Cambodia's political landscape shifted dramatically in the 2013 election, with major gains by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) further cemented in the 2017 commune elections. This set the scene for an unpredictable general election, but the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) manoeuvered to protect its future, and the opposition was dissolved in late 2017. Meanwhile, the economy continues to grow at a dramatic pace, but many observers are beginning to question at what cost to the environment.
The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has dominated the politics of Cambodia since 1979, when it was installed in power by the Vietnamese. Party and state are intertwined and the CPP leadership has been making plans for the future with dynastic alliances between its offspring.
However, this control was shaken in recent national and local elections when the united opposition was able to make significant gains. In the 2017 commune elections, the opposition CNRP managed to win 489 communes, a tenfold increase on its performance in 2012, offering them a tangible share in local governance for the first time.
However, the overall political climate has been rapidly deteriorating, beginning in 2015 with the threatened arrest and subsequent self-imposed exile of then-CNRP leader Sam Rainsy. His deputy, Kem Sokha, took over the leadership of the party going into the commune elections, but was himself arrested in late 2017 on treason charges that many claim were politically motivated. To make matters worse for the opposition, the CNRP was officially dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017, putting major question marks over the legitimacy of the 2018 general election.
There are many heated topics on the national agenda, including the sensitive shared border with Vietnam and land reform. Many rural areas of the country have been allocated to economic land concessions for regional companies to develop plantations, but observers suggest these have been used as a cloak for illegal logging and have led to land grabbing. The government is keen to promote land reform as a populist policy to help boost the rural vote.
The governing Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) controls most of the national television stations, radio stations and most newspapers. Opposition demonstrations or antigovernment activities are rarely reported via official channels. However, social media is plugging the gap and a new generation of young Cambodians are avid Facebook and YouTube users.
The year 2017 saw a dramatic clampdown on the free press in Cambodia, with the closure of the long-running Cambodia Daily under the duress of an unpaid tax bill. Broadcast licences were also revoked for Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and a slew of local radio stations, adding up to the most aggressive assault on independent media in Cambodia since the establishment of a free press in 1993.
Badly traumatised by decades of conflict, Cambodia’s economy was long a gecko amid the neighbouring dragons. This has slowly started to change, as the economy has been liberalised and international investors are circling to take advantage of the new opportunities.
The government, long shunned by international big business, is keen to benefit from these new-found opportunities. China has come to the table to play for big stakes, and annually pledges more than all the other international donors put together, with no burdensome strings attached. There is huge investment from China and other Asian neighbours changing the urban landscape in the capital Phnom Penh.
Aid was long the mainstay of the Cambodian economy, and NGOs have done a lot to force important sociopolitical issues onto the agenda. However, Cambodia remains one of Asia’s poorest countries and income is desperately low for many families, with the official minimum wage set at only US$170 per month.
Development Vs Environment
Cambodia’s pristine environment may be a big draw for adventurous ecotourists, but much of it is currently under threat. Ancient forests are being razed to make way for plantations, rivers are being sized up for major hydroelectric power plants and the South Coast is being stripped of sand and explored by leading oil companies. Places like the Cardamom Mountains are on the front line, and it remains to be seen whether the environmentalists or the investors will win the debate. All this economic activity adds up to some impressive statistics, but it’s unlikely to encourage the ecotourism that is just starting to take off.