The Cambodian People’s Party: History and Political Transformation
Over the past two decades, Cambodia, under the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has achieved rapid economic growth with an average rate of 7.7% per year. The Kingdom’s poverty rate has dropped remarkedly from 53.2% in 2004 to only 9% in 2018. With GDP per capita at USD1,215 in 2015, Cambodia was classified as a lower-middle income country. In 2018, Cambodia’s GDP per capita has increased to USD1,563. The Cambodian government has recently declared its development visions to turn Cambodia into a higher-middle income country by 2030 and a high-income economy by 2050. Politically, Cambodia has enjoyed political stability, peace and relatively increasing civic space compared to the rest of Southeast Asia.
Despite those achievements, the CPP continues to be perceived as a communist party and, even worse, a part of the Indochinese Communist Party. This paper, therefore, seeks to highlight the history and evolution of the party as well as its political ideology in order to shed light on this political party.
Revolutionary Nationalism: The Root of the CPP
The CPP has always dated its founding as 28 August 1951, when the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP) was formed. The KPRP was the political party that had embraced a communist ideology since the 1930s. By and large, the roots of Cambodian communist movements were diverse. The first Cambodian communists were recruited independently by the Thai Communist Party, the French Communist Party and the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP).
The ICP, which consisted of the Communist parties of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, was undoubtedly the most influential political force for the communist movements in the region, which was created by the Communist International presented by Ho Chi Minh in a meeting in Hong Kong in October 1930. The ICP was officially accepted as a member of the Communist International in 1935. In this regard, Elizabeth Becker asserts that:
“… the concept of an Indochinese communism, was proposed by the Communist International due to Moscow’s belief that the industrial proletariats of Europe, and not the underdeveloped world, was the natural constituency for communism. Since the French ruled the three countries as one, Moscow simply imposed this imperialist structure on the new Communist Party.”
Under the ICP, the Vietnamese were denoted as “historically preordained” with a clear plan to recruit members in Indochina. However, the triumph of the Japanese during the early stages of World War II crippled French rule and helped to nurture nationalism in all three Indochinese countries. Consequently, the idea of an Indochinese-wide party was embedded in the rhetoric of fierce nationalism. In Cambodia, growing nationalist sentiment and national pride married historical mistrust and fear of neighbouring countries, which turned out to be a stumbling block for the ICP. Becker argues that:
“[Cambodia] was too large and too proud to be absorbed as a satellite… Sociologically, moreover, it was a country of rare homogeneity. The great majority of Cambodians spoke a common language (Khmer), practiced a common faith (Buddhism), and accepted a common heritage, which they traced back to the Angkor era.”
This backdrop of surging nationalism explains how the Cambodian communist movement was not ideology-oriented. Fighting for Cambodia’s independence, sovereignty and self-determination were initial goals of Cambodian communists. Therefore, it is fair to argue that the fathers of the CPP were not entirely communists, but genuine revolutionary nationalists.
According to the CPP record, after its inception the KPRP significantly contributed to the Royal Crusade for Independence led by the late King-Father Norodom Sihanouk, which forced the French to return true independence to Cambodia on 9 November 1953. Thereafter, the party claims to have vigorously pursued the safeguarding of national independence, the struggle against foreign interference and the promotion of democracy and liberty.
In the aftermath of the 18 March 1970 coup d’état, which toppled Sangkum Reastr Niyum, the KPRP joined a movement against the pro-American Lon Nol regime under the banner of the Kampuchea Front for National Salvation, headed by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. The Lon Nol regime eventually collapsed on 17 April 1975. Sadly, this victory was stolen by the Pol Pot clique, which turned Cambodia into what the CPP calls “a disaster unknown in history.” In response to the pressing desire of the people, the authentic patriotic, not revolutionary, forces of the party stood up for national liberation. As a result, the United Front for National Salvation of Kampuchea (UFNSK) was established on 2 December 1978. With support from Vietnamese forces the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown on 7 January 1979.
Undeniably, credit needs to be provided to the UFNSK, the CPP’s predecessor, for liberating and reconstructing Cambodia in the dire circumstances of Western sanctions and embargoes and the possible return of the genocidal regime. In this regard, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that, “Western powers should be ashamed for continuing to support the genocide regime of Pol Pot and to allow them to occupy the Cambodian seat in the UN from 1979 to 1991.”
