Stealth Authoritarianism in Cambodia
Overt authoritarianism has become extremely costly, prompting trade sanctions and other international punishments, according to scholars such as Varol. In order to avoid this, countries such as Cambodia have incorporated superficial trappings of democracy like “free and fair” elections in order to avoid international scrutiny and the costs that go along. Since he came to power during a coup, Hun Sen has been disguising the authoritarianism of his regime under the guise of legitimacy and the rule of law, using subtle forms of control such as shutting down independent newspapers by bankrupting them with extremely high taxes to silence the opposition.
Naazneen H. Barma, the author of the Duck of Minerva article, characterizes this regime as a competitive authoritarian regime. He mentions that people thought it would liberalize in 2013 elections when the opposition party came close to an upset win of the election but that the incumbent regime stayed in power and few changes have been made. If anything, Cambodia has become more authoritarian by co-opting international liberalization attempts in order to legitimize the regime’s power.
One of Cambodia’s two English-language newspapers was forced to shut down after getting a $6 billion tax bill that it has not been allowed to appeal. The Cambodia Daily argues that this tax bill is not reflective of its finances and it has been operating at a loss since 2008. The Cambodian government has also forced eighteen radio stations to close or stop programming. The New York Times speculates that this attempted suppression of the free press is in preparation for elections next July. Without independent newspapers, it will be much more difficult to expose the regime or influence voters on a widespread basis. This relates to Bermeo’s assertion that while blatant election day fraud is no longer popular, more subtle manipulation, of elections, such as limiting the information voters have access to, occurs in hybrid regimes.
Hun Sen also jailed the leader of the opposition party, Kem Sokha, on charges of treason. The justification for these treason charges was his alleged collusion with the United States. While opposition leaders in stealth authoritarian regimes are usually jailed for non-political crimes and treason is a political crime, the leader of the opposition party wasn’t killed or imprisoned without charges. The treason charges he received wer.e ostensibly due to collusion with the United States and not his opposition to the political regime. This veils the regime’s imprisonment of an opposition leader with some legitimacy even if it’s still relatively clear that he was jailed for his political differences. This smokescreen of non-political prosecution gives the regime some plausible deniability because it hid its political motivations for jailing him behind legal justifications.
Although Sen has never resorted to a coup again since he originally took power in 1997, the more subtle forms of consolidating power he’s been using recently may have been even more effective. This includes patronage for political support and the threat of violence against any opposition. While the threat of violence is still present, actual violence and intimidation have recently declined. Hun Sen’s regime has a strong control over the political economy, which gives them a great amount of power over the country and its citizens even without the use of force or politicized violence.
Other forms of stealth authoritarian control the government has adopted are the suppression of political protests with the excuse that the government wanted to avoid “color revolutions.” It has also expelled foreign human rights groups and newspapers and silenced civil society through bribery and intimidation. This demonization of foreign countries and international human rights groups is similar to Russia’s positioning of foreign countries and their governments as enemies. Varol notes that it has expelled all foreign groups in order to avoid international scrutiny and foster nationalism while disguising these measures behind the smokescreen of the protection of national sovereignty.
While some of the authoritarianism in this regime seems relatively overt, overall, this regime appears to fit Varol’s description of stealth authoritarianism. It has the appearance of contestable elections, yet the same person has been in power for twenty years. Dissenting viewpoints have also been limited through the semi-legal means available to the government such as jailing political opponents for crimes that aren’t politically partisan and levying taxes against newspapers that these newspapers have no hope of paying and forcing them to shut down, giving these attempts to silence independent news and opposition leaders the appearance of legality and legitimacy.
Barma, Naazneen, H. “Darkness Falls in Cambodia.” Duck of Minerva. Sept. 28, 2017. Retrieved September 28, 2017.
Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy. Vol. 27. No. 1. 2016.
Paddock, Richard C. “The Cambodia Daily to Close (After Chasing One Last Big Story).” The New York Times. Sept. 3, 2017. Retrieved Sept. 28, 2017.
Varol, Ozan. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review. Vol. 100, no. 4. 2015.
*””Cambodia Daily Reading” Creative Commons Zero license.”