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Governments in Thailand and Cambodia Play a Poker Game for Power

Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen. Credit: Shutterstock.

Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen. He will hand power to his son later this month, after rigged elections. Credit: Shutterstock.

PHNOM PENH, Aug 17 2023 (IPS) - Democracy is declining in Southeast Asia. The Cambodian prime minister will hand over his office to his son later this month, after rigged elections. Meanwhile, Thailand’s largest political party is kept from power.

What do you expect, he’s in the military!” My fellow journalist is quite firm when I ask her what she thinks about the prime minister-designate of Cambodia. We sit in her favourite coffee shop near the royal palace in the capital city Phnom Penh, where we occasionally meet to discuss political issues.


Little alternative

She doesn’t think Hun Manet (45), who will become the country’s next leader on August 22, will change the system. Not only because he is an army chief, but also because she thinks father Hun Sen (71) will continue to play an important role behind the scenes till his very last day.

This has always been Hun Sen's strategy. Emphasizing he has brought peace and stability after the turbulent Khmer Rouge era, while mildly pampering the middle class to avoid any uprising. According to his successor, who also held a post-election speech, “the nation’s biggest asset is its human resources”

“Until then, the son cannot possibly tackle the widespread corruption, even if he wanted to,” she says, referring to a story about children of party officials who are on the payrolls of ministries without actually working there.

My colleague has been living in Cambodia since the late 1990s and she knows that there’s little alternative. If the current rulers were to disappear today, the lights would go out in this country. Literally, because the prime minister’s family also owns the only electricity company.

The dynastic succession from father to son raised more eyebrows among foreign observers than among Cambodian citizens. In recent decades, they have mainly been busy rebuilding their country after the devastating Khmer Rouge period and the turbulent 1980s.

Hun Sen’s CPP (Cambodian People’s Party) has ruled the country since the late 1970s and has declared a landslide victory after last month’s national elections. This wasn’t a surprise, as all significant opponents had been eliminated in advance.


A game of thrones

In neighboring Thailand, the opposition was allowed to participate in recent elections. In May this year, the reformist and anti-junta Move Forward Party (MFP) even became the largest party. But leader Pita Limjaroenrat failed to gather enough support from the military-appointed senators to become prime minister.

Limjaroenrat is even suspended as a member of parliament for allegedly violating electoral rules. The new prime minister will be a candidate from the second largest group in Parliament, Pheu Thai. This is the party of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (74), who has been living in exile for fifteen years to escape convictions and will now return to Thailand.

“So it’s confirmed”, writes political journalist and Thailand expert Andrew MacGregor Marshall on his X-account (formerly Twitter).

“(King) Vajiralongkorn and Thaksin have done a deal (…) to pardon Thaksin if he keeps MFP out of power”


A history of coups

Thailand has a history of successive military coups, each time overthrowing civilian governments. The last one was in 2014 when outgoing Prime Minister Prayut took power. Five years later, he was able to stay in office as prime minister after doubtful elections. Future Forward, the predecessor of MFP, was sidelined.

But unlike the Cambodians, the Thai people are not easily lectured by an old power elite. In 2020, student protests grew into national anti-establishment demonstrations. For the first time, the monarchy was also openly questioned.

King Vajiralongkorn, who inherited the throne from his popular father Bhumibol in 2016, is accused of rapidly gaining powers never possessed by his predecessor. However, Thailand has strict laws against lese-majeste and several students were sentenced to prison for participating in these (peaceful) demonstrations.


Behind the scenes

Last month, dissatisfied MFP supporters gathered in the streets of Bangkok to express their anger. More protest is to be expected. In an opinion article for ‘Bangkok Post’, political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak says the voter has little to say, while the real political game takes place behind the scenes. He is referring to the Constitutional Court, which can easily eliminate (opposition) parties.

“The commotion and seeming chaos among political parties and politicians, in contrast to the appointed agencies and established centres of power, has been used to discredit and weaken democratic institutions”, he writes.

Same story in 2017 in Cambodia, where the Supreme Court outlawed the opposition party CNRP (Cambodia National Rescue Party). For this year’s ballot, political opponent Candle Light Party (CLP, the successor to CNRP) was simply disqualified. According to the election committee, “the party failed to submit a copy of the original party registration”.


Nation’s biggest asset

Meanwhile, in the coffee bar in Phnom Penh, we are finishing our coffees. The prediction about father Hun Sen’s interference seems to be accurate. In a recent speech, the outgoing prime minister hit out at election critics in the EU and the US. “Democracy has won,” he said. He called the family transfer of power “needed to ensure peace in the country and to prevent bloodshed”.

This has always been Hun Sen’s strategy. Emphasizing he has brought peace and stability after the turbulent Khmer Rouge era, while mildly pampering the middle class to avoid any uprising. According to his successor, who also held a post-election speech, “the nation’s biggest asset is its human resources”.

It is promising that the new leader recognizes the opportunities (but also the challenges) of his very young population, with a median age of 25 years well below the global average. Hopefully this Hun Manet will give Cambodian politics a more human face, even though he is ‘the son of his father’.

This article is the first in a series of two articles about declining democracy in Southeast Asia, read the second part here.

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