On Dec 2, 1978, the leaders of Cambodia’s future ruling party gathered in a small clearing in Kratie province, just over the border from Vietnam, and prepared to take back the revolution.
Heng Samrin addressed a crowd of several hundred Cambodian refugees who had been trucked from Vietnam for the occasion, recounts historian Evan Gottesman in his book “Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge.”
Mr Heng Samrin, then the president of the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation, went on to hold senior positions in the subsequent Cambodian governments. Currently he is the honorary chairman of the Cambodian People’s Party Permanent Committee and the president of the National Assembly.
In his speech, Mr Heng Samrin talked of revolution, and he had nothing but praise for the revolution of the Khmer Rouge, according to Mr Gottesman, who cites a US government radio monitoring agency.
“Our people won the glorious victory of April 17, 1975, totally liberating our country, opening for the Kampuchean people a new era, the era of independence, freedom and socialism,” he is quoted as saying, referring to the date when the Khmer Rouge seized power.
Cambodia’s troubles, he continued, came a few days after liberation, when “the reactionary Pol Pot-Ieng Sary gang” launched the destruction of Cambodia, killing “authentic revolutionaries” who disapproved of their “barbarous policy.”
Chea Sim and Hun Sen listened to the speech from the background of the clearing, according to Mr Gottesman.
Mr Chea Sim was 46 at the time, two years older than Mr Heng Samrin, and the vice president of the Front. He also went on to hold senior positions in government, and today he is president of the Senate.
Mr Hun Sen, 26 at the time, is much younger than his two colleagues and Mr Gottesman described him as “a scrawny, angular soldier” with an “ill-fitting glass eye and thick black glasses correcting what remains of his vision.” He became prime minister at age 33 in 1984 and has retained the helm of Cambodia’s fractious politics for the subsequent 25 years, impressing observers with his political acumen.
Mr Heng Samrin ended his speech in Kratie by telling the crowd to “struggle resolutely to overthrow the reactionary Pol Pot-Ieng Sary gang,” according to Mr Gottesman. Then, he walked over to thank and shake the hand of an elderly Vietnamese man in the crowd who turned out to be Le Duc Tho. Mr Tho was one of the founding members of the Indochinese Communist Party.
The Front, with the substantial backing of the Vietnam army, seized the reins of government from Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge within a few months of that meeting in 1978. The CPP has held on to power ever since, and today the faces of the trinity who gathered in that clearing in 1978 are on ubiquitous signs that dot the countryside, reminding the Cambodian people of the party’s reach.
Some may be surprised to learn that today is in fact the 59th anniversary of the party’s founding, according to the party’s own chronology. The CPP traces its origins to the 1951 creation of the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party, which was established when the Indochinese Communist Party was broken into separate national parties in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
By using this founding date, the CPP has positioned itself as the rightful inheritor of Cambodia’s communist tradition, which explains Mr Heng Samrin’s comments in 1979 about taking back the revolution. When the antecedent of the CPP-known as the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea-came to power with the backing of Vietnam, in effect it was “the revived pro-Vietnamese wing of the Cambodian Communist Party that had almost been destroyed by Pol Pot,” writes Nayan Chanda in his book “Brother Enemy.”
After the Vietnamese left Cambodia in 1989, the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea changed its name to the Cambodian People’s Party and abandoned communism and revolutionary ideology. But the party uses the year 1951 as its founding date, giving it a claim to historical legitimacy beyond that supplied by the toppling of the Khmer Rouge. Thus, on the 55th anniversary of the CPP’s founding, the party achievements listed by Mr Chea Sim included helping to ensure the country’s independence from France in 1953.
“Over 55 years, the Cambodian People’s Party has overcome every difficult step, despite turning points, complexities and great dangers,” Mr Chea Sim said in 2006.
The use of 1951 as a founding date can be seen as having multiple meanings, wrote Pung Chhiv Kek, founder and president of local rights group Licadho, in a recent e-mail.
“The year 1951 clearly indicates the political objective of being seen as a major force helping to get rid of colonial forces from Indochina,” she wrote. “[At] the same time, it is a way to put the CPP on the same legitimate level as King [Norodom] Sihanouk, who always presented himself as the main challenge to French rulers, forcing them to grant full independence in 1953.
“Ultimately, the reference to 1951, which also goes back to the Khmer Rouge legacy, could be a way to position the CPP as the only political force able to achieve reconciliation inside the Cambodian society, and with those of the former Khmer Rouge who were not prosecuted.”
Asked why the CPP uses this founding date, Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said it is simply a matter of history.
“We use this date because it was the date of [the] party’s founding,” he wrote in a recent e-mail. “The Khmer Rouge used the year 1960, after Pol Pot took control of the party by eliminating the top leader, for the party anniversary.”
Today the party plans to hold an annual celebration at CPP headquarters, with thousands of supporters expected, said Chea Sokhom, secretary general of the Committee for Organizing National and International Ceremonies.
The 59th anniversary comes after three or so decades in power. In that time, the CPP’s grip on power has grown stronger, a trend shown clearly in the results of national elections.