The Continuity and Political transformation of the CPP since 1991
Despite being rooted in communism, the CPP—which was until October 1991 the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea (PRPK)—is not bound within ideological boundaries. In fact, it has always adopted a pragmatic approach to protect and promote the interests of the nation and the party. The CPP played an indispensable role in the Cambodian peace-negotiation process, which led to the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on 23 October 1991 and the creation of the second Kingdom of Cambodia.
A Guardian of Cambodian Monarchy
The most crucial historical event of the CPP was the common struggle of the party with the late King-Father Sihanouk against the illegal Lon Nol coup in 1970. In fact, most of the current leaders of the CPP, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, joined the underground movement against the US-supported Lon Nol regime after the late King Father called upon his Cambodian patriots to take up arms to liberate Cambodia from the “dictatorship and oppression of the clique of traitorous and pro-imperialist reactionaries.”
The CPP had always been loyal to Sihanouk. Since the political changes in 1991, they had made efforts to bring Sihanouk back and declared to follow the line of the Sangkum, which began with Sihanouk’s return to Cambodia on 14 November 1991. The CPP declared support for the retention of Sihanouk’s pre-18 March 1970 title as “the legal and legitimate Head of State of Cambodia” and “Father of the Nation.” After the 1993 election, Norodom Sihanouk was crowned as the King of Cambodia.
The CPP also played a very supportive role in the royal succession in 2004 in which H.M. Norodom Sihamoni was enthroned as the King of Cambodia on 29 October. The CPP leaders have reiterated on many occasions their unwavering commitment to defend and protect Cambodian Monarchy. This is the historical continuity of the CPP.
A Pragmatic Approach towards Free-Market and Liberal Plural Democracy
On 17-19 October 1991, during the Extraordinary Party Congress, less than a week before the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on Cambodia, the CPP adopted a new political platform in which it renounced communism and adopted “free market” policies. In fact, the CPP had embraced a free market economy even before the departure of Vietnamese troops in 1989.
At the Congress, President Heng Samrin mentioned nothing about the party’s pre-1978 history and its association with communist ideology. He stressed that:
“… our party, in response to the persistent call of the people, was the sole party that rose up without hesitation to save the nation from tragedy… During the past 13 years, our party has carried out its heavy and sacred historical responsibility in leading the people to overcome insurmountable difficulties left behind by the former regimes and to reconstruct the nation.”
More noticeably, in his address to the Congress, Prime Minister Hun Sen asserted that:
“Since the beginning, our party has set forth two major goals. First, end the war and bring about national reconciliation on the basis of preventing the return of the dander of the past, which we used to call the danger of genocide. Second, end the Cambodian people’s poverty within the framework of an independent and sovereign Cambodia with full territorial integrity.”
This implies that the CPP has not been ideologically oriented. It adopted a liberal multi-party democracy as stipulated in the 1992 Cambodian Constitution, which opened a space for political contestation. David Chandler observed in the early 1990s that, “The Cambodian media enjoyed unaccustomed freedom… Local human rights organizations, unthinkable in earlier time, also flourished.”
Currently, despite criticism and attacks, Cambodia’s democratization has progressed if it is viewed from a broad perspective. The truth of the matter is that the promotion of democratic values and the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are not a linear process. One must expect, minimally, the process to include two steps forward, one step sideward and even one step backward.
By all accounts, Cambodia upholds a multi-party democratic system. Recently, Cambodia successfully organised the Election of Commune/Sangkat Councils on 4 June 2017, with 12 parties registered and 7.8 million voters enlisted in the electronic system and, more importantly, the National Election on 29 July 2018, with the participation of 20 political parties. Therefore, it is naïve to call the absence of one opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, from the 2018 election the death of democracy in Cambodia.
The dissolution of the CNRP is legitimate under Cambodia’s legal frameworks and based on clear evidence. Comparatively, governments in the West, including Washington, Canberra and many European capitals, have all taken necessary legal and financial measures to fight against foreign interference in their politics and elections. Despite being a small state, Cambodia deserves and should be afforded the same rights to protect and safeguard its sovereignty and independence against foreign interference without disparately enforced standards.
