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Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing:

ABN # 65 648 097 123


Cambodia: Assessing
Developments One Year After
the 2018 National Elections
Carlyle A. Thayer
July 7, 2019

It has been one year since the Cambodian People’s Party led by the Prime Minister
Hun Sen won all 125 seats in the National Assembly in July 2018. We are planning a
report that reviews the past year. We would appreciate it if you could give us your
assessment on the current situation in Cambodia.
Our questions are as follows.
Q1. In spite of criticism from the European Union (EU) and the United States (U.S.),
the Hun Sen administration has been oppressing the opposition parties, the media
and human rights organizations. Why do you think the Hun Sen administration doesn’t
change its repressive stance on these people and organizations?
ANSWER: Prime Minister Hun Sen is not a democrat. His views towards the EU and
the U.S. have been shaped by his perception of how he has been treated since the
October 1991 Cambodia peace conference in Paris. Hun Sen has been viewed critically
as a former Khmer Rouge military officer, a Vietnamese-installed puppet, and an anti-
democratic autocrat who refused to accept the results of the UN-supervised election
in May 1993. Hun Sen also was viewed as the instigator of the so-called “coup” in 1997
that witnessed the decimation of his coalition partners. Since 1998, Hun Sen emerged
as the most powerful leader in Cambodia who simultaneously worked with and
emasculated opposition parties who joined his coalition government.
With this as background, from Hun Sen’s perspective, he has received a continuing
drum beat of criticism from the EU and the U.S. for his actions in undermining
democracy and human rights in Cambodia. When Hun Sen and his regime were subject
to western sanctions following the 1997 “coup”, China came to the rescue. When
Cambodia forcibly repatriated Uighur asylum seekers back to China despite U.S.
protests, the U.S. cancelled a shipment of military vehicles. China stepped in and
replaced them.
Hun Sen has developed such close relations with China, and China has provided major
political support and economic largess that Hun Sen has been emboldened to stand
up to the EU and the U.S. When they cut aid Hun Sen receives compensating aid from
China.
The one major exception is the EU’s threat to cut preferential tariffs under the
Everything But Arms program. This effects Cambodia’s major textile industry that
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needs access to markets in the EU and the U.S. Hun Sen has resorted to “ministerial
diplomacy” to make minor concessions on areas of concern brought by the UN
Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia during her recent visit.
From Hun Sen’s perspective, promoting the rule of law, liberal democracy (enshrined
in the Constitution) and human rights would undermine his regime and give space to
opposition political parties. Since 1997, Hun Sen has seen off the major opposition to
his rule – the pro-royalist FUNCINPEC, the breakaway Sam Rainsy Party, and then the
Cambodian National Rescue Party under Kem Sokha.
Q2. While Chinese investments have been increasing in Cambodia, a building under
illegal construction by a Chinese company in Sihanoukville collapsed and 28 workers
were killed in June. What do you think about the pros and cons of the influx of Chinese
money and people to Cambodia? Does it make Cambodians richer? Do you think
Chinese in Cambodia harmonize with the native Cambodians?
ANSWER: A distinction needs to be made between official Chinese government
assistance and investment by Chinese companies some of which are state owned and
the others privately owned. Official Chinese assistance has resulted in a marked
improvement in Cambodia’s infrastructure from roads, highways, bridges, rail,
airfields and ports.
The massive influx of Chinese money, especially from private enterprises, has created
Chinese enclaves within Cambodia, such as areas in Phnom Penh and Koh Kong in
particular. The Chinese invest in property, drive up prices, and displace Khmer
residents. Chinese workers are contracted to construct buildings, condominiums and
casinos. Other Chinese laborers run Chinese language restaurants, laundries and
tourist services. This has bred resentment on the part of the affected local Cambodian
community.
As a generalization, there is little evidence that the vast majority of Chinese who reside
in Cambodia or who visit harmonize well with Cambodian community where they
reside.
The appearance of Chinese gangs in Koh Kong who are implicated in stand over tactics,
kidnapping and prostitution are deeply resented by the local Cambodian community.
Some Cambodian do benefit, such as those employed in Chinese-run casinos. A small
handful of Cambodians who work as partners or surrogates for Chinese interests also
benefit.
Q3. In Koh Kong province, a Chinese company Union Development Group has been
developing the Dara Sakor Seashore Resort which includes an international airport
and a deep-water port. The US government expressed its concern about the possibility
of a military use of facilities in this project such as the international airport.
Do you expect that this project can be used by the Chinese military in the future? How
much does it have impact on Cambodia and international society if China dominates
the Cambodian coastal area?
ANSWER: The construction of the Dara Sakor International Airport in Koh Kong is one
of a number of Chinese funded infrastructure projects in Cambodia. Plans are being
drawn up to construct what is touted as the world’s ninth largest airport in Kandal
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province and a new international airport for Phnom Penh.


China’s Union Development Group (UDG) was given a ninety-nine year lease to
construct an up market tourist resort in Koh Kong and the airport is part of this project.
The Dara Sakor International Airport has a runway that is 3.4 kilometre long meaning
it will be able to handle Boeing 777 and Airbus A340 aircraft. This runway can be
compared to China’s three 3-km long runways constructed on artificial islands in the
Spratly archipelago (Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs). These airfields can handle
all military aircraft presently operated by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, Navy
and Air Force.
Cambodia’s southern coastline faces west into the Gulf of Thailand. The Dara Sakor
International Airport is located near the deep-water port at Koh Kong. Both the port
and airport could easily serve a dual-civil military function at short notice. The most
likely contingency for the deployment of Chinese military ships and/or aircraft would
be to provide humanitarian assistance in the event of a major natural disaster in the
Gulf of Thailand. If another airline disastes like the MH 370 occurs carrying Chinese
passengers China could swiftly base its search and rescue operations in Koh Kong
province.
The three People’s Liberation Army Navy warships that visited Sihanoukville in January
2019 could just as easily berthed in Koh Kong. Similarly, Chinese military aircraft that
deploy to the airfields in the Spratlys could easily be re-refueled and deploy to Dara
Sakor airport.
In the event of rising tensions or a crisis in the southern extremities of the South China
Sea and adjacent waters, China could easily deploy warships and military aircraft to
Cambodia. This could open a new flank on southern Vietnam but would not be decisive
as Vietnam’s main military ports are located along its coastline facing east into the
South China Sea.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Cambodia: Assessing Developments One Year


After the 2018 National Elections,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, July 7, 2019.
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.