Don't Railroad Cambodia's Democrats

Report China

Don't Railroad Cambodia's Democrats

September 15, 1998 11 min read
Richard Fisher
Distinguished Fellow in China Policy

Thousands of Cambodians protesting for democracy in the capital of Phnom Penh are looking to the United States for help. On September 8, 9, and 10, these peaceful protesters were attacked and dispersed by the troops of Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.

A number of countries, however, are trying to railroad Cambodia's democrats into forming a coalition government with Hun Sen. This almost certainly would lead to a reprise of a major blunder made in 1993 when the Clinton Administration allowed Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge official whose Cambodia People's Party (CPP) was installed by Vietnam, to bully his way into a coalition with Prince Norodom Ranariddh, winner of the war-torn country's first election. Hun Sen used his position to undermine Ranariddh and launched a bloody coup in July of last year.

Because the international community denied him aid after this coup, Hun Sen calculated that he could regain international favor by allowing an election last July 26. He then used his dominant power to terrorize his opposition and influence the election outcome. On September 1, Hun Sen's party was declared the winner with 64 seats in the 122-seat National Assembly; parliamentary rules, however, prevent him from forming a government until he reaches a coalition with one of the two main opposition parties, and the opposition leaders are holding out until Hun Sen allows an impartial investigation of their allegations of election fraud.

It is essential that the United States stand squarely in support of Cambodia's democrats and not abandon them, as would Japan, Australia, the European Union (EU), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Hun Sen should be told that the United States will not recognize any government resulting from an unfair election.

Crisis in Phnom Penh

Hun Sen and many in the international community thought the July 26 election would bring greater stability to Cambodia. It has led instead to a new crisis.

Starting on about August 25, thousands of supporters of opposition leaders Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy camped out near the National Assembly. They supported demands by Ranariddh and Rainsy that the National Election Commission (NEC) give a fair hearing to hundreds of complaints regarding the election--especially a nearly last-minute NEC change in the vote-to-seat allocation formula that gave a greater number of seats to Hun Sen's CPP. Ranariddh and Rainsy want their complaints to be heard before either will consider entering into a coalition needed to form a new government. Cambodia's constitution requires a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly to approve a new government.

Heightened tension has accompanied the opposition's protests. On August 20, a grenade was thrown close to Rainsy and bullets were fired. Although Rainsy was unharmed, a Japanese journalist died. On August 23, protesters burned a statue commemorating Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia--a deep insult to Hun Sen, who owes his position to Vietnam. Former leader King Norodom Sihanouk hosted negotiations between representatives of Hun Sen and the opposition on September 5, but there has been little progress.

On September 8, Hun Sen tried to arrest Rainsy in a confrontation that resulted in the death of at least one protester. On September 9, Hun Sen's troops attacked and dispersed protesters outside the National Assembly, but Ranariddh and Rainsy are still refusing to consider a coalition that would allow Hun Sen to start a new government. In light of last year's coup, during which over 100 opposition members were killed, and the March 31, 1997, grenade attack on Sam Rainsy, which killed 20 of Rainsy's supporters, a further crackdown by Hun Sen is a strong possibility.

Largely Fair Polling But Flawed Election

To understand why so many Cambodians are willing to face such danger, it is important to examine the events before and after the election. As an observer with the International Republican Institute (IRI), the author was able to view 12 polling centers on July 26 and eight vote count centers on July 27 in the province of Kratie, about five hours north of Phnom Penh by boat.

Turnout approached 90 percent, and Cambodians can take credit for conducting the election and the local vote counting in an orderly manner. As summarized in a joint statement issued by the IRI and the National Democratic Institute two days after the election, "The balloting and counting processes were generally well administered, and the atmosphere on the balloting and counting days was largely peaceful and upbeat."

Ensuring a CPP Victory

A fair election, however, was far from what Hun Sen wanted. For most of the last year, he used his near-monopoly on political power to ensure that his CPP won the election. In his bid to regain international credibility, Hun Sen announced in July 1997 that he would consider holding a new election. At the time, however, most opposition leaders were in exile in Thailand, having fled the execution of over 100 of their members by Hun Sen's forces.

