Have you heard the joke about the elections in Cambodia and Zimbabwe? There isn’t one but perhaps there should be. Both countries have been effectively in the grip of single party rule for over 30 years. Both countries recently held elections with altogether predictable results, the incumbent parties won, again; Zanu-PF ((Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front) in Zimbabwe and the Cambodia Peoples’ Party (CPP) in Cambodia.
Cambodia’s leader Hun Sen, has been in power for 33 years, while this is the first election in Zimbabwe in living memory for many, where Robert Mugabe hasn’t been prime minister only due to his being ‘retired’ by the army – “terminated politically” - and replaced by his former number two. Having enriched himself at the country’s expense during his long rule, and ruining the country economically, Mugabe is now living in palatial surroundings forced to live on a hardship allowance of just US$5 million a year. Yet while the fallout and post-election crackdown in Zimbabwe’s carries on being reported by many in the global media, events in Cambodia though remarkably similar in nature and impact on its people, have quickly dropped from view. Why is this?
The answer may lie in the colonial past of both countries. Cambodia was late part of Francophone Indochina. The legacy of French ‘rule’ is still apparent in the architecture, food and other cultural mores. The world’s largest Alliance Française for example, is to be found in Phnom Penh, but Cambodians still speak Khmer first and foremost. Zimbabwe on the other hand was British before independence, before it was Rhodesia. They had a sizeable minority of white ‘settlers’. They speak English on top of the indigenous languages and play cricket, the sport of the colonising social class.
But more probably it’s as simple as the main protagonist has been named Robert and now Emmerson (he chose it himself after the US poet), and not Sen with his given name first and not second, as is the form in Cambodia. May be that is why. Despite the differences Cambodia has much in common with Zimbabwe and with some of the rest of Africa, given authoritarian rulers unsurprisingly share many of the same traits. In a recent political column, someone asked ‘Can there be any job in politics less rewarding than being Leader of the Opposition in Zimbabwe?’ Well, yes, you could be doing the job in Cambodia, in which case you’d be in jail, and your party disbanded, as is the case with the popular Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
Zimbabweans managed to respond with black humour to their predicament. Robert Mugabe’s wife would commandeer a plane from the national airline, raid the country’s coffers and go on lavish shopping trips abroad, while stores back home for the vast majority of people remained bare. Moving around town Robert Mugabe would travel in motorcades of luxury limousines accompanied by motorcycle outriders, their sirens blasting and heard for miles. His retinue was commonly referred to as “Bob Mugabe and the Wailers”. When I first went to Cambodia in 2004, I was told the prime minister’s nickname was Saddam Hun Sen, in reference to the former Iraqi leader, and because he was the “same same but different”.
I do not know what people said openly about Robert Mugabe while he was in power, or now about his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former guerrilla fighter, founder member of the “Crocodile Gang” in the 1960s, and holder of several senior cabinet posts under Mugabe. The white Rhodesians put him on death row, later commuted to hard labour, his hearing lost in one ear due to the Rhodesian Special Branch. His cell mates were many of the politburo of what later became Zanu-PF).
I suspect the answer is not much if they knew what was good for them, though many brave souls did anyway, and to their cost. Mugabe inherited a rigorous internal security apparatus from white rule, the Special Branch and the Central Intelligence Organisation, geared for repression and control. He even kept on the same white commanders to run them. Violence, intimidation and arbitrary arrest were commonplace, and usually aimed at the political opposition. This persists if the fallout of the election is any evidence, with many opposition figures already in jail charged with inciting violence, and reports of arrests and assaults with hundreds of opposition supporters and party members disappearing, and others seeking political asylum.
In Cambodia, political dissent and free speech has become a thing of the past. Commentators have said the ruling party has given up trying to be popular, and is now more intent on ruling by fear. People talk amongst themselves at cafes but if a stranger comes to sit nearby, the subject changes to something other than politics. The government has recently closed radio stations, the Cambodia Daily newspaper has been run out of business, the leading Phnom Penh Post has changed ownership to someone with connections to the CPP, human rights groups have been disbanded, the opposition outlawed and political commentators like the late Kem Ley, murdered, while others are intimidated and some imprisoned. Some 118 opposition party members have now been banned from politics for five years; and half of its 55 elected representatives have fled abroad.
