Country Profile: Cambodia

Both cash flow and political power have remained concentrated in Cambodia, writes Zoe Holman.


Monks and sightseers beside the Tonle Sap river © Chris Stowers/Panos Pictures

It can be hard to escape the sound of jackhammers in Phnom Penh. From daybreak, the traditional sounds of the capital – the yodelling of street vendors and honking of tuk-tuks – now seem accompanied by the ubiquitous grind and screech of building sites. Indeed, a record boom has seen investment in Cambodia’s construction sector treble over the past five years, with a total of more than $7 billion worth of projects approved in 2016. Sprawling malls, condos and entertainment complexes now tower over the low-rise city – monuments to Cambodia’s entry into the world of global capitalism, with all its attendant consumerist cultures and trends.

For a country which was only 20 years earlier clawing its way back to a fragile peace after more than a decade of genocide and civil war, it may be tempting to view these countless new developments as symbols of progress. But, like their hastily laid foundations, the façade of modernization in Cambodia is shaky. Despite raising overall living standards and ushering in economic growth that has seen it branded an Asian ‘tiger economy’, three decades of rule by Prime Minister Hun Sen have done little to deliver social, economic or political equity for the majority of Cambodians.

Behind the scaffolding of construction sites, an estimated 300,000 workers – mostly internal migrants from the provinces, and many of them children – toil for around $7 a day in precarious conditions that have been compared to forced labour. Similarly, the million employees in the garment sector – the other backbone of the country’s economy – are drawn to the capital’s numerous factories on fickle short-term contracts for as little as $4 per day. Cambodia’s new-found wealth is, by contrast, sequestered in the hands of the country’s ruling elite – an indivisible mesh of political, business and military.

Like the cash-flow, political power has remained concentrated. Officially a parliamentary democracy with regular elections, the country has since 1998 been ruled by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Hun Sen, a former commander of the Khmer Rouge (the regime that perpetrated the genocide of 1975-79). Opposition parties are licensed and there is a sanctioned space for political dissent and civil society. But that space has always been carefully policed by the CPP and is narrowing significantly.

The CPP’s main rival is the Cambodia National Rescue Party, whose charismatic leader Sam Rainsy last year found himself in exile for the third time in a decade. Other opposition members of parliament have been subject to beatings, harassment and arbitrary arrest with regularity. The activities of NGOs and civil society have meanwhile come under greater attack, as with the recent detention of five high-profile human rights defenders on charges Human Rights Watch describes as ‘farcical’.

Less visible still are all those Cambodians (an estimated 800,000 since 2000) who have faced forcible eviction and destitution as a result of an escalating policy of land-grabs meted out by government members, security forces and affiliated businesses. Such is the scale of land-grabbing in Cambodia that a dossier of cases has been submitted to the International Criminal Court, claiming that the violations by the country’s ruling elite amount to crimes against humanity.

Campaign groups like Global Witness have warned that such conditions should be a red flag to foreign investors in Cambodia – the biggest of which is China, whose company names brand the majority of construction developments and in whose geopolitical orbit Cambodia is becoming more firmly entrenched. China is unlikely to be ruffled, but the country’s questionable course of development may yet give its long-standing Western donors and biggest trading partners (the UK and US) pause for thought.