Foreign Aid and Cambodian Power Plays

1 de junho, 2017

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On April 10, 2017, the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a report titled “To Tell the Truth” which took aim at the numerous allegations of human rights violations made by NGOs, opposition parties, and the United Nations.[1] “Cambodia has been submerged, months after months, years after years, by reports from opposition media, biased NGOs and misinformed institutions, which twisted historical facts and events in an attempt to portray a negative image of Cambodia and to lay the blame on the government,” the report read.

The report comes at a time of political turmoil in Cambodia. In June 2017, there will be local elections followed by national elections in 2018. Concerned by the rising popularity of the opposition, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Hun Sen, the leader of the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), and the country’s Prime Minister since 1985, has headed a violent crackdown on political opponents and human rights activists over the last year.[2]

The prime minister controls large parts of the country’s security forces and his bodyguard unit takes the form of a paramilitary force whose size is equivalent to the national armies of Senegal and Zambia.[3] In February this year, he hinted at using them if the CPP lost the 2018 national elections.[4] But even without considering such threats of military action, the political climate in Cambodia is rife with tensions. Hun Sen, alongside other CPP officials, frequently issue warnings of national disunity and Western intervention with national state affairs, portraying the CPP as the only bulwark against a return of the long-defunct Khmer Rouge regime. The warnings of foreign meddling for regime change are also used to stifle both the opposition and dissenting voices.[5]

The CPP has mastered the process of transforming the rule of law into “rule by law” using Cambodia’s judiciary to control and silence opposition members.[6] The recently amended Law on Political Parties now stipulates the suspension or dissolution of any party for “serious mistakes” committed by members of its leadership.

The legislative changes led to the resignation of then-CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who currently lives in exile in France and faces multiple criminal charges himself, in order to prevent the party from being dissolved.[7]

In the 2013 national elections, the recently formed CNRP lost to the CPP by only 290,000 votes (out of about 6.6 million votes in total). The unexpectedly narrow results were disputed at the time, stemming a series of CNRP-led protests.[8]

This year, unofficial polls by international organizations suggest that CNRP candidates in the local elections could capture up to 60 percent of the votes. The party promises to put an end to the country’s patronage system which penetrates almost every aspect of Cambodian society.[9]

While Cambodia has made significant progress in poverty reduction and benefitted from an average economic growth of 7 percent annually, many Cambodians still live below the poverty line and in precarious livelihoods. Urbanization, coupled with an explosion in social media use, has made rampant inequalities and impunity of the nation’s wealthy elites more visible to voters. Cambodians who favour the CNRP frequently list corruption within government as one of their primary reasons for doing so.[10]

After more than 30 years in power, Hun Sen has built vast channels of influence, closely interlinking political, military, and business elites. His own family is at the heart of these channels. In July 2016, a report published by Global Witness found that the prime minister’s family members had registered 114 companies across 18 sectors of the Cambodian economy, comprising over $200 million of capital.[11]

After the publication of its report, Global Witness was banned from Cambodia.[12] Kem Ley, a Cambodian political analyst, was shot dead at a gas station only days after commenting on the report’s contents on a radio station.[13] Five employees of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) were charged in April 2016 with bribery and remain in pre-trial detention, in an act widely regarded as politically motivated. Naturally, these events have put pressure on Cambodian NGOs, as employees are increasingly hesitant to speak out in public.[14]

The European Union, amongst other international players, has criticized the authoritarian developments in Cambodia, but their options for action are limited. A suspension of Western foreign aid of around $500 million in 2015 could lead to the regime becoming more authoritarian. Cambodia could turn increasingly to Chinese investment as a hedge against the West, whose only string is opposing critics of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.[15]

Instead, it is crucial that foreign donors continue to strengthen Cambodian civil society organizations and openly express their support for human rights defenders who are subject to repression. Furthermore, assistance to parts of the national budget allocated towards increasing transparency and the decentralization of power – such as the Public Financial Management Reform Program should be upheld, along with the strengthening of sub-national governments and education.

Finally, foreign governments and international businesses should subject their trade and investment interests to the goals of upholding human rights and eradicating corruption. This could include a revision of the EU’s trade agreements with Cambodia, as well as greater due diligence of relations between large firms – such as Apple, Honda, and Unilever, all mentioned in the Global Witness report as having ties with the Hun family and the Cambodian government.

As a location for one of the biggest horrors of the 20th century, Cambodia has received Western aid for decades. But time has shown that aid will be less effective if it is not connected to a sensible, human rights-based trade policy. Cambodia’s development partners will need to consider this more thoroughly in the future.




[1] Ministry of Foreign Afairs and International Cooperation, “To Tell the Truth,” Government of the Kingdom of Cambodia, 2017,

[2] Kheang Un, “Cambodia Gets an Autocratic Upgrade in 2016,” East Asia Forum, December 20, 2016,

[3] Lee Morgenbesser, “Misclassification on the Mekong: The Origins of Hun Sen’s Personalist Dictatorship,” Democratization (2017): 1-18.

[4] Milton Osborne, “Cambodia: Would Hun Sen’s CPP accept electoral defeat?” The Lowy Institute, November  16, 2016,

[5] Lee Morgenbesser, “Misclassification on the Mekong: The Origins of Hun Sen’s Personalist Dictatorship,” Democratization (2017): 1-18.

[6] Shaun Turton, “Party Law Breaches International Human Rights Standards, Says UN,” The Phnom Penh Post, March 30, 2017,

[7] David Hutt, “What’s Next for Cambodia’s Sam Rainsy?” The Diplomat, February 15, 2017,

[8] [10] Stéphanie Giry, “Autopsy of a Cambodian Election: How Hun Sen Rules,” Foreign Affairs 94, September/October (2015): 144.

[9] Ben Sokhean and Ben Paviour, “Opinion Polls to Be Banned Ahead of Election,” The Cambodia Daily, April 3, 2017,

[11] Report, “Hostile Takeover,” Global Witness, July 7 2016,

[12] Press Release, “Cambodian Officials Respond to Global Witness Report with Ban and Threat of Violence,” Gobal Witness, June 6, 2017,

[13] Abby Seiff, “Kem Ley: Government Critic Shot Dead in Cambodia,” Al Jazeera, July 10, 2016,

[14] Ananth Baliga and Niem Chheng, “NGOs’ ‘Adhoc 5’ Effect,” The Phnom Penh Post, April 28, 2017,

[15] “Why Cambodia Has Cosied Up to China,” The Economist, January 21, 2017,

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Hannah Elten

Hannah Elten recently completed her studies of International Relations, Political Economy and Asian Studies at Sciences Po Paris and the University of Sydney. Hannah has gained professional experience through various internships in the USA, Tunisia, Taiwan, Germany, as well as through her position as a Youth Ambassador for Oxfam Australia. She currently lives in Cambodia and interns in the Operation Department with the European Union Delegation.