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Thayer Consultancy

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Background Brief Cambodia: Prime Minister Hun Sens Promises of Reform Carlyle A. Thayer October 1, 2013

[client name deleted] We are preparing a report on the Prime Minister Hun Sen's promises to reform the CPP's [Cambodian Peoples Party] method of government, which he raised a few times in a marathon six-hour speech last week. -- -- This is not the first time Hun Sen had made promises like this over the past twenty years of post-UNTAC [United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia] government. We request your assessment on whether or not these promises now can be taken seriously compared to the promises to end corruption, deforestation and landgrabbing made repeatedly in the past whenever Hun Sen found himself in a spot of bother. We request your assessment of the following three issues: Q1. Is promising reform and putting on a conciliatory tone a strategy for Hun Sen in times of hardship for the CPP? Do you think these pledges are serious or just a front that will disappear once the CPP regains control of politics, or the CNRP [Cambodia National Rescue Party] dissolves into in-fighting? ANSWER: Hun Sen and several of his party cohorts are familiar with the Leninist party-building mechanism of criticism and self-criticism. Hun Sen, after all, is a graduate of Vietnams Higher Political Academy. Criticism and self-criticism is a devise to identify weakness and shortcomings in party policy as a necessary first step towards the rectification of these defects. Self-criticism is undertaken by each party member who provides a personal evaluation of his/her strengths and weaknesses. Other party members are encouraged to comment on the veracity and sincerity of the self-criticism. One defect in criticism-self-criticism sessions is that they become perfunctory and routine. Over time party members pull their punches in the hopes that other party members will reciprocate.

2 Why is this relevant to Hun Sen and the CPP today? Hun Sens public remarks should be viewed as combining two contradictory elements: the desire to rectify the causes of the CPPs poor electoral results and the desire to remain in power. Hun Sens promise of eradicating corruption and carrying out reforms are no more than the default position for a party official well versed in the gamesmanship of offering selfcriticism in the expectation that there will be no real change. It should also be recalled that the CPPs roots trace back to the time of collective responsibility for policy failure. Collective responsibility works best when the party is unified, otherwise a faction and its leader are singled out as scapegoats. But the CPP is dominated by Hun Sen and as long as the CNRP poses a threat to CPP-rule, the party will rally behind its leader. This is a short-term response to the present crisis. It is not a long-term response to fundamental issues of why the CPP lost so much electoral support (autocratic government, corruption, land seizure). Q2. Lao Mong Hay said that the situation is different for the CPP now - having seen the results of this election, they have to reform, or potentially lose the commune elections in 2017 - so their pledges to reform are for once backed by a real, selfpreservation-driven motivation to reform. Do you think this analysis is accurate? ANSWER: There are elements within the CPP that take a long-term view and understand that fundamental reform of the way the CPP governs is necessary to ensure the party stays in power. This view was clearly expressed by Sar Kheng late last month when he identified two major issues facing the CPP political reform and changing the CPPs style of governance. Sar Khengs views are likely to become stronger once the present political crisis is over and the CPP faces uncertain prospects at the mid-term commune elections. But if the CNRP implodes or its campaign of demonstrations and general strikes runs out of steam, the dominant tendency in the CPP will be to undertake minimal reform. Q3. Even if there is that self-preservation factor in play, do you think that the CPP can do what is in its own interests? The whole party seems built on corruption and patronage networks. Assuming the party leadership wants to reform, can it? ANSWER: Reform is a prolonged process. Petty corruption is unlikely to be eradicated. Entrenched large-scale corruption can only be dealt with on a case by case basis. It is more likely to falter after a few relatively high-profile individuals are targeted. The duty of a patron is to protect his clients. A thoroughgoing anticorruption campaign risks raising uncertainty over protection. Clients are notorious for switching support if their patron appears to be losing power. In sum, there are limits to ending large-scale entrenched corruption based on patronage networks in Cambodia. It would require a change in regime or Hun Sens replacement as prime minister.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, Cambodia: Prime Minister Hun Sens Promises of Reform, Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, October 1, 2013. All background

3 briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the mailing list type UNSUBSCRIBE in the Subject heading and hit the Reply key. Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.