By early this year, as it became clear that Hun Sen was willing to gamble on an election, some opposition leaders like Sam Rainsy returned to start campaigning. But Rainsy and Ranariddh faced harassment from the start and were denied access to the media by the government. Hun Sen used his control of the budget to build many new schools, hand out campaign gifts, and fund a large party apparatus. In Kratie, the CPP governor claimed to have registered 75 percent of eligible voters for the ruling party. And Hun Sen used his control of security forces to harass the opposition country-wide. Before the election, the United Nations (U.N.) was investigating 12 campaign-related deaths of opposition supporters, and there were numerous reports of CPP intimidation.

As the election neared, however, the campaign became energized as public debate flourished and popular participation grew. On election day, many Cambodians bravely voted their consciences; in Kratie the opposition won two of the three available seats.

Flawed NEC

Perhaps the greatest flaw in the July election was the partisan design of its governing body, the National Election Commission, which was packed with CPP members. The lone non-CPP commissioner, the nonpartisan democracy activist Kassie Neou, played a significant role in ensuring that the polling process was fair, but much of the NEC's decision-making was carried out in secret. In late May, the NEC quietly changed the formula by which assembly seats would be allocated in relation to a party's votes. The new formula favored the party with the most votes and apparently was designed to give an advantage to the CPP. After the election, the opposition noticed this change and protested.

Apparently because of pressure from Hun Sen, the NEC has refused to give a fair hearing to this complaint and to hundreds of other formal opposition complaints about irregularities in polling and local vote-counting. A fair hearing would help defuse the current crisis in Phnom Penh and create an atmosphere that could lead to the formation of a new government. Instead, on September 1, the NEC announced the formal results of the election, giving the CPP 41.1 percent of the votes and 64 seats in the Assembly. Ranariddh was awarded 43 seats, and Rainsy received 15.

Shameful Foreign Pressure

Hun Sen's violence before and after the election and the NEC's refusal to hear the opposition's complaints make it astounding that so many countries are urging the opposition to honor the results of the election and form a new government. Since September 1, Japan and ASEAN have called the election "fair" and have urged the opposition to reconcile with Hun Sen. Previously, the EU called the elections fair; on September 4, it advocated reconciliation.

Just before the election, the leadership of the Joint International Observer Group (JIOG), an umbrella organization for 34 groups, including participants from the EU, ASEAN, and other countries, rejected a report by its own observers that was critical of the Hun Sen government's conduct of the election. But such reservations by the JIOG's own members did not stop JIOG spokesman Sven Linder, a Swedish diplomat, from stating just after the elections that the voting "reflects in a credible way, the will of the Cambodian people."

Repeating the 1993 Betrayal

Regrettably, it appears that most of the governments now seeking to legitimize the Cambodian election results and urging the opposition--but not Hun Sen--to reconcile are doing so in full knowledge that the opposition's complaints have some validity. By so doing, they are abandoning the opposition to a fate controlled largely by Hun Sen.

This is exactly what happened in 1993 after the U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping program and elections, which cost over $2 billion. After Ranariddh won the 1993 election, Hun Sen threatened a coup. Instead of standing up to Hun Sen's threats, King Sihanouk, with the complicit backing of many countries and the implicit backing of the United States, brokered a deal that allowed Hun Sen to keep control of the military and the economy. This mistake allowed Hun Sen gradually to undermine the results of the election by isolating Cambodian democrats and extending his control over the economy. Hun Sen also allowed the drug trade to grow; suspected drug lords are among his most powerful supporters. Following his coup, and until the mid-1998 election campaign, Hun Sen revived authoritarian rule in Cambodia.

The United States Should Support Democracy

The Clinton Administration should not repeat its 1993 blunder by conferring approval or legitimacy on the July 26 Cambodian election. Instead, the United States should support Cambodia's democrats by urging Hun Sen to allow the NEC to investigate the opposition's complaints as the best way to defuse the current crisis and help the formation of a new government. As it strongly urges Hun Sen to refrain from violence against the opposition, the United States also should criticize countries that are ready to ignore Hun Sen's abuses and push the opposition into a deadly coalition.