Oddly, Cambodia has lately been criticised for narrowing civic space despite the fact that hundreds of NGOs and civil society organisations are operating their missions and even criticizing the government on a daily basis. Moreover, there are around 800 print media organisations, 70 online publications, 22 TV stations, 330 radio stations and 38 journalist associations. Civic space has been further promoted through digital platforms, especially Facebook. Prime Minister Hun Sen and other Cambodian leaders are active on this platform, which provides the Cambodian people a direct channel to raise their concerns and needs to their Prime Minister, ministers and lawmakers.
Economically, Cambodia has been a good student of the Washington Consensus, which emphasises trade liberalisation, privatisation, deregulation and prudent fiscal and monetary policy. A basic fact is that the ruling CPP has been keen to embrace the free market, privatisation and trade liberalisation by adopting an “open door policy” in the early 1990s and many other development plans. These include the 1999 Triangle Strategy; Socio-Economic Development Plan (SEDP-I, 1996-2000) and SEDP-II (2001-2005); Rectangular Strategy Phase I (2004), II (2008), III (2013), and IV (2018); and the Cambodian Industrial Development Plan (2015-2025).
As a result, Cambodia’s trade openness has been significantly promoted. According to the World Bank, Cambodia’s trade-GDP ratio increased to almost 125 percent in 2017. Cambodia is also a welcoming country for foreign investors. FDI inflows and foreign investors arriving in Cambodia continue to rise. Approved FDI amounts increased quickly, rising 38.4 percent, reaching US$2.4 billion during the first six months of 2018. Moreover, Cambodia’s macro-economic environment has been stable with low inflation, stable domestic currency and low public debt. At the end of 2017, the outstanding public debt amounted only to 30.2 percent of GDP at around US$6.67 billion, of which 0.04 percent was public domestic debt.
The Architect of Cambodia’s Absolute Peace through Win-Win Strategy
The Paris Peace Accords (PPA) were signed on 23 October 1991 by 19 countries in an effort to end Cambodia’s civil war. It paved the way for the deployment of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in 1992 to monitor the peace agreements and to organise the first general election in Cambodia in May 1993.
Undeniably, the UNTAC arrival contributed to the peace-making and peacekeeping processes, economic development and institutional capacity building in Cambodia. However, it stopped short of bringing absolute peace to the Kingdom as it failed to disarm the Khmer Rouge. As a result, fighting, kidnappings and terrorist attacks continued to be carried out by the Khmer Rouge along the Cambodia-Thailand border.
The creation of a coalition government of co-premiership in the aftermath of the UNTAC-sponsored election presented a political fragility as First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh and his FUNCINPEC party and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen and his CPP party engaged in a power struggle. In mid-1997, the First Prime Minister was accused of illegally importing weapons and forming a military alliance with the Khmer Rouge. For the CPP, this was the greatest security threat to Cambodia’s peace and stability. Unsurprisingly, armed clashes erupted in Phnom Penh on 5-6 July 1997.
The possible return of a civil war was real and imminent as FUNCINPEC loyalists retreated to their strongholds along the Cambodia-Thailand border where they might be joined by the Khmer Rouge. In this context, Prime Minister Hun Sen immediately launched his ‘Win-Win’ strategy to pre-empt this security risk by reintegrating Khmer Rouge remnants into Cambodian society. Amnesties in return for defections were offered to the Khmer Rouge as government troops made a final push. In December 1998, the final wave of defections of the Khmer Rouge, including two key leaders Khieu Sampan and Nuon Chea, resulted in the complete demise of the Khmer Rouge regime, which was responsible for turning Cambodia into killing fields where almost 2 million people perished.
