October 31, 2010 § Leave a comment

CambodiqWho lives there?: About 15 million people. Of these around 90% are Khmer and 90% Buddhist. There are numerous other ethnic minorities, primarily hill tribes. The Cham Muslim minority are particularly notable for their distinct identity

How does the system work? (the theory): Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy. The King is head of state and has some political power but in the main executive and legislative power is held by the Prime Minister. They are appointed by the King but must be approved by two thirds of the National Assembly.

The King himself, whilst king for life, is not selected by strict hereditary privilege, but rather chosen from amongst those with royal blood by a “Throne Council” made up of nine people: the President of the Senate, the President of the Assembly, the Prime Minister, the Chiefs of the Order Mohanikay and Thammayut (senior Buddhist monks), the First and Second Vice-Presidents of the Senate, and the First and Second Vice-President of the Assembly. This arrangement is fortunate as the current King is childless and thought to be homosexual (the official position is that the King “views women as sisters”).

The National Assembly is the lower house. It has 123 members elected for five year terms by d’Hondt PR. Constituencies vary in size electing between one and 18 members.

The Senate has 62 members elected for six year terms. Two are chosen by the king, two are elected by the National Assembly and the remaining 58 are elected indirectly by local councillors using d’Hondt PR. The senate has no executive power or influence but can be quite powerful when it comes to legislature.

Cambodia enjoys wide ranging theoretical decentralisation. The country is divided into provinces, provinces into districts and districts into communes. Each level has its own assembly elected by d’Hondt PR. A large amount of power is channelled into these assemblies – provinces even have control over their own armed forces.

How does the system work? (the practice): Many people would say Cambodia is not a democracy. The issue is not so much the power of the Royal Family, as the extent to which the ruling CPP control the country. Opposition groups have four main complaints:

  1. Gangs of thugs, loosely affiliated with the CPP, conduct campaigns of violence and intimidation against members of opposition parties – making it difficult for the opposition to succeed. Many opposition activists are killed every election.
  2. Whilst the press is mostly free and fair, only 10% of the population have access to it. Most Cambodians get their news from Television and Radio  stations – which are predominately CPP run.
  3. Electoral law makes it very hard to register to vote if you move. The entire electoral system is designed around people who spend their entire life living in one village – and not doing so turns registering to vote into a bureaucratic nightmare. This benefits the sedentary, rural, community who tend to vote CPP, but penalises the opposition parties who tend to be based in the more dynamic urban areas.
  4. There is no room for independents in the system – all elections are on a party basis and registering a new party is a slow and difficult process. This benefits the established parties.

In addition, the monarchy do hold considerable power, as does the retired former king (the “king-father”). This was demonstrated in 2004 when, very much against the flow of public opinion and despite not having been on the radar of any political party, gay marriage was legalised at the suggestion of the king-father. It can also be seen in the number of high ranking political positions which are held by senior members of the royal family.

Whilst Cambodia is theoretically a highly decentralised country, in practice as the CPP dominate at every level – and as the CPP are themselves a deeply centralised organisation – the effect is that power is concentrated centrally: but into the CPP leadership not the National Assembly.

How did we get here?: I have to warn you this gets complicated:

The Khmer empire was founded sometime between 300 and 500 AD and was a major force in the region for millennia. They built this:

By the 15th century their power had faded and they became a vassal kingdom oscillating between the suzerainty of Ayutthaya and Vietnamese kings. In 1863 the king, who had himself been installed by the Thais, appealed to the French to protect his kingdom from rival powers and so Cambodia became a French protectorate. France repeatedly manipulated the choice of successor with the death of each King to increase French control. However they made a misjudgement when they encouraged the appointment of 18 year old Norodom Sihanouk in 1941. He immediately set about demanding Cambodian independence and, by 1954, he had won it.

Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy and Sihanouk resigned the throne in order to stand for parliament  – becoming Prime Minister in due course. He led Cambodia down a road of political neutrality during the cold war. This led to him being overthrown in a 1970 CIA backed coup by a coalition led by General Lon Nol. He waged a guerilla war against General Nol, as did a Communist group: the Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk initially joined forces with the Khmer Rouge, and was later held hostage by them. Either way, his “support” (even once it was coerced) was a major factor in the Khmer Rouge’s initial popularity and, despite US backing for General Nol, the Khmer Rouge had taken power by 1975.

What happened next is infamous. In the course of three years of extreme anti-intellectualism, Ludditeism and Stalinism, the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, wiped out a quarter of their own population (nearly two million people). Ethnic minorities were specifically singled out, which is why such a high proportion of the current population are Khmer.

In 1978 Vietnam invaded. Their motives were threefold: humanitarian (to end the killing), political (to install a compliant regime, Pol Pot was a really bad neighbour) and military (to regain land the Khmer Rouge had seized militarily). They had driven Pol Pot out by 1979 ,but this was not the end of the matter.

I’m not sure anyone really understands what happened in Cambodia in the 1980s. Basically the country was ripped between four warring factions – often not actually at war – sometimes ruling together in what were euphemistically referred to as “coalitions”. There was the surviving Khmer Rouge (sans Pol Pot, and looking to re-enter the mainstream), there was the now free King Sihanouk and his followers, there was the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front: a group of parties established to throw out the Vietnamese, and there was the official government of the Vietnam-backed leftist Salvation Front.