Genuine stability in Cambodia requires a democratic future. The Cambodian people want democracy; it is they who deserve credit for the degree of fairness in the July election. Since the 1950s, U.S. taxpayers have spent about $5 billion on economic and military aid to Cambodia, in addition to losing about 500 of their countrymen there during the Indochina conflict. To honor the bravery and sacrifice of Cambodians and Americans, the Clinton Administration should:

  • Refuse to legitimize the election. The Clinton Administration should not join Japan and other countries in seeking to legitimize the Cambodian election. Instead, the United States should publicly call on Cambodia's National Election Commission and on Hun Sen himself to allow a fair and open hearing of the opposition's complaints. The United States should tell both the NEC and Hun Sen that democracy requires a tolerance that, so far, they have been unwilling to demonstrate.

  • Withhold aid and recognition. After Hun Sen's 1997 coup, the Administration suspended most aid to Cambodia except for some humanitarian assistance. It should continue to do so. The United States also should continue its refusal to recognize the Hun Sen government's claim to Cambodia's seat in the U.N. Until Hun Sen allows a fair hearing of the opposition's complaints, moreover, the United States should urge ASEAN not to admit Cambodia to full membership in that organization.

  • Warn Hun Sen against using violence to silence the opposition. The Clinton Administration should condemn the violent crackdown by Hun Sen's troops against peaceful demonstrators on September 8 and 9. It should warn Hun Sen that the United States will suspend diplomatic relations with Cambodia if his forces harm opposition leaders. In addition, the Administration. should offer Ranariddh and Rainsy bulletproof clothing and blast-resistant vehicles.

The State Department has a mixed record of helping democrats like Sam Rainsy. On August 20, U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Quinn reportedly intervened with the Hun Sen government to secure the release of Rainsy, who had been arrested in the aftermath of the grenade attack on him. This goes far to counter an often-stated opinion, as reported in The New York Times, that Quinn is "widely perceived as pro-Hun Sen."1 However, Quinn also is thought to have prevented the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from completing its investigation of last year's grenade attack on Rainsy. Reportedly, after death threats against the FBI agents, Quinn sent them home.2 It is likely that their investigation would have established that Hun Sen's security forces conducted the attack, and the State Department may have wished to avoid complicating relations with Hun Sen.3 The FBI should complete its report of this incident and make its findings public.

  • Credit the Cambodian people. All credit for the proper conduct of the polling and initial vote count belongs to the Cambodian people. The United States should distinguish between their performance and the violence and intimidation of Hun Sen's government and party. In a sad irony, the governments and organizations calling the election free and fair are in effect giving Hun Sen credit that belongs to the millions of Cambodians who voted bravely on July 26. The United States should urge Japan, the EU, and ASEAN to praise the Cambodian people's conduct in creating a fair election and condemn Hun Sen's efforts to create a climate of fear and intimidation.


The Clinton Administration should not support the results of the July 26 Cambodian election until the National Election Commission has responded fairly to the complaints of Cambodia's protesting opposition parties. This stand will help defuse the current crisis in Phnom Penh and give the opposition better leverage to help ensure that an eventual coalition is not dominated by Hun Sen.

The United States should not join Japan, the EU, and ASEAN in trying to force the opposition to join a Hun Sen-controlled government. Hun Sen is responsible for numerous acts of violence against the opposition, both before and after his July 1997 coup. He controls Cambodia's growing narcotics traffic and has allowed the economy to be controlled by corruption.

Although the CPP is likely to have more seats in the National Assembly than any other party, this does not mean that the United States has to condone Hun Sen's destruction of Cambodia. The Clinton Administration should make clear that it will support Cambodians who work for the rule of law, against corruption, and for an end to the drug trade in Cambodia. If it chooses this course, the Administration can go far to make up for its strategic mistake in 1993 that allowed Hun Sen to undermine Cambodia's first free election.

-- Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is former Director of The Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


1. Tina Rosenberg, "Hun Sen Stages an Election," The New York Times Magazine, August 30, 1998, p. 29.

2. R. Jeffrey Smith, "FBI Points Finger in Cambodian Attack," The Washington Post, June 29, 1997, p. A20.

3. The State Department's opposition to releasing the report can be inferred from a report by Sid Balman, Jr., "U.S. Accuses Hun Sen on Drugs; Terrorism," United Press International, August 21, 1997.


Richard Fisher

Distinguished Fellow in China Policy

More on This Issue