According to the Guardian newspaper, Cambodia has now gone from having the freest press in Southeast Asia to being one of the most repressive and dangerous places to be a journalist, this in just the last year. Cambodia has dropped 10 places from 132 to 142 in the 2018 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. The government began an all-out war on the independent media from early 2017, as journalists found themselves followed and harassed by secret police and controversial commentators were arrested. Journalists in the country talk of the “complete obliteration” of its independent press.
The reason for the rapid clampdown on the press is thought directly linked to the elections just gone, and a suspicion the opposition were gaining too much support – an unpalatable prospect for a government that’s been in power since 1985. The CPP was run close in the last national elections in 2013, and in the municipal elections in 2017, so the government decided not to take any chances and to launch a two-pronged strategy; to demolish an independent press that gave a platform to criticism, and then dissolve the opposition. Its leader, Kem Sokha, is in jail charged with treason, like what’s happening in Zimbabwe.
To understand why these two countries are both remarkably similar electoral situations its worth briefly examining and comparing the modus operandi of the two chief actors; Robert Mugabe and Hun Sen. Mugabe was a mission-educated teacher with three degrees and radical leanings hardened by 10 years in Rhodesia’s jails and convinced of the need for an armed struggle against white minority rule. On assuming power, Mugabe appeared as a model of moderation. calling for a new vision and a new spirit. Zimbabwe was relatively well-off in many ways by African standards at the country’s independence from white rule. “You have inherited a jewel. Keep it that way,” he was advised by another African leader.
There followed a honeymoon of independence at least towards whites, but sadly he didn’t heed the advice about his "jewel". Mugabe soon showed no tolerance towards his black opponents. His objective was clearly to establish a one-party state run by Zanu-PF, and it soon became evident he fought a guerilla war not to achieve democracy but to gain total control. Mugabe set out to crush rival Zapu party and his main rival, Joshua Nkomo, then part of his cabinet, describing them as “germs in the country’s wounds.”
To achieve this, he created 5 Brigade, North Korean-trained and separate from the rest of the national army with different equipment, transport and weaponry (Cambodia's rulers have had close ties with North Korea also). It’s chain of command bypassed the middle echelons of the army and reported directly to Mugabe’s top commanders. Mugabe then engineered a split with Nkomo and arrested his party’s parliamentarians based on a false pretext; arms caches in a country awash with guns after years of armed struggle, leading to Nkomo officials being charged with treason, and 5 Brigade carried out massacres and systematic policy of starvation in drought-stricken areas in Nkomo heartland.
The country’s Central Intelligence Organisation rounded up thousands in detention centres where there were daily deaths. In 1987, he merged Nkomo’s party into his own Zanu-PF. In Mugabe’s drive for a one-party state at least 10,000 died, and many thousands more beaten and tortured, and an entire people were victimised.
Having demolished his Zapu rivals and established a de facto one-party state, Mugabe went on to accumulate huge personal power. He was head of state, head of government, and commander-in-chief of the defence forces. Like Hun Sen in Cambodia, he ruled through a vast system of patronage, controlling appointments to all senior posts in the civil service, the defence forces, the police and parastatal organisations, gaining a virtual stranglehold over government machinery. One-by-one they were all subservient to his will. Under Mugabe’s auspices, a new ruling elite emerged which he allowed to engage in a scramble for property, farms and businesses, as a means of ensuring their loyalty and underpinning support for his regime.
Unlike Cambodia, whose economy slowly flourished then growth snowballed, Zimbabwe was the reverse, and from a relatively high bar in the 1980s, it sank into an economic quagmire. A blogger from Bulawayo characterized the national economy as going "from bad to much worse, with no sign of light at the end of a very long, very dark tunnel". By the end of the 1990s, Zimbabwe was 10% poorer than at the beginning. In the 2000s, it suffered from hyperinflation reaching 11.2 million percent in 2008. More than 70% of the population lived in abject poverty, state corporations were bankrupt, fuel supplies erratic, the public transport system was decrepit. Harare, once renowned as one of the cleanest cities in Africa, became noted for debris on the pavements, uncollected refuse and broken infrastructure. Street crime was endemic.
