Post-Intervention Cambodia: Exclusionary Neopatrimonialism and the Threat of Violence

The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia declared victory and left the country having held free and fair elections in May 1993 and having overseen the process of constitution-drafting in the months that followed. On the ground, however, the power-sharing coalition between FUNCINPEC and the Cambodian People’s Party that resulted from the 1993 elections created legislative and executive gridlock. The CPP continued to hold power across the organs of government and to administer the country just as it had before the elections, as the State of Cambodia, and, before UNTAC itself, as the Vietnam-installed regime known as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. The co-governing arrangement between Ranariddh and Hun Sen, nominally the first and second prime ministers respectively, was a fiction from start to finish. The latter wielded true power while the prince spent much of his time enjoying the perks of office and the two men intensified their competition to win power outright for their factions. Formal institutions and arenas of political contestation were stripped of meaning as they were used by Cambodian elites to do nothing more than mask the real political competition under the surface.

The power-sharing agreement concerned the top strata of government and, in practice, FUNCINPEC’s authority was restricted to the cabinet level while the CPP retained its monopoly on administrative power exercised through the state hierarchy. In the ministries, FUNC- INPEC found itself in a weak position - although it appointed many party functionaries to senior ministry and provincial positions, it simply lacked the bureaucratic capacity to have the necessary presence further down the hierarchy. Until 1993, FUNCINPEC had been a resistance movement rather than a political party and it proved unable to quickly develop any deeper institutional strength. In the provinces, FUNCINPEC-appointed governors and senior officials found that rank-and-file bureaucrats simply ignored their bidding and followed the instructions of their CPP leaders instead. Finally, the security apparatus was brought entirely under the control of the CPP and, increasingly, Hun Sen’s faction within it - who portrayed the incorporation of the other Cambodian factions into political life as a threat to the nation.6 Overall, the government bureaucracy and the military, ostensibly two organs of the state, became organs of the party. The CPP achieved this result by extending and strengthening the patron-client network within and among the state, party, and military apparatuses.

Continuing bureaucratic factionalism has prevented the development of national institutional capacity to this day. Institutions such as a neutral and effective bureaucracy, a nonpartisan army, an independent judiciary - let alone precedents for peaceful power transfer - have not taken root in Cambodia. A promising sign under UNTAC and immediately after the first election was the flourishing of NGOs and media outlets, and growing subnational political participation. UNTAC was innovative in helping to establish Cambodian NGOs dealing with human rights, democracy, and development, even giving them start-up advice and funding.[1] But these advances could not amount to much in the broader political environment.

