Tourists endlessly descending on Siem Reap to visit the Angkor Wat ruins contributed to Cambodia’s economic growth in recent years. (pix by AHMAD IRHAM MOHD NOOR)

CAMBODIA is undergoing one of its periodic spasms of political convulsions with a widespread crackdown that saw opposition leader Kem Sokha detained and media outlets — particularly those linked to Western interests — shut down.

The pattern looks familiar enough. In the run-up to a general election (the next one is scheduled for mid-2018), opposition-linked forces in the country will be rounded up and intimidated. It is interesting to delve into the dynamics behind such goings-on.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power since 1985, making him one of the most durable national leaders anywhere. Yet, he is only 65 and has publicly declared he wants to hang on to power for at least another decade.

It will be churlish to dismiss such intentions outright. The Cambodian leader may have ruled with an iron fist, but has presided over easily the best overall outlook for his country in recent memory.

Before him, the murderous Khmer Rouge ran rampant as it undertook a crazed campaign to turn back the clock and return the country to an egalitarian agrarian “paradise”.

Phnom Penh, the capital, is today a vibrant city with vestiges of the Bangkok of yesteryears and luxury apartment rentals to match, as the country has consistently chalked up one of the highest economic growth rates within Asean in the last few decades. Tourists endlessly descend on Siem Reap, a charming enough city that is similarly growing breathlessly, to pace on the stoned ruins of Angkor Wat.

A thriving garments industry has led the country’s now fairly diversified export-led economy and economically liberated a legion of young Cambodians. They ought to be grateful for what a long stretch of political stability (and relatively enlightened economic policies) under Hun Sen has brought about. Maybe they are, but they are, of course, also neither exceptional nor unique
in wanting greater political breathing space to go along with their new-found economic freedoms.

This is probably where a rather familiar clash between conservative and more liberal political forces and even more broadly between a rising East and gradually declining West plays out.

The Cambodian ruling class, perhaps justifiably, seethes over the supposed ingratitude of younger Cambodians and expects to be rewarded with largely unquestioned support, even loyalty, for delivering economic progress. It sees any continued progress as contingent upon sustained political certainty that it has afforded the country until now.

It also likely sees how the country’s current relatively good run may be jeopardised by political instability if political freedoms are given full play and steady economic stewardship falls victim to open competition with the political opposition.

To be sure, all this may be self-serving for the powers-that- be in Cambodia, but political dysfunction in advanced Western democracies and monumental foolishness, such as the Brexit vote in Britain, will mean they have more than half a point.

On the other hand, the Cambodian opposition and its supporters will no doubt point to what they view as growing political arrogance and corruption displayed by those long in power and are convinced that the solution lies in a strong opposition, to provide some meaningful checks and balance and perhaps even the possibility of parties alternating in power.

The Cambodian political set-up as it exists now is clearly a hybrid. It provides the country with a strongman in the person of Hun Sen, but also some semblance of free political competition, at least during ordinary times outside the election cycles.

Dare we say it has possibly the best of both worlds? Strongman rule under Hun Sen puts the country in a class with such Asian economic powerhouses as China, South Korea (in particular under the late Park Chung Hee) and perhaps, even Singapore.

That Cambodia under Hun Sen (seen by some critics as a China proxy in the region) did not just copy China’s or Vietnam’s one-party system ought perhaps to be seen as a sign of the Cambodian leader’s instincts for political pluralism.

Cambodian democracy should, therefore, be viewed not as imperfect but a work in progress. There may come a time in future when a strongman is no longer needed. A Cambodia resembling Singapore after Lee Kuan Yew or South Korea after Park is a distinct possibility.

In the meantime, there is much more to be done in building up the nation. High economic growth of recent decades has only inched it out from its poor-country status to a lower middle-income ranking. It will need several more decades to reach a modicum of sustainability politically and economically.

JOHN TEO is views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak

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