What does a notoriously corrupt one-party government do when its credibility and popularity starts to sag? In Cambodia’s case, it launches a highly public anti-graft campaign.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose family is known to have commercial interests worth anywhere between US$500 million and $1 billion, recently called on the government’s usually chelonian Anti-Corruption Unit to hasten its work.

“These past few days I have been working on how to deal with government officials suspected of corruption,” the leader said in a recent speech. “Just do it right away, no need to wait [for permission].”

At a Cabinet meeting, Hun Sen said his government would even consider a “fifth approach” to graft-busting, meaning the seizure of perceived as corrupt officials’ property and assets.
“They are ruining the nation and the Hun Sen administration,” he reportedly said to his gathered ministers.

The leader’s words have so far been backed with actions. But it’s not clear to observers if the campaign will shore up Hun Sen’s power or instead sow instability inside his ruling party and among his traditional economic backers.

In July, the Anti-Corruption Unit arrested a provincial head of the Department of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction and several of his colleagues, who were said to have amassed $400,000 through corruption.

On August 15, the Military Police detained business tycoon Kong Kroeng and his son-in-law on allegations of illegal logging and exports. He was the second tycoon arrested in as many months after businessman Soeng Sam Ol and several of his associates were also charged with illegal logging.

On August 18, Hun Sen also announced a government ban on issuing new online gambling licenses and claimed that “foreign criminals have taken refuge in the form of this gambling to cheat and extort money from victims, domestic and abroad, which affect the security, public order and social order.”

Hun Sen (L) salutes accompanied by his son Lieutenant General Hun Manet (R) during inspection of troops at a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the Cambodian Infantry Army, Phnom Penh, January 24, 2019. Photo: Handout/AFP

Following in his father footsteps, Hun Sen’s eldest son and likely dynastic successor, military deputy commander-in-chief Hun Manet, ordered in August a crackdown on corruption inside the armed forces.

The princeling, seen as the de facto head of the armed forces, added that future promotions will be based only on “work achievements and willingness to serve the nation, not buying a seat.”

Within days, an Air Force assistant was arrested for allegedly collecting $120,000 by promising soldiers promotions in return for kickbacks. It remains to be seen how far Hun Manet will and can go in cleaning up the notoriously corrupt armed forces without stirring intra-government, and possibly inter-agency, instability.

Hun Sen, if genuine about fighting corruption, has his work cut out for him.
Cambodia was downgraded to 161th out of 180 countries in graft watchdog Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index, meaning it is one of the most corrupt nations worldwide.

Analysts and observers believe the campaign could be more political than altruistic in light of the divisions and dissent mounting inside Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

In consecutive power since 1979, the CPP now controls almost every single elected office after it forcibly dissolved its main competitor, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), in late 2017. With the CNRP eliminated on last year’s general election ballot, the CPP won all of parliament’s 125 seats.

Yet despite the CPP’s stranglehold on politics and power, some of Cambodia’s elite are beginning to question whether Hun Sen is the ultimate guarantor of their political and financial interests as the country has recently been turned into an international pariah.

The European Union (EU) and United States (US), the country’s two biggest export markets, have threatened punitive sanctions for Cambodia’s democratic backtracking.

Supporters of Cambodian People's Party (CPP) parade in an open truck during the first day of campaign in Phnom Penh for the general election on July 7, 2018.Cambodian political parties on Saturday kicked off a three-week-long campaign for a controversial general election later this month, which strongman Hun Sen is poised to sweep after the main opposition were disbanded and their senior members driven into self-exile. / AFP PHOTO / TANG CHHIN Sothy
Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) supporters campaign in Phnom Penh before the July 7, 2018 election. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Cambodia’s economic elite, which have grown rich thanks to sustained strong economic growth rates and economic opening overseen by Hun Sen’s CPP, are now watching nervously as the EU considers removing the nation’s preferential trade status, which if lifted would devastate many exported-oriented industries.

