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Q&A: Cambodian-Canadian Professor Says Lack of Trust is Cambodia's Kryptonite

Sorpong Peou is a Cambodian-born Canadian scholar and professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada. (Courtesy of Facebook)
Sorpong Peou is a Cambodian-born Canadian scholar and professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada. (Courtesy of Facebook)

Sorpong Peou recently talked to VOA Khmer about political trust, how power is accumulated, and his new article “Cambodia’s Hegemonic-Party System.”

[Editor’s Note: Sorpong Peou is a Cambodian-born professor of political science at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. He recently spoke with VOA Khmer’s You Sotheary on political trust, how power is accumulated, and his new article “Cambodia’s Hegemonic-Party System,” published in the most recent edition of the Asian Journal of Comparative Politics. In the paper, Professor Peou analyzes the political structures that have enabled Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party to maintain a firm grip on power since the 1980s. He concludes that “insecurity rooted in the fear of retribution is one of the biggest challenges to the process of democratization and rule-of-law institution-building in post-war countries like Cambodia.”]

What is your new article about?

My article discusses how the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has succeeded in strengthening its power, especially in recent elections. The main problem in Cambodia is distrust, but the most important argument in my paper is about personal security or party security because state institutions are weak.

You argue that Prime Minister Hun Sen has systematically increased his power through what you dub the “C-3 Strategy.” Could you explain more about this?

First, the political party that has greater power [in Cambodia] rules the country through controlling state institutions, which means grabbing power at the level of state institutions such as the Senate, the National Assembly, the army and the court. Leaders who have a lot of power have to control state institutions. Second, [it] has to be coercion. They have to defeat others and force others to surrender. If no surrender is made, they have to take actions to force others to surrender. The third is co-option, which is a strategy to persuade others to join a party or group by using soft techniques that are appealing to people.

Could you give an example of how the CPP has utilized this strategy in the past?

As I mentioned earlier, when we talked about control, we can reflect on what happened during the UNTAC [United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia] period in 1993. During the elections, the CPP did not allow UNTAC to control the ministries [as had been previously agreed on by all parties], such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Information. Therefore, UNTAC found it hard to create an environment conducive to free and fair elections, [because] UNTAC could not control those important institutions.

As I previously mentioned, coercion happened when agreement on power-sharing couldn’t be negotiated—thus, there had to be either a division [of administrative and military powers] or civil war. For example, in 1997, there was a coup to overthrow Prince Norodom Ranariddh. That was a form of coercion through intimidation and physical power.

Co-option can often be achieved through money: leaders can buy followers’ hearts or give them a high position in exchange for loyalty. But, it is hard in the Cambodian context. People [in power] engaged in corruption when there was a lot of money available. In the Cambodian context, co-option is the most important strategy for leaders to use. If they use co-option, they can make others surrender without using coercion or physical power, just by using persuasion.

Why do you categorize Cambodia as a country with a “hegemonic party system?”

It is different from a multiparty system in which other parties can compete and hope that they can win. In a hegemonic party system, there is no hope [for other parties to win the elections]. Some people create parties just for the sake of creating them, but it is impossible for them to win or form a government.

Has Cambodia ever had a multiparty system in practice?

We used to have a multiparty system, but this system couldn’t survive in Cambodia. Cambodia had a multiparty system in the 1950s, but it was weak. A democratic party system came to Cambodia after France gave us the freedom to create parties. However, it was weak. It was a bit stronger during the Republic of Kampuchea period [1970-1975] when different parties competed with each other, but General Lon Nol’s party was still the strongest. Thus, Cambodia on its own found it very difficult to create an environment to support a multiparty system. When the Khmer Rouge came to power, they destroyed opposition parties and allowed only a communist party. Our country has never had multiple parties with enough capacity to compete freely with a hope to win. The strongest party usually remains the strongest for an entire regime. The only way that the strongest party becomes weak is when it is completely destroyed. For example, the Khmer Rouge became weak after it was defeated by the Vietnamese military. In 1993, when UNTAC came to our country, they set up a multiparty system. But it was then transformed to a hegemonic party system after the 1997 coup.

What do you think will happen to Cambodian politics in the future? Do you think there will be a physical force to change the leader?

I don’t think that will happen in the future. It is more stable. But it still can’t be predicted in the long run, because a hegemonic party system fuels the anger of the powerless on the bottom. People without power will feel that they are being suppressed, and those people will stand up against the people in power to change the system. Another problem of a hegemonic party system is that there could be resistance inside the system itself. When power is highly centralized, the people inside the system will fight against each other to grab power. This could lead to crisis and fragility. Eventually, it could collapse [in a way that] has nothing to do with external forces, [but] because of the people inside the party system itself.

What do you think when some people say that Cambodia cannot move forward without Prime Minister Hun Sen?

I don’t agree with this. Cambodia should share state power [more broadly] to manage state institutions. According to my research, Hun Sen has contributed a lot to the country's development. I don’t think it is fair to only criticize him. But if he wants to hold power for the rest of his life, this does not bode well for Cambodia. This could fuel the anger of the powerless and poor. Those people will seek revenge.

What do you think about the view that a developing country that has weak institutions, like Cambodia, needs a group of elites to hold power to develop the country?

It will be impossible for Cambodia [to develop] if a group of elites holds all power. As I mentioned earlier, the hegemonic party system is fragile and prone to crisis. When crises occur, again and again, the country may still grow, but the growth is fragile. Cambodian economic growth depends upon foreign direct investment and foreign aid. When we have internal problems, we don’t have enough time to develop our country. The leaders will use all their strategies just to maintain their power. So we will depend on external players to intervene in our internal problems. Hence, in the long run, a hegemonic party system cannot sustain its growth. Cambodia might grow over a period of 10 or 20 years, but this growth will not be sustained in the long run because we have weak foundations for the country’s economic development.

Some people say that if a country lifts up more people’s standard of living to the “middle class,” democracy will naturally develop. What do you think about this idea in relation to Cambodia’s recent economic growth?

This theory is very weak. I disagree with this theory. [Some] apply this argument to the case of Singapore. But we have to be aware that Singapore is a city-state. Another example is China. China is far bigger than Cambodia. China has increased the size of its middle class. But we have to be aware that China has strengthened its state institutions since the communist party took power after World War II. When Chinese institutions were strong, the country transformed itself. However, Singapore and China are not democratic countries. Their economies are developed, but the democracy has been held back. That’s why Cambodia should ask itself what it wants. But if the CPP were able to strengthen institutions, this would help Cambodia to develop.

I would suggest the CPP should start with combatting the systematic corruption in the country. A lesson from Singapore is that Singapore has the highest score on the corruption perception index and is regarded as one of the most corruption-free countries. If the CPP can eliminate the corruption problem in Cambodia, I believe people will support the CPP. However, Cambodians are still not convinced that the CPP can address this problem.

My last question is about trust building in the Cambodian politics. What would you suggest for Cambodian leaders to build trust among each other?

I think there should be a process of trust building. The trust-building process needs to be critical and sensitive. In 2015, we talked about the “culture of dialogue.” The culture of dialogue seemed good, but it didn’t appear to be effective. They [the CPP and CNRP] talked, but insulted each other behind the scenes. The trust-building process is very hard. Moreover, because state institutions are weak, we lack trust. I would establish a body that is managed by independent scholars to monitor the process of trust building. But trust building is a complicated and long-term process.

The English version of this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.