Cambodia’s currency by comparison is relatively stable, albeit in a heavily dollarized economy. Cambodia has benefitted from foreign aid, and as part of the fastest growing economic region in the world, with economic growth averaging 7% over the past decade. Phnom Penh seems dynamic. Tourism is popular, the garment manufacturing sector abundant, albeit for basic styling and production. Though a small middle class is emerging, most Cambodians remain rural subsistent farmers or urban poor and young, with 60% of the population under 30 year of age. The real beneficiaries of consumerism, foreign aid budgets ($732m in 2016) and the “Chinarisation” of Cambodia’s economy, are the ruling elites and their hangers-on who operate what’s been termed “Grabonomics” in the eponymous Hunsenocomy. Global Witness summarises this as a “stranglehold” of autocratic control, so much so residents of Phnom Penh “struggle to avoid lining the pockets” of the ruling elite so widespread are their business interests.
Cambodia has been marketed to overseas investors as an attractive destination with very little regulation and cheap labour. Despite overall economic growth, 40% of the population still live below or close to the poverty line. In 2015, Cambodia ranked 150th out of 168 countries in Transparency International’s corruption Perception Index. Like Zimbabwe, land tenure is a vexed issue and ownership can be tenuous if some well-connected interests covet an area for themselves. The ruling elite maintain power utilising the military, top generals controlling key units via their own fiefdoms but all reporting ultimately, to the top. Everything it seems flows upwards and there is little if any, trickle down effect.
As in Cambodia, elections in Zimbabwe are characterised in the lead-up by months of intimidation without which the ruling party would almost certainly be defeated. When the elections were over, there was no respite from tyranny towards the opposition, though as we’ve seen this goes on being reported on by global media about Zimbabwe, but not about Cambodia.
In Zimbabwe security legislation was introduced making it a criminal offence to criticise the president. This is not the case, as far as I’m aware in Cambodia, though anyone making personal attacks on the prime minister and his family does so at their own peril. Radio, television and the government press in both countries pour out propaganda aimed at vilifying the opposition. The defence force commander in Zimbabwe declared the military would not recognise the result if Zanu-PF was to lose an election. In Cambodia Hun Sen has said he would not step down whatever the result and intends to rule for another 10 years. As the French newspaper Le Monde suggested, what he really wants is his family’s dynastic succession. In both countries elections are riddled with fraud and malpractice.
Hun Sen is now the world’ longest serving prime minister a position he’s held since age 32. He grew up in rural Cambodia as Hun Bunal then Hun Nal, a former temple boy with little formal education, before changing his name to Hun Sen. He joined the Khmer Rouge rising to battalion commander before fleeing to Vietnam. When the Khmer Rouge were ousted by the Vietnamese, he returned as Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of the newly formed People’s Republic of Kampuchea. He’s referred to as “Vietnam’s man” a title likely to antagonise given the tense ethnic relations between the two nations. Norodom Ranariddh, the man who declined to be king, headed the royalist party (known by its French acronym, FUNCINPEC) founded by his father, Norodom Sihanouk, the former king. The UN-sponsored 1993 elections resulted in a hung parliament (Hun Sen refused to step down) and Ranariddh was forced to form a coalition government with the CPP. Ranariddh became First Prime Minister while Hun Sen became Second Prime Minister. But it was Hun Sen who held more political sway in the government, and ousted Ranariddh in a coup after violent clashes in 1997, and a one point calling him a “real dog”.
From there Hun Sen has gone about consolidating power over 25 years to rebut the UN settlement that created Cambodia's fledging democratic institutions in 1991. He has a bodyguard unit 1,000-strong. To prevent coups, his own police force, the para-military Royal Gendarmerie, or GRK, are better paid and equipped including with tanks and artillery. At the 2013 election the GRK disarmed many civil police units in case of trouble. .Then there is the 911 Parachute Regiment based near the country’s main airport with a history of human rights abuses to their name (read more here:Frying Fish; Civil and Political Unrest in Cambodia, 15 February 2014) used to do the work even the GRK won't do. So like Mugabe and now Emmerson Mnangagwa, Hun Sen has his own security apparatus within the military, to which he controls all the key appointments.
