Hun Sen’s Legacy is the Defeat of Western Foreign Policy

The long-serving Cambodian leader has demonstrated that there is nothing natural or inevitable about the emergence of liberal democracy.

Cambodia’s Hun Sen, the world’s longest serving prime minister, this week handed over power to his eldest son, having vanquished all opposition during his 38 years in power. His legacy goes beyond the country’s own borders, though it is in Cambodia that we can best understand how he has managed to subvert and defeat some key Western assumptions.

For decades, Western approaches to geopolitics have followed modernization theory, which predicts that democracy will automatically follow economic development. Modernization theory appears sensible: as an economy develops, people demand rights to protect their property and a greater say in how wealth is used. People want to elect the government that spends their taxes and hold them to account for the services they expect. Thus democracy grows.

In 1993, when Cambodia was constituting itself as a pluralist democracy and the United Nations-administered elections saw four parties elected to the National Assembly, Cambodia’s GDP was just $2.53 billion at current exchange rates. Today, three decades on, it has grown by over 1000 percent, but instead of democratic pluralism, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party controls 99.8% of all local councils, 100 percent of elected Senators, and 96 percent of the National Assembly.

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