In effect, it had already become clear by 1995-96 that the Cambodian political system fell far short of the pluralist, representative, accountable, and efficient government envisioned by the framers of the Paris Peace Agreement and the UNTAC mandate. Institutional capacity aside, Ashley points out that Cambodia’s post-electoral power-sharing system did not emerge from, nor contribute to, the desire for reconciliation on the part of the country’s elites and thus, unsurprisingly, did not lead to a political transformation of the type sought by the international community.[2] Not only did the power-sharing system fail to foster reconciliation among the factions and build a new political system based on compromise and inclusion. Worse still, the power-sharing system created dual governments as FUNCINPEC brought its supporters into the already bloated state structure. This deadlocked effective decision-making and governance and perpetuated parallel crony- based political networks. Having failed to secure electoral legitimacy or an administrative power base, FUNCINPEC leaders instead mimicked the CPP in rent extraction and distribution networks, entering into “a tenuous compact among competing patronage systems.”9 The power-sharing system thus failed to foster true reconciliation among the factions. More perversely, it served in replacing outright elite conflict with a dual system of rent-seeking and predation. Operating both within and outside the state, these “[hierarchical patron-client networks ... have expanded and subsumed the formal state structure.”10 These patronage conditions have underpinned an ever-expanding dynamic of elite rent-seeking and rent distribution that undermines democracy and state capacity. The CPP and FUNCINPEC were united in their desire to protect their patronage resources and sought to ensure that their interests were not threatened through reforms. Both parties, for example, were anxious to ensure that their own supporters survived a process of civil service reform, which prevented a necessary retrenchment program; and attempts to modernize the public financial management system and increase state revenues also stalled since they were seen as a threat to the ability of the two patronage networks to extract off-budget rents.[3] The consensus principle of the coalition government endowed the CPP in particular, with its control of the state, de facto veto power over any reforms that threatened its political, financial, or institutional interests. The capacity of the state to deliver public goods and services had been weak under the State of Cambodia. Post-UNTAC administrative reforms became increasingly unlikely. The state had no nonpartisan, technocratic constituency to support institutional reform and the building of state capacity and to defend itself against the elite’s desire to cement the patron-client networks upon which its popular support depended. UNTAC, in emphasizing elections over statebuilding, missed the window of opportunity to build that coalition for the reform and strengthening of the state, which, in turn, has hampered the international community’s efforts to build state capacity and improve Cambodian governance into today.[4] Caroline Hughes observes that the government has, in particular, prevented development partners from having any real influence over the civil service, judiciary, and natural resource sectors in order to maintain these core elements of the administrative apparatus as “a sphere of discretionary political action and an instrument of political control.”[5] Measures of government effectiveness in Cambodia demonstrate that while state capacity may have improved slightly in the late 1990s, it has since declined and has stagnated at a relatively low level in comparison to its per capita income peers.[6]

The capture of the state apparatus, a hallmark feature of neopatrimonial political order, doomed Cambodia to an inevitable backslide in terms of democratic consolidation and it also hampered statebuilding. UNTAC’s failure to move the CPP toward depoliticizing the state structure was its true legacy for post-1993 Cambodia, having much more of an impact on the country’s later course than UNTAC’s success in holding elections. The international community lost the opportunity to build a countervailing locus of authority in the Cambodian state apparatus that could potentially prevail against a corrupt, violent, and cynical political elite and form the basis for a genuine political settlement to come out of peacebuilding through transitional governance. The power-sharing coalition, viewed by the international community as an encouraging move toward legitimate governance, was a mismatch for Cambodia’s zero-sum, “winner-takes-all political culture.”15 The consolidation of two parallel patron-client networks embedded in the state also affected internal party dynamics, concentrating power in the hands of Hun Sen and Ranariddh. The two leaders managed to work together for the first three years of their coalition government, avoiding contentious issues and pursuing enough economic liberalization to satisfy foreign reform demands. Indeed, Cambodia scholars have argued that the privatization and marketization reforms introduced in the country in 1989 made the expansion of dual party-based clientelist networks easier and more profitable.16 In this regard, too, the international community’s policy preferences enabled post-conflict elites to achieve their own objectives more effectively.

Yet, even as they cooperated in rent extraction and distribution, Hun Sen and Ranariddh continued to jockey for absolute power in the still- evolving political context. Tensions quickly mounted between the two leaders; by 1996, Ranariddh began to complain vocally about inequality in the coalition and the imbalance between the two prime ministers and their parties became increasingly obvious. The Khmer Rouge still managed to exert an influence on governance in the country even as a spent military and political force, when Ieng Sary, one of the faction’s top leaders, announced that he would defect to the government and bring with him both a large proportion of Khmer Rouge troops and the resource-rich territory around his stronghold of Pailin. Hun Sen and Ranariddh, each eager to decisively tip the power balance their way, both offered large sums of money and the promise of future rent streams to entice Ieng Sary to join their respective sides. In the end, this was another political battle won by Hun Sen.[7]