All these groups rapidly fell apart. The Khmer Rouge simply had too much blood on their hands and soon retreated back into to jungle, from which they fought an unsuccessful guerilla war (supported by Thailand) for another decade or so. King Sihanouk had already expressed a wish to take a back seat role and the other royals were too factionalised to form a major force. Meanwhile the Salvation Front, without any unifying principle or indigenous support, fell into multiple factions, and with Vietnamese interest rapidly fading, the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front collapsed into infighting.

The actual conflict went on for a bit longer than was necessary due to the involvement of overseas powers. Vietnam backed Salvation Front forces would make good advances under the cover of the wet season, then in the dry season the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front would roll them back with the help of US and Chinese air support.

Through the gloom emerged the Machiavellian figure of Hun Sen. A former member of every faction going, the architect of peace talks, and of the 1993 constitution (which returned the country to political normality) he has been Prime Minister in one form of another on-and-off, since 1985 (and very much on since 1997 when, in one final twist, he launched a successful internal coup against his co-Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh). One of his most successful tactics has been to offer opponents positions as ministers – as a result Cambodia normally has over 200 ministers at any one time.

Hun Sen successfully would together various factions (mostly of the left) into the ruling CPP and has been consolidating power ever since. When he masterminded the peaceful abdication of King Sihanouk in 2004 (Sihanouk is still the king-father) and the appointment of King Norodom Sihamoni it was seen by many as confirmation of what was already known – Hun Sen is firmly in charge.

Who’s in charge?: Hun Sen and the CPP, at every level, and with large majorities.

In the last National Assembly elections the CPP won 90 seats. The second largest party with 26 seats is the Sam Rainsy Party which, as the name would suggest, is the party of the liberal millionaire Sam Rainsy. They are the principal opposition and Sam Rainsy often enters self imposed exile for fear of arrest. He has on several occasions been found guilty in absentia on trumped up charges, but is currently back in Cambodia following a pardon.

The pro monarchy FUNCINPEC‘s popularity has taken a dive recently. In the late 90s they achieved equal results to the CPP, and even last decade they were comfortably the second party. However at the last elections they won only two National Assembly seats. They are officially part of a “coalition” with the CPP, which many see as a device by Sen to stay in with the Royal Family.

Two other parties achieved representation at the last National Assembly Elections. The Human Rights Party won three seats. A new party formed around human rights issues, some have accused them of being a CPP front whose sole purpose is to split the opposition. Others have in turn accused the accusers of being CPP frontmen who are using this ploy to discredit vocal opponents of the CPP. Who knows?

The other party to win seats – two of them – is the “Norodom Ranariddh” party of Prince Norodom Ranariddh: the former Prime Minister, potential heir to the throne, and leader of FUNCINPEC, that Hun Sen ousted in 1997.

cambodia parties

CPP control is even greater in the senate. Only 54 senators were elected in 2006 – the government deciding that that figure was more appropriate for the population of the country. Of those 43 were CPP, 9 were FUNCINPEC and 2 were Sam Rainsy. The National Assembly appointed two further CPP members and the King appointed two further FUNCINPEC members.

Such are the difficulties of registering political parties that there is only one other extant political party in the whole of Cambodia. Known as the Hang Dara Democratic Movement Party, their ideology can almost be thought of as Cambodian Peronism. It takes right wing ideas of sovereignty and nationalism and left wing ideas of large state intervention to alleviate poverty. Currently they hold only 1 of the 11,000+ communal council seats in the country.

What does it look like?: Central Cambodia is dominated by the Tonle Sap. This is a combined river and lake system which creates a large fertile floodplain. The area under water increases over ninefold during the wet season and the direction of flow in the system changes twice a year. Many people live on floating villages on the Sap. Many more on the rice plains that surround it. Surrounding the rice plains are a series of tropical jungles, and low hills.


What are the issues?: No issues immediately leap out as being of overarching importance, although there are plenty to choose from. Clearly there has been a lost generation of development and there is a gruesome past to face up to – Khmer Rouge officials only started going on trial a couple of years ago. There is also the issue of the democratic defecit.

Tensions with Thailand are always high. This is party due to ethnic tension, partly because the Thais backed the Khmer Rouge, and partly as a result of an ongoing row about who owns a Hindu temple (the Preah Vihear) perched on a cliff on the border between the two countries. There have been numerous anti Thai riots in Cambodia in recent years.

Women suffer widespread discrimination and the Cambodian Government has come in for criticism recently for deporting Uyghur asylum seekers to China.

A good source of impartial information is: There is some independent print press (as opposed to television which is mostly state run). Cambodia Daily is the most independent but doesn’t put much content on its website. The Pnom Phen Post is thought to be quite independent and is more comprehensive. Khmerization is a regularly updated political blog – I think with a slight Sam Rainsy bias.

A good book is: There are a number of modern political studies including After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide and Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge: Inside the Politics of Nation Building. If you want something more academic there is Expressions of Cambodia or the bang up to date Beyond Democracy in Cambodia: Political Reconstruction in a Post-conflict Society.

Conciliation Resources did quite a thorough report on the challenges for Cambodian democracy here.

If you want to read more about the Khmer Rouge then there is the award winning journalism of John Pliger and Robert Kaplan. Pilger has written about Cambodia many times: Heroes is probably his best work. He also directed the stunning “Year Zero” which I assume, as I can’t find it for sale anywhere, I can share here:

Kaplan wrote about his experiences in The Ends of the Earth: From Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia–A Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy.

Finally there is the harrowing but stunning film The Killing Fields.

When are the next elections?: National Assembly elections are to be held in 2011, Municipal and senate elections in 2012.


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