Hun Sen always objected, not without some merit, to the apparent hypocrisy of Western powers which had indirectly backed the ousted remnants of the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnam-backed CPP government throughout the 1980s, and then turned around to lecture it about the importance of democracy and accountability. The international intervention came glossed in the liberalism of the first post-Cold War years, but Hun Sen's party never truly accepted it. Rather they were pushed to settle by their then patrons, the former Soviet Union and Vietnam, and he resented having to accept former wartime enemies as genuine democratic opponents. The CPP saw no reason to give up power and immediately set about wrestling control of these new democratic institutions. This result has been described as a “de facto dictatorship” in which democratic forms concealed a regime based on force, predation and invisible flows of patronage.
In Cambodia it has been a creeping dictatorship, less obvious initially than Mugabe’s rule in Zimbabwe. Hun Sen until now was forced to work within a version of democracy, but using force and threats to maintain control, while loosening things sometimes to maintain the flow of Western aid. Only recently has he had the power to fully repudiate the system, due primarily to the increasing support from China.
China has become Cambodia's best friend and ally. Between 2011 and 2015, Chinese firms forwarded nearly $5 billion in loans and investment to Cambodia, usually for transport and electricity infrastructure, all with some flow-back benefits to China. Everywhere you now see the red logo of China Aid. Strong backing from China, trade, aid and exports has made Cambodia’s prime minister less reliant on Western aid, and this has enabled him to finally settle with democratic forces that he has found unwelcome. Zimbabwe too, received overtures from China, the red dragon rises in Africa as well.
The final collapse of the international democratic experiment in Cambodia encapsulates the changing regional order in Southeast Asia, the old colonial powers have gone, the Cold War consigned to history, the rise of China as a regional power and the new focus on the South China Sea. Cambodia is Southeast Asia's most China-friendly government (along with communist-run Laos), but it is far from alone. In the past few years, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Myanmar have all tilted in the direction of Beijing.
The common theme in each case is that the swing has been preceded or furthered by Western, especially American, criticism about these countries' deteriorating human rights situations. Again you rarely hear this mentioned in mainstream media. These governments are highly sensitive to being told what to do by Western democracies that are themselves often inconsistent in their adherence to human rights norms.
A similar sentiment also exists among the Chinese leadership, which clings to an aggrieved nationalism that seeks to expunge China's "century of humiliation" at the hands of Western imperial powers. Both Cambodia and Zimbabwe may habour fears and suspicions of China but one place where their respective ruling elites find common ground, however self-interestedly, is in their desire to defend their nations' sovereignty from perceived outside "interference." And as these cases show, relief from Western diplomatic pressure is fast becoming one of China's most popular service exports.
Good relations between these governments and China are unlikely to last forever. Fear and suspicion of China are deeply ingrained across Southeast Asia, and Africa has seen foreign powers come and go for centuries, always with bad results for the locals. In many developing countries, there is a strong desire for an American presence to counterbalance the Chinese rise. A key Singapore commentator considers Cambodia to be the strategic equivalent of jelly, slipping through the hands of any outside power seeking to grasp it, that maybe true of Zimbabwe also.
In both countires connection are paramount, neither Cambodia or Zimbabwe are meritocracies. To be rich in Zimbabwe you need to belong to Zanu-PF. To get a job in Cambodia and therefore access to self-enrichment, you need to belong to the CPP. At election time, each incumbent party is able to bring the full resources of the state to bear against the opposition to get re-elected. The opposition parties cannot compete with these forces. What is almost certainly true, is that on a level playing field neither Zapu-PF nor the CPP would likely be re-elected in their respective nations.
While Zimbabwe became a one-party state as soon as Mugabe took power, Cambodia's reversion to de facto one-party rule has been slower in coming, but for many not surprising. In Cambodia, the leadership fears a repeat of the previous election in 2013, when the CNRP scored significant gains. More unnerving for the ruling elite were the mass street demonstrations that followed the election in which tens of thousands of opposition supporters filled the streets to protest alleged voter fraud. The same has happened now in Zimbabwe, but while they get a share of coverage in the media, Cambodia tale of woe continues to be largely unreported.