In the 1993 Untac-supervised national election, royalist Funcinpec actually won the most seats with 58, while the CPP took 51. But when the CPP threatened not to accept the results, Funcinpec agreed to form a coalition government.
Then, in 1997, the CPP staged what some observers called a coup against its coalition partner, although the CPP said it was defending itself against what was actually a coup attempt by Funcinpec. Then-party president Prince Norodom Ranariddh fled during the fighting, during which at least 65 people were killed, including many Funcinpec officials, and more than 200 wounded, according to Human Rights Watch.
After the fighting, then-co-Prime Minister Hun Sen allowed the prince, also co-prime minister, to return in the face of international pressure and the withholding of aid. The CPP narrowly won the following 1998 elections, which were marred by accusations of election irregularities.
The CPP’s star continued to rise in the next two elections, while that of Funcinpec fell. The party won 70 of 123 seats in 2003, and then it secured 90 seats in 2008, giving it the two-thirds majority needed to lead the country on its own. Funcinpec’s total had dwindled to 26 in 2003, and by 2008 it had split into Funcinpec and the Norodom Ranariddh Party, each of which won a dismal two seats. The SRP picked up 24 eats in 2003 and 26 in 2008.
The CPP has showed similar dominance in the commune elections. Although the party won only 70 percent of commune council seats in 2007, the election gave it control of 1,591 of the 1,621 commune government, or about 98 percent. That same year, the party claimed that its membership had surpassed the 5 million mark, which would mean that more than one third of Cambodia’s entire population is a CPP member.
CPP Lawmaker Cheam Yeap, who is also a member of the party’s 36-member permanent committee, said in a recent interview that the CPP will do even better in the next National Assembly election.
“I predict that we will get 120 seats and [we will] leave the other three for the three parties to share,” he said.
“My party will not lose, even in the next 50 years, as each member of the party is like the youth of the party and the campaigner,” he continued. “‘Youth’ here means that they contribute to protect the country, nation and the party. And ‘campaigner’ means that after the party policy comes out, they will disseminate it in their local area.”
Part of the secret of the party’s success, Mr Yeap said, is that members are chosen carefully for “loyalty to the nation” and for their ability to “bring people to join the party.”
He also cited the CPP’s presence down to the village level throughout the countryside.
“We have party committees in all 24 cities and provinces, including Phnom Penh,” he said. “We have district party committees all across the 193 districts. We have commune party committees in all of the country’s 1,621 communes. We also have party committees in all 13,850 village across the country.”
Raoul Jennar, a Belgian consultant to the government and member of the Quick Reaction Unit of the Council of Ministers, said the party’s credibility and success are based in part on the country’s liberation from the Khmer Rouge, the reconstruction of infrastructure and the popularity of Prime Minister Hun.
He also said the party is aided by its “high sense of unity,” which stands in stark contrast to the disharmony of other political parties.
“No doubt that there are different groups within the CPP, but they have always been able to remain united-that makes a huge difference compared with the other political parties,” he wrote.
But other observers, some of whom declined to go on record, point to a darker side to the CPP’s hold on power.
Elizabeth Becker, author of “When the War Was Over,” said the CPP, firmly rooted as the ruling party during Vietnamese occupation, outmaneuvered all comers through threats and military force in the 1990s.
“Subsequently, thanks to Hun Sen’s power and ability, money and guns, the CPP has solidified its control over the country and Hun Sen has become the prime minister for life,” she wrote in a recent e-mail.
Ms Becker also said that the CPP is taking the country in the direction of “single party rule with little regard for upholding the law or administering justice.”
“By suppressing most opposition, the CPP has made a sham of elections,” she wrote. “There is a strong sense of corruption and entitlement in the party. The divide between the small elite and vast population of poor is deepening. This is not ‘corruption as usual’ that one saw in the Lon Nol regime and the Sihanouk era. First, the sums of money available from the global economy dwarf anything seen in Cambodia before. And secondly, this corruption involves selling off the country to foreigners. The current land grab is a case in point.”
Mr Yeap did not respond directly to Ms Becker’s criticism, but he admitted that there was room for some small improvement.
“There are still small problems, like corruption, using the power to abuse the weak and exploiting state property,” he said, adding that these are only “temporary problems” that will end with recent legislation.
Mr Kanharith responded directly to Ms Becker’s charges.
“I don’t think a single party rule is possible, because whatever you do, you always have one part of the population [that] disagrees with you,” he wrote.
“If the CPP doesn’t care about the have-haven’t issue, it will lose the election and the ones who [are] attacking us will win,” Mr Kanharith added. “The CPP is here to stay and we are dealing with this, not just to win, but for the benefit of both [the] elite and rural mass.”
Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said in a recent interview that Cambodia’s ruling party has many things going in its favor when it comes to elections.
“It controls the media, has money and human resources to help in elections and has strong control from the village to the provincial level, which gives the party an advantage over the other parties,” he said.
The CPP is also an effective disseminator of propaganda, he added, and “they keep doing it all the time.”
“CPP has the people who have ability in efficient propaganda,” he said. “It uses all levels of people, from the village chief to the provincial governor to improve its strength.”