Anticipation of the 1998 national elections set off a series of events through which Hun Sen and the CPP were able to consolidate their political power. The three main opposition parties - FUNCINPEC, the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, and the new reformist Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) - formed a coalition to contest the elections and challenge the CPP’s grip on power. In turn, the CPP became increasingly concerned about the increased attractiveness to voters of the opposition coalition. Violence erupted in the charged political atmosphere when an opposition rally led by Sam Rainsy was bombed in March 1997. In July of the same year, troops loyal to Hun Sen and the CPP staged a coup d’etat, bringing tanks onto the streets of Phnom Penh, skirmishing with and defeating royalist troops, and forcing Ranariddh, Sam Rainsy, and other non-CPP politicians into exile. Hun Sen’s pretext for this move to oust Ranariddh from the political scene was the oft-invoked specter of renewed civil conflict, based on the accusation that Ranariddh was about to strike a reintegration deal with the Khmer Rouge. This coup marked the breakdown of the attempt to share power between elite groups and the emergence of a de facto one-party system led by the hegemonic CPP.[8]

More broadly, the 1997 coup and the series of elections that have followed represent a sequence that has returned Cambodia to the often- violent, inherently undemocratic, and traditionally clientelist manner of asserting political order in the country. The expanding and tightening grip on Cambodia’s administrative and political systems exerted by the CPP and Hun Sen has thwarted any meaningful progress in either state capacity-building or democratic consolidation. A new election was held in 1998 with the exiled politicians returning to Cambodia to participate after almost a year of post-coup negotiations and pressure from the international community. Yet FUNCINPEC and the SRP did not have the deep party roots at the subnational level that were necessary to challenge the CPP’s organizational strength and claim to state authority across the country. In the announced election results, decreed free and fair by international observers, the CPP won a plurality, while

Table 5.1 Electoral results in Cambodia, 1998—2013

July 1998 Parliamentary

July 2003 Parliamentary

July 2008 Parliamentary

July 2013 Parliamentary

CPP 64 seats FUNCINPEC 43 seats Sam Rainsy Party 15 seats

CPP 73 seats FUNCINPEC 26 seats Sam Rainsy Party 24 seats

CPP 90 seats Sam Rainsy Party 26 seats FUNCINPEC + royalist party 4 seats

CPP 68 seats CNRP (merger of Sam Rainsy Party + Human Rights Party) 55 seats

FUNCINPEC and the SRP split the majority. (Official electoral results from 1998-2013 are presented in Table 5.1.) It was common knowledge that the CPP controlled this election, dominating new oversight institutions such as the National Election Committee and restricting opposition politicians’ access to the media.19 In another ostensibly power-sharing arrangement, Hun Sen was renamed prime minister and Ranariddh was made the president of the National Assembly. Some space for the representation of opposition parties was made at subnational levels of governance, but the CPP continued its entrenched hold on the structures of the state. In practical terms, little changed “the view that FUNCINPEC and SRP representatives took part in government essentially on the sufferance of the CPP.”20

This familiar pattern was repeated in the July 2003 elections: after an electoral process marked by voting fraud and violence, the CPP won over half the seats in the national assembly, although it did fall short of the two-thirds majority needed to form a government. One year of stalemate followed, with negotiations to form a government beginning in July 2004 and culminating in yet another deal on paper with FUNCINPEC. In practice, the control exercised by the CPP and Hun Sen on the country’s levers of power simply became more concentrated, even as the CPP continued to gain a veneer of international legitimacy from these elections, which it has prided itself in organizing efficiently. Although international observers have certified all of Cambodia’s series of post-conflict elections as free and fair, the CPP’s electoral strategy is common knowledge: in 2003, its guidance to party representatives was to offer clear voting instructions and easy poll access for their supporters, combined with misdirection for other parties’ supporters.[9]

