodia, the powerful tycoons and their connection to things like logging and deforestation, land grabs, that link has been very difficult to sever. There is still an incredible inertia out in the provinces. The logging continues, land grabs continue, and I think that the government has only a limited amount of power to really stop it. The system relies too heavily on this. So only time will tell whether they’re ultimately successful in getting that balance right.

Part of the question also rests on the opposition, which has also been criticized for lack of leadership. I think you mentioned that somewhere in your book as well. Now do you see the opposition as a viable alternative in the next election? And what more should they do to actually live up to some of the promises that they’ve given?

It is very difficult for the opposition, because in a political system that’s based on patronage, which is the way Cambodia works today, and the bonds of loyalty between ministers and their staff and military commanders and soldiers that serve them. It’s very difficult for the opposition to simply slot into that system and command the loyalty of all of these civil servants and soldiers and police officials. And so in that sense they face huge challenges, and I think the best thing the [Cambodian National Rescue Party] can do at the moment is to work away slowly at promoting better policies and pushing their agenda in parliament and then hope that slow, incremental change allows them more and more say in how the country is governed. I don’t think a rapid transition of power is likely in Cambodia, and, in the past, most transitions of power from one group to another have involved some sort of violence. So I think a slow sort of evolution is probably the best course, but I don’t think the party is in a position to immediately take control of the country, nor do I think Hun Sen is in a position or of an inclination to grant them that.

In your book, you seem optimistic about Cambodia’s younger generation. An analyst mentioned that the future of Cambodia rests on that generation’s ability to produce its own leaders to avoid what he called “old politics.” How and when do you think that might happen?

I think it is already starting to happen. The Cambodian population is more educated and more connected to the outside world than ever before. And so I think we’re already starting to see young people rise up, either in the NGO sector or the private sector, who have incredible leadership abilities. The question is whether the current political system will allow them to use their talents in government. So far the 18 months since the election have been pretty much politics as usual. It’s been old politics. It’s been negotiations between key individuals, a lot of egos, and not a lot of substance.

It is generally understood that Hun Sen is grooming his children for a future transition. What will be the consequence of that?

It’s too soon to say exactly what the CPP is planning. It is certainly planning some sort of generational succession. You see that with not just Hun Sen’s children, but also many other ruling party officials have maneuvered their son and daughters into positions of power. But as with everything in the CPP, it depends not just on what Hun Sen wants but also on what all of the powerful people that have a stake in the current system, what they want. And I think that any potential candidate to take over from Hun Sen will have to have the loyalty of the majority of the country’s powerbrokers. And I think it is too soon to say who might be in a position to command that sort of loyalty.

You say in your book that the Cambodian story needs to be told. What do you think is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned from Cambodia that can be applied in the region?

I think it is the fate of Cambodia’s democratic transition. In places like Myanmar right now, we see a similar sort of transition happening: a move from a closed, isolated, and embargoed system, to one that’s welcoming international aid and foreign investment. But I think what Cambodia shows is the ability to engineer democracy in a country that has such a violent and unstable history and very little history of democratic government was always going to be a tall order, and I think it is a cautionary tale for the ease with which these sorts of systems can be simply built from the ground up. But the problem is that very few people pay attention to Cambodia anymore, and it is a pity, because I think these lessons are very clear and I think if people looked to Cambodia and analyzed what’s going on in the last 20 years since the UNTAC mission of the early 1990s, I think they would have much more temperate expectations about the democratic possibilities for somewhere like Burma.

This article originally appeared on VOA Khmer here.

Happy 2014!

It’s 2014! Happy New Year from the City That Never Sleeps.

Firework at New York harbor as seen from Brooklyn bridge, shortly after new year on January 1, 2014. (Sophat Soeung)

New year firework at New York city harbor and Financial District as seen from Brooklyn bridge, shortly after new year on January 1, 2014. (Sophat Soeung)

And as a news-junkie, what a place to start the new year – the news never sleeps either! Just look at what happened in Cambodia on Day 2. Beyond Cambodia, it’s going to be an interesting year for ASEAN, with Myanmar chairing the regional grouping for the first time. Even in tech, 2014 does not look any less buzz-rich than last year with the expected and some unexpected trends.