Mr Hun Sen has himself cited the CPP’s influence in the media as giving his party an advantage. In May 2008, he lashed out at an opposition radio station, saying he would use superior media resources to drown out criticism.
“We will attack back for three hours,” he said at the time. “You have one channel; we have 39 channels.”
Thach Setha, a founding member of the SRP and a member of the Phnom Penh Municipal Council, said the CPP wins elections because they are not free and fair, a claim the CPP has repeatedly denied.
“The names of people who supported Sam Rainsy were removed from the lists,” he said of past election. “And some [people], they have their name in the election list, but when they go for voting, already somebody vote for them.”
“If voting was fair, it’s impossible [for the CPP] to win,” he added.
Mr Panha’s Comfrel, in an August 2008 report, said the 2008 National Assembly elections did “not reach international standards for a free and fair election.” The report cited 1,148 cases of people being blocked from voting and 703 voters who had their names removed from voting lists, among other things. But international monitoring groups said the election had improved to a satisfactory degree, citing “less violence and fewer complaints.”
Some of the criticisms of the CPP made by observers are succinctly summarized in a 2008 report on Cambodia from the US government’s Congressional Research Service.
“The CPP under Hun Sen has gained strength through elections; legal, extralegal and political maneuvers; and its influence on the broadcast media,” states the classified report.
The reports says that US lawmakers have debated whether to restrict economic support of Cambodia until Mr Hun Sen and the government “have established a record of respect for political freedoms and civil liberties and have reduced corruption.”
The US barred many forms of assistance following the 1997 factional fighting in Cambodia, but in 2007 the government lifted that ban. Other governments never stopped giving Cambodia money, and aid has continued to increase, despite criticism that this money is not used transparently. Foreign donors pledged $1.1 billion in June, up from $900 million in 2008, and $600 million in 2006.
This aid is part of “uneven development” that includes “weak public investment” and “strong capitalistic financial inputs,” argues Ms Chhiv Kek, the founder of Licadho.
“The country is still surprisingly relying on huge financial aid and foreign assistance,” she wrote. “The results of this uneven development…is a very weak involvement of the government-with civil servants are dangerously underpaid-in basic sectors crucial for long term development, like health care and education. In fact, numerous new built schools, hospitals and health care centers lack educated teachers, doctors and nurses.”
Asked about his party’s achievements, Mr Yeap pointed to the country’s economy, which was expanding at more than 10 percent pet year before the global recession hit in 2008. He also cited polls by the International Republican Institute, which conducted seven nationwide surveys in Cambodia since August 2006, interviewing between 1,600 and 2,000 Cambodians each time. The surveys show a steady increase in the number of people who say the country is headed in the right direction, with a jump from 60 percent in August 2006 to 75 percent in August 2007 to 79 percent in August 2009.
“This is one proof that gives justice to the CPP and to Samdech Hun Sen, who lead the government,” Mr Yeap said.
But Kem Sokha, president of the Human Rights Party, said he created his party in 2007 because the CPP has not made enough progress.
“The current ruling party has not solved the three big problems,” he said. “Ensuring democracy, human rights and raising living standards.”
Mr Hun Sen is the most visible member of the CPP and the government, regularly appearing on television and radio for speeches. In a speech in 2007, Mr Hun Sen said he plans to continue in office until he hits 90, a statement he made after comments by an unnamed individual that was apparently Comfrel’s Mr Panha.
“[The individual] said that when I shave done enough successfully I should step down,” he said on the speech, broadcast on the radio. “I would like to tell you that I haven’t succeeded yet. Because of your comment I will stand [for office] until I am 90 years old.”
Observers said it is hard to imagine a CPP without Mr Hun Sen.
“Without Samdech Hun Sen, there would be catastrophe and war could possibly take place,” said Ros Chantrabot, a political scientist and one of the founders of the Royal Academy of Cambodia. “Cambodia could turn to the same condition as before 1998.”
“We needed a very strong person to control the current situation from 1998 and to stay at least another 20 years [from today] to enhance solidarity,” he added.
Mr Jennar said a “sudden disappearance of such a leader could create vacuum and instability. Not only within the party.”
“That’s why I do think there is a need to give new responsibilities to a new generation. Among senior officials there are more and more skilled people with a sense of democracy that are prepared to become rulers. A true leader is also a founder that makes the future possible.”
Mr Kanharith, spokesman for the CPP, said the rule in the party is that there are “two potential replacements” for any person, including Prime Minister Hun Sen. He declined to say who these “potential replacements” are, but he confirmed neither Mr Chea Sim or Mr Heng Samrin is one of them.
Addressing similar concerns in 2005, Mr Samrin said the party would run smoothly without Mr Hun Sen, with Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng as his replacement until the next election. His comments followed a statement by Mr Hun Sen that the country would fall into chaos if he were to die or retire.
“[Only if] there was a coup or murder against the prime minister, [then] supporters would react and struggle. Then chaos would come,” Mr Heng Samrin said at the time. “But if [the premier] were to die, or resign normally, his deputy will act until the next election.”