This was the beginning of Cambodia’s history as a peaceful and unitary nation state for the first time since the departure of the French in 1953 and to a larger extent since the collapse of the Angkor Empire in 1431. This was done not through gun barrels, but by the reintegration of all factional fighters into the society. The inauguration of the ‘Win-Win Monument’ earlier this year signified the preciousness of peace and unitarity for Cambodians. Sadly, some Western writers and even a few Cambodian commentators see the construction of the monument as Hun Sen’s consolidation of power. This is another example of disparately-enforced norms, considering that the same writers have been silent on the erection of monuments to remember their respective countries’ invading wars in foreign lands, like Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Promoter of Cambodia’s Neutrality and International Engagement
Following the creation of the second Kingdom of Cambodia in 1993, the Cambodian government reinstated neutrality and non-alignment as the fundamental principles of its foreign policy. Article 53 of the 1993 Cambodian Constitution stipulates that: “The Kingdom of Cambodia adopts policy of permanent neutrality and non-alignment… follows a policy of peaceful co-existence with its neighbours and with all other countries throughout the world.” Prime Minister Hun Sen has often reaffirmed Cambodia’s neutrality and non-alignment. Recently, at the 41st Central Committee Congress in December 2018, the CPP also highlighted neutrality and non-alignment as the fundamental principles of Cambodia’s foreign policy.
Interestingly, since the early 1990s, the CPP leaders have attempted to exercise the foreign policy of neutrality and non-alignment in a new framework of strategic engagement with the outside world, especially with ASEAN. It is worth mentioning that other Cambodian leaders, including H.M. Norodom Sihanouk, indicated that ASEAN membership was not an immediate option for Cambodia as it might compromise Cambodia’s neutrality. In contrast, the CPP leaders, especially Prime Minister Hun Sen, saw an urgent need to balance traditional diplomacy, which relies primarily on bilateral relations, with a new diplomacy that emphasises the importance of multilateral relations. The rationale for the new approach was primarily due to their reflection on the past failure of Cambodia’s foreign policy, especially the strategic illusions of the Khmer Republic and the Democratic Kampuchea in the 1970s.
As a result, a year after the UNTAC departure, the Cambodian government took concrete steps to join ASEAN. Cambodian became an ASEAN observer in 1994 and acceded the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in 1995. Eventually, Cambodia was admitted as the tenth member of ASEAN on 30 April 1999.
Recently, Cambodia has been proactively engaged in many regional multilateral arrangements, including the ASEAN Plus Three and the East Asia Summit. It has also actively taken part in emerging regional mechanisms such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), as well as sub-regional cooperation mechanisms, including the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) and Mekong-Lancang Mekong Cooperation (MLC), Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS) and CLV (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) trilateral cooperation.
From experience as a war-torn country that needed support and assistance from the international community, Cambodia has contributed to the promotion of peace and security in other parts of the world, especially under the framework of the UN peacekeeping operations. Since 2006, Cambodia has dispatched 5,969 troops to UN peacekeeping missions in eight countries, including Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus and Mali.
Despite having roots in the communist movement, revolutionary nationalism has been at the core of the CPP and it has not been over consumed by ideology. It has adopted a pragmatic approach in search of best practices to serve Cambodia and its people, reflecting different eras and the history, culture and geopolitical complexity of the motherland.
MP Suos Yara concisely points out that:
“The CPP is a modern democratic party with local governance doctrines deriving from Buddhism, history, kingship and culture. The CPP is adaptable and favours pragmatism at both national and international levels. The part, which had its root in Marxism and revolutionary thoughts, has embraced capitalism and liberal democracy after the Paris Peace Accords in 1991. Consequently, the CPP has adapted well in the new political context through self-transformation.”
Still, Cambodian political opponents and even some Western politicians and media outlets remain entrenched in their Cold War mentality. It is very convenient for them to call anyone they dislike a communist in the name of democracy. To be fair, any assessment of Cambodia’s democratisation process must be made both in absolute and relative terms. In absolute terms, Cambodia’s democracy is currently in good shape compared to the situation 10 or 15 years ago. In relative terms, Cambodia has scored high relative to many countries in Southeast Asia on the promotion of democratic values and the protection of human rights.
The outside world’s negative perception of the CPP is partly due to misunderstanding, ignorance and worse still unwillingness to accept the truth of progress in Cambodia. It is also partly because the ruling CPP has not been persuasive enough in building and promoting Cambodian peace and development narratives to the rest of the world. To this end, the CPP needs to adopt a multi-front approach with various actors, including the government and its overseas diplomatic missions, party organisations, the media, think tanks, academic institutions and the business community, to inform foreign public opinions, correct misunderstanding and misperceptions and promote Cambodia’s image and prestige. Moreover, the CPP needs to acknowledge its weaknesses and work hard to address those shortcomings in good faith. Total denial strategy is not a viable approach.
The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.