After an eventful 2013, this new year promises to be an even more newsy year for Cambodia, Southeast Asia, and digital media. I will be trying to update this blog more often. So stay tuned!

Officials, Observers Optimistic About Burma’s First Asean Chairmanship

Original VOA piece by Sophat Soeung, 19 December 2013

Burmar's President Thein Sein (L), chairman of the next ASEAN Summit, shakes hand with Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah after receiving the ASEAN Gavel during the Closing Ceremony of the 23rd ASEAN Summit, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, Oct. 10, 2013.

Burmar’s President Thein Sein (L), chairman of the next ASEAN Summit, shakes hand with Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah after receiving the ASEAN Gavel during the Closing Ceremony of the 23rd ASEAN Summit, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, Oct. 10, 2013.

WASHINGTON — Burma will become the chair of Asean in January next year for the first time in its history. The Asean chairmanship follows recent political reforms and the lifting of sanctions by the international community. Both Burmese and Western officials now see the country’s readiness for a greater leadership role in the region.

Burma’s acceptance of the 2014 Asean chairmanship in a ceremony in Brunei in October marked a symbolic moment for the country’s increased regional standing.

On the eve of this chairmanship, officials and observers alike are hopeful that despite some challenges, the country’s first chairmanship will be a success.

Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser Thein Sein, the president of Burma, also known as Myanmar, told VOA Khmer that the greatest significance of this chairmanship is political legitimacy for the Burmese regime.

“We can show our leadership in the region, and we can show that we are a responsible member to Asean,” he said, speaking on the sidelines of a conference at American University in Washington in early December.

Burma joined Asean in 1997, along with Laos and one year ahead of Cambodia. But its isolation from the international community and image as a pariah state prevented it from hosting Asean in 2006.

Both Laos and Cambodia have previously chaired Asean. But Cambodia’s hopeful second chairmanship in 2012 was marred by a historic disagreement over the South China Sea, as a result of its close relationship with China and inability to manage increased Chinese tensions with some Asean members. Brunei’s chairmanship this year has been heralded as bringing Asean together again.

Like Cambodia and unlike Brunei, Burma is a non-claimant to the sea dispute.

But Ko Ko Hlaing said that unlike Cambodia, Burma is bigger and less dependent on China economically, while, conversely, China is more dependent on Burma’s strategic location.

Despite Burma’s close ties with its northern neighbor, it is not a “master and client relationship, and the Burmese government will avoid a repeat of what happened in Phnom Penh, he said. “We can take this position of the close relationship with China for the best interest of our region.”

While Burma is in a better position than Cambodia, navigating through increased US and Chinese geo-political rivalries may prove difficult nevertheless, said Christina Fink, a professor in international development studies at George Washington University and a long-time observer of Burma.

Despite all preparedness, recent escalating tensions in the region is cause for concern for the unexpected, she said.

“Myanmar is really kind of caught in between these big power players,” she said. “And it may be difficult for Myanmar to really be able to take leadership over how to handle these disputes within the framework of Asean meetings and the statements that they put out.”

The months leading into Burma’s chairmanship have seen increased tensions between China and Japan over a Chinese-declared air defense zone in the East China Sea.

Analysts are concerned those tensions will spread to the South China Sea, where tensions are already simmering between China and Asean members the Philippines and Vietnam.

During last week’s Japan-Asean anniversary summit in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged more loans to garner support from Southeast Asian leaders.

The effort followed a year of “blitz diplomacy” to all Asean countries that concluded with Abe’s trip to Cambodia and Laos, two countries seen as China’s closest allies in the region. The sea tensions also overshadowed US Vice President Joe Biden’s tour of Asia.