Within a decade of UNTAC’s withdrawal, the formal institutional and electoral space was simply no longer the true arena of political contestation. As he further consolidated political power, Hun Sen continued to strengthen the CPP’s control over the state and its lucrative patronage networks. The CPP-dominated Royal Government of Cambodia has created and reinforced a system of resource generation and distribution for paying off rivals and supporters that runs parallel to the formal trappings of government through access to large off-budget “slush funds.” What should be public goods and services for the rural population - such as schools, health clinics, roads, and bridges - are branded as targeted “gifts” provided by the CPP and its senior leaders to the population, instead of being presented as programmatically delivered government outputs.[10] Villages across the country thus receive “Hun Sen schools” and health centers bearing the names of Hun Sen’s wife and other prominent CPP elites. From 1998 onward, this particularist approach was a pillar of the CPP’s electoral strategy and proved crucial in their increasing vote share in the 1998 and 2003 national elections and the 2002 and 2007 local elections. Through its clientelist strategy, the CPP has claimed for itself the mantle of being the only party that could effectively deliver public services - notwithstanding the need to rely on personal networks or bribes to access these services. In 2003, for example, the CPP’s electoral message was, “We are the party that gets things done; don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”[11]

The patronage machine has also been indispensable to the processes of elite accommodation within the country - and has, in turn, freed the government and party elites, to a great extent, from the need to be accountable to the Cambodian population. With the CPP hegemonic, a “shadow state” system developed, with elites focusing on developing predatory and exclusive control over high-rent economic activity, thereby assuring their hold on power.24 The army and police have been complicit in the patronage system, relying upon the valuable resource concessions they have been granted by the political elite to enrich individual officials and strengthen their bureaucratic power through an array of illegal and predatory activities.[12]

Cambodia’s political elites have expanded their patronage networks both vertically, to accumulate uncontested power at the subnational level, and horizontally, to include wealthy business interests and military leaders, who control, together with politicians in mutually beneficial arrangements, access to most of the country’s lucrative natural resources, including timber and now oil.[13] An elite strata of Cambodian businessmen accrue rents in partnership with government and party officials, through channels such as preferred access to government procurement contracts and government-brokered land grabs in anticipation of lucrative development projects. Cambodian newspapers are filled with reports of protests about evictions in Phnom Penh and other towns.[14] Rural areas are also affected by this phenomenon: Hughes reports that what was a fairly egalitarian land-holding system in the countryside in 1989 was transformed into a highly unequal one by 2006, where 70 percent of the land was owned by the richest 20 percent of the population, resulting in a considerable “dispossession of the poor” in the context of the rural subsistence economy.[15] Overall, a process of privatization of state assets - forestry, fisheries, minerals, water, petroleum, and land - has generated revenues for the government to distribute as clientelist payments for political support; and has fortified a mutually symbiotic relationship between Cambodia’s political and economic elites.

As these predatory patterns have increasingly permeated the country’s political economy, the role of violence and intimidation in influencing election results gave way, for over two decades, to an increasing reliance on patronage distribution aimed toward uncontested political dominance. In this way, elite predation has replaced outright conflict as the main avenue through which Cambodians experience insecurity and vulnerability in everyday life - but “the threat of violence [remains] an ever present prop to the system.”[16] In addition to patronage distribution, the CPP’s other core electoral strategy has been the mantra that it alone can ensure security and order in the country and prevent it from descending again into conflict; when, ironically, the only real insecurity in Cambodia emerges from within the CPP and as a result of its tactics. Hun Sen and other party leaders regularly raise the specter of renewed civil war in the event that the CPP’s governing legitimacy were to be challenged. Yet the opposition persists - in the elections of 2013, even in the face of the typical widespread enticements for CPP voters and the intimidation of opposition supporters, Cambodian voters delivered surprising gains at the polls to opposition parties on the back of high levels of expressed discontent with poor government services, corruption, land grabs, and poor economic opportunity. Still dominating oversight and executive functions within government, the CPP persuaded Sam Rainsy and his new opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), to end a boycott of parliament and enter into a working relationship with the governing regime. By late 2015, what appeared to be a promising rapprochement had ended, with a bitter stand-off between Hun Sen and a newly self-exiled Sam Rainsy in full force. Opposition leader Kem Sokha marked the twenty- fourth anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreement in October 2015 by denouncing the CPP government for having failed to deliver on the promises set out in the peace deal.[17] Hun Sen, in turn, reverted to his dire warnings of the return of civil strife and violent conflict if voters fail to support the CPP.[18]

