Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has been around for a while. Photo: AFP / Ly Lay

Giving a talk at a conference in Prague in early March, when the Covid-19 pandemic was still spoken of in “it-won’t-happen-here” tones in Europe, I was asked by the moderator to give my word of the year. Instead of the expected “coronavirus” or “Covid,” I opted for another c-word: “cakeism.”

It had entered the political lexicon of my home country, Britain, because of our Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s appeal that with Brexit, “we could have our cake and eat it too.” For those unfamiliar with the English saying, it means to seek to have two things at the same time that are mutually incompatible. Put differently, it is to enjoy all the benefits of a particular thing but none of its disadvantages.

But my awareness of “cakeism” was well tuned, after having reported from Cambodia for five years. For the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), in power since 1979, and for Prime Minister Hun Sen, a slight variation of on the theme is their much-trotted-out slogan of “win-win.”

It was first used by Hun Sen in the late 1990s to describe his policy of ending the decades-old civil war, when the last of the Khmer Rouge soldiers finally defected to the government and its army, which granted them peaceful reintegration into society and, for most, the promise of no prosecution for their historic crimes. One analyst described it as “a molehill turned into a mountain.”   

In 2018, Hun Sen unveiled the “Win-Win Monument” in Phnom Penh, which had taken two years to build and cost the taxpayers the equivalent of US$12 million. Another is now being built in Koh Kong province.

But win-win has taken on a far more troubling notion in recent times. When, in 2017, the ruling CPP moved to dissolve by force its only real challenger, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, it claimed that the CNRP and its supporters were plotting a coup with American backing. Therefore, the ruling party said, for the sake of national security the opposition party had to be removed.

Kem Sokha, the CNRP’s leader, was arrested for treason in September 2017, a charge the courts still haven’t prosecuted, and which Hun Sen said last week could be postponed until 2021 – which he said was out of his hands because of “independence” of the courts and, in the same breath, said he had told Kem Sokha so during their meeting this month.

For Hun Sen, putting an end to the CNRP was also a “win-win” moment. Indeed, after winning all 125 seats in parliament at the 2018 general election, because the CNRP wasn’t on the ballot, the CPP was happy to enjoy all the benefits of its own political coup. Yet it has never accepted that its actions came with disadvantages.

When the European Union threatened to remove Cambodia from one of the bloc’s preferential trade schemes, the ruling party said it was an attack on Cambodian sovereignty (not noting that, by trying to tell the EU what to do, the Cambodian government was itself trying to influence EU sovereignty).

And when the EU decided in February to suspend some of Cambodia’s trade privileges, the CPP rallied behind the claim that the EU was harming the livelihoods of Cambodia’s poor. Indeed, the CPP has grown used to pleading poverty abroad but supremacy at home.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s appetite for “cakeism” has no doubt grown into an addiction because he has been allowed to enjoy only the benefits of his actions.

At the country’s first post-Khmer Rouge elections in 1993, his CPP came second, yet he kicked up such a fuss and threatened to lead several provinces to secede that he was allowed by the UN monitors to become co-prime minister. Then, when he ousted his power-sharing colleagues in a coup in 1997, Western partners turned yet another blind eye.

So often has Hun Sen had his cake and eaten it too that, by 2017, when he moved to turn Cambodia into a de facto one-party state, there wasn’t much anyone could do.   

Growing so used to “cakeism,” it doesn’t appear that Hun Sen realizes the contradictions it