Scott Marciel, principal deputy assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told VOA Khmer recently that the US sees a “strong and unified Asean” as important for the region.

“We always like to see Asean working together, and we are very hopeful that under Myanmar’s chairmanship, that will happen,” he said.

The US will not impose its agendas on Asean and is generally satisfied with Burma’s recent reforms, he said.

That sentiment is echoed by Ko Ko Hlaing, who said Burma’s reforms have outpaced regional neighbors, raising hopes it can become one of the world’s “models of the democratic transition.”

Some analysts have indeed pointed to Burma’s unique circumstances as holding the promise of returning democratization to the top of Asean’s agenda.

However, human rights organizations say there are shortcomings in Burma’s transition, including ongoing rights abuses and violence against political dissidents, as well as Muslim and ethnic minorities.

Given how far the country has come, it deserves praise, Fink said. But Burma’s ambitions and the international community’s expectations should both be kept in check, she said, considering geopolitical realities and Burma’s own shortcomings.

“I don’t think that for their first chairmanship they need to aspire to really doing something transformative in Asean,” she said. “I think what is important for them is to keep things stable, keep things on track, bring people together in Asean. And if they can accomplish that they can be proud of that.”

Burmese Official Says Country’s Reforms Outpacing Neighbors

Original VOA piece by Kong Sothanarith and Sophat Soeung, December 6, 2013

President Thein Sein of Myanmar zoomed passed me after giving an exclusive interview at Voice of America headquarters in Washington, DC, May 19, 2013. Such is the pace of Myanmar's reforms.

President Thein Sein of Myanmar zoomed passed me after giving an exclusive interview at the Voice of America headquarters in Washington, DC, Sunday, May 19, 2013. Such is the pace of Myanmar’s reforms that some of its official claim is outpacing its neighbors. (Sophat Soeung)

PHNOM PENH & WASHINGTON DC – A senior adviser to the Burmese government says reforms in that country are outpacing Cambodia and other regional neighbors.

Speaking on the sidelines of a conference at American University in Washington, Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser to Burmese President Thein Sein, admitted that Burma, also known as Myanmar, is a “latecomer” to political reforms. But he said it is making gains.

“Even though Cambodia is now enjoying the political and democratic transition, but I think Myanmar is more open than Cambodia up to right now,” he told VOA Khmer. “So you can see in the media, and also the movement of the civil society and also the situation of free and fair elections in our bi-elections in 2012.”

Ou Virak, who is head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, and who visited Burma in November, disagrees.

“Democracy in Cambodia is better, I think,” he told VOA Khmer. “But democracy is Cambodia is still grave.”

Burma, which has undertaken democratic reforms, including an election, is preparing to chair Asean in 2014. It has seen diplomatic improvements with regional countries and on the international stage, including with the US.

But Information Minister Khieu Kanharith told VOA Khmer that Cambodia has “genuine democracy,” pointing to gains at the polls by the opposition in July, despite opposition objections to what it says were fraudulent elections.

“We do not pretend to be a model of democracy, because each country has its own history and its own pace to attain it,” Khieu Kanharith said by text message. “But at least we don’t have civil war anymore.”

Ou Virak said that Burma’s elected officials are still a part of the military junta that has ruled the country for decades. And the media there suffer from the same ills as in Cambodia, he said. “TV and radio are still under strict measures, as in Cambodia,” he said.

Slowly, Asean Heads Toward More Political Integration

Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, left, and other leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations join their hands for a group photo section during the 22nd ASEAN Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, Thursday, April 25, 2013. (AP)

Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, left, and other leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations join their hands for a group photo section during the 22nd ASEAN Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, Thursday, April 25, 2013. (AP)

Original: Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer, June 29, 2013

WASHINGTON — Ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are meeting this week in Brunei to discuss the region’s major security issues.

Analysts at a security conference in Washington earlier this month said such issues present a test for the grouping’s ability to move to a greater level of political integration by the end of 2015.