At the same time, they are also known to be monitoring closely as US politicians hatch and deliberate plans to sanction specific Cambodian officials known to be involved in the CPP’s anti-democratic crackdown and lurch towards a one-party state.

Fears of possible punitive Western sanctions are already undermining business confidence and investment. The government recently estimated that gross domestic product (GDP) growth could decline to 6.5% in 2020, down from a predicted 7.1% this year.

Hun Sen and senior CPP politicians have tried, not altogether credibly, to reassure political and business elites that sanctions will not significantly impact the economy and that defending national sovereignty should take precedence over Western threats and pressure.

But not all government officials apparently share that view. Foreign Ministry officials are known to be working behind the backs of more senior staff to re-forge ties with the US, while there is also reportedly discord over the CPP’s position within other government departments.

Those who are promoting re-engage with the West, meanwhile, are being looked over for promotions.

Foreign diplomats earlier spoke as if it was guaranteed that Sok Siphana, a respected lawyer who was sent to lobby EU politicians in June 2018 and has spoken passionately about restoring ties the West, would be Cambodia’s nominee to become the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) next secretary-general.

Instead, Hun Sen announced in late July that his nominee would be Kao Kim Hourn, a minister delegate attached to the prime minister who is best known for the alleged misuse of funds from a foreign-backed scholarship program.

That’s all raising questions about how secure Hun Sen feels among an elite that may or may not support his recent shift away from democracy and ties to the West in favor of more dependence on China.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is expected to eventually hand power down to one of his offspring. Image: Facebook
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is expected to eventually hand power down to one of his offspring. Image: Facebook

Hun Sen has ensured his family members now occupy key positions in what some see as an unhealthy concentration of first family power.

Hun Manet, his eldest son, is now widely seen as de facto head of the armed forces. Another of Hun Sen’s sons controls the party’s youth movement, and yet another the military’s all-watching intelligence unit.

His daughters run the business and media side of what critics call his family cartel, while his wife runs the CPP’s charitable organizations. Even so, Hun Sen has shown signs of political insecurity inside the CPP.

Eyebrows were raised on August 5 when he raised the prospect of creating a new Ministry of National Security, which would separate the national police from the Ministry of Interior.

The ministry is run by Sar Kheng, who many analysts believe commands the only rival CPP faction to Hun Sen’s. Taking the police out of Sar Khang’s hands would represent a potentially destabilizing political power play.

The CNRP opposition is feeding off the reports of intra-CPP divisions. Sam Rainsy, the CNRP’s self-exiled president, has recently made strong allegations, most unproven, disseminated over social media that clearly aim to sow mistrust within the CPP.

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy stepped down as president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party on Saturday. The exiled politician and his party members have come under rising political pressure ahead of crucial elections. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy in campaign mode in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

The opposition figurehead recently resurrected an old unproved accusation that Hun Sen ordered the plane crash in 2008 that killed Hok Lundy, a then feared and politically powerful national police chief.

Sam Rainsy claimed that Hok Lundy’s son, Dy Vichea, current deputy chief of the national police and husband to one of Hun Sen’s daughters, is now “thinking about the plan on how to take revenge for his father,” a plan supposedly supported by Sar Kheng because he “also knows that Hun Sen is preparing to remove him.”

Dy Vichea has denied the conspiratorial allegations. Sam Rainsy has also claimed that Hing Bun Heang, commander of Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit and the only official so far sanctioned by the US government for the recent anti-democratic crackdown, has fallen out with the premier.

“Like Hok Lundy in the past, Hing Bun Heang now knows too much about Hun Sen-ordered crimes, some of which he committed because – as he has publicly acknowledges – he had to obey Hun Sen’s orders,” Sam Rainsy alleged in a Facebook post.

Whatever is and isn’t happening within the CPP, Hun Sen’s promise to get tough on corruption has sent ripples among the party’s rank and file as well as the business elite, though time will tell if the campaign is more political posturing than graft-busting purge.