It may be the case that the logic underpinning the neopatrimonial political order provided by the CPP in post-conflict Cambodia is in the process of changing from one of enforcing internal security to one in which the regime will need to deliver a greater measure of public services and some level of collective goods in order to retain political support for itself. The 2013 election results were viewed as a watershed in this respect, especially since the basis for the regime’s legitimacy appears to be shifting as an older generation scarred by the civil war and genocide becomes superseded politically by a new generation with little direct memory of war and more modern demands of government. In 2014, it seemed that the CPP regime recognized that it would have to start doing something differently or else be at real risk of being voted out.[19] Perhaps, twenty-five years after the end of the Cambodian civil war, post-conflict incentives are finally being truly reoriented. In the immediate post-conflict environment, it was apparent that the time horizons were extremely short, orienting the country’s elites toward high levels of extractive behavior - and even collusion if necessary, as evidenced in the CPP’s and FUNCINPEC’s dual rent networks. Now, with some degree of demand for accountability, government performance in terms of service delivery, and renewed attention to electoral legitimacy, the time horizon may finally be lengthening - and it appears likely that the CPP will have to better deliver some measure of public goods in order to get the minimal level of public support necessary to stay in power legitimately. If this were to become true, it will not have been the international peacebuilding intervention that achieved these results; the changes will have been the outcome of a more organic process of evolution in governance.

  • [1] Author interviews with donor officials and civil society leaders; Phnom Penh,Cambodia, May 2005.
  • [2] Ashley 1998. 9 Gottesman 2003: 353. 10 Ashley 1998: 55.
  • [3] Author interviews with donor officials and civil society leaders; Phnom Penh,Cambodia, May 2005. See also Nunberg et al. 2010; Nunberg and Taliercio2012; Turner 2013.
  • [4] Author interviews with donor officials; Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 2005and October 2005.
  • [5] Hughes 2009a: 139.
  • [6] Such measures include, for example, the World Bank’s Country Policy andInstitutional Assessment (CPIA) public sector management and institutionscluster score for government effectiveness, as well as the “governmenteffectiveness” measure in the Worldwide Governance Indicators dataset.Kaufmann, Kraay, and Mastruzzi 2010.
  • [7] Strangio 2014: 75-76.
  • [8] Barma 2006; Brown and Timberman 1998; Croissant 2007; and Roberts 2009.
  • [9] Ibid.: 51-53.
  • [10] Author interviews with donor officials, Cambodian analysts, and civil societyleaders; Phnom Penh, Cambodia, October 2014.
  • [11] Hughes 2009b: 50. 24 Barma 2012a; Hughes 2009a; and Le Billon 2000.
  • [12] Hendrickson 2001: 72. 2 Barma 2012b.
  • [13] 27 The notorious Boueng Kak Lake development is one such example. What usedto be a major freshwater lake in central Phnom Penh that served as a source offood and income generation for about 4,000 households living in the villagesaround the lake, as well as an important element of the urban ecology, wasgranted in a concession to a CPP senator in 2007. In a joint venture with aChinese property developer, his company began filling in the lake and evicting
  • [14] residents, offering them minimal compensation, in order to prepare the land fora luxury development. See Kent 2016.
  • [15] Hughes 2009a: 158.
  • [16] Hughes 2009a: 156; also Hughes 2003; and Un 2005.
  • [17] Kuch Naren. 2015. “CNRP Says Peace Accords Not Yet Fully Implemented.” The Cambodia Daily, October 24.
  • [18] Alex Willemyns. 2015. “Hun Sen, Pondering Defeat, Has War on Mind.” The Cambodia Daily, October 26.
  • [19] Author interviews with donor officials, Cambodian analysts, and civil societyleaders; Phnom Penh, Cambodia, October 2014.
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