After Cambodia’s divisive chairmanship of Asean last year, analysts say they are cautiously optimistic that Asean is in the process of achieving a degree of integration in the next two years.

Questions over Asean’s ability to come together on security issues and political issues were among those asked by experts and observers during a South China Sea conference held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington earlier this month.

The South China Sea, a major international shipping lane where several Asean states have claims against China, is a major regional concern. But Asean’s 10 members will face many more challenges as it seeks to integrate, analysts say.

Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, told VOA Khmer that Asean’s political and strategic cooperation is a “work in progress.”

“As 2015 approaches, I think we will see incremental progress on the basis of consensus,” he said. “If there is anybody out there that is not comfortable, they won’t proceed.”

By the end of 2015, Asean aims to achieve a much higher degree of political, security, and cultural integration between its 10 members. But while the less sensitive economic integration appears to be on track, many analysts question whether a more unified political community is possible.

Conflicts between Asean members on issues like territorial disputes and democratization remain major obstacles.

Just last July during the Asean Regional Forum, chaired by Cambodia in Phnom Penh, ministers for the first time in the group’s history could not issue a joint statement because of mistrust and disagreement over the South China Sea.

Greg Poling, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Southeast Asia program in Washington, says that the main problem is that Asean is an organization founded on principles of non-interference and protection of sovereignty. That leaves the political community vaguely defined.

“I mean there’s doubt that if you don’t at least get the Aseans themselves into some kind of consensus, not necessarily on where the dispute should end but how to manage it, then you are going to have a certain level of strategic mistrust,” he said.

Trust among Asean members was seriously eroded last year when Cambodia was seen as siding with China on the sea dispute. The Philippines in particular was unhappy with Cambodia’s handling of the issues. This led to a number of subsequent diplomatic spats well into Asean’s last major summit in November 2012.

Henry Bensurto, Jr., former secretary general of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs’ maritime commission, tells VOA Khmer that the Philippines and Cambodia are now on good terms again and that such disagreements are just part of the integration process.

“I think this was a lesson learned by everybody, and this year Asean has taken a different direction in terms of discussing the issue,” he said. “And I think at the end of the day this is good for us and solidarity and centrality.”

That means more discussion as Asean ministers meet this week in Brunei for a regional forum to discuss security issues, he said.

Analysts say some degree of trust has been restored since last year’s row, but for Asean to move to a more integrated political community requires more than just trust.

Christian Le Miere, a senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, is less optimistic about an integrated Asean political community given that it lacks strong institutions and shared values.

“I think Asean could benefit from a slightly more candid and frank rhetoric around its integration,” he said.

And even though Asean is not the European Union, it can still find lessons there, he said. “Europe benefits from long historical animosities between these countries. I mean, they are quite happy to speak their own mind.”

Admitting tensions among Asean members and putting them out in the open could be helpful, he said.

Many analysts agree that the region is moving on the right track, albeit very slowly. But democratization remains another challenge.
Many are looking at the reforms under way in Burma as evidence that Asean is on the right track.

Poling, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says less democratic countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam will be affected by the changes in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

“You look at Vietnam,” he said. “Vietnam is furious because Myanmar was the guy that made Vietnam look good for the last 20 years. Now Vietnam’s this year’s press index, Vietnam is the lowest in Southeast Asia, not Myanmar. It’s a new game to them. They are back to being the bad guy.”

He says only time will tell if Burma will hold that promise.

For Thayer, at the Australian Defense Force Academy, Asean’s success will be a question of how its members actually define integration.

“No one has ever defined it,” he said. “On that day you don’t press a button and a light opens and all of the sudden there is a community. It’s a process. But when the end of 2015 comes, we could do a score card, and there will be some pluses and negatives. And in my estimation, the pluses will slightly outnumber the negatives, because they are moving in the right way.”

That process continues with the regional forum in Brunei this week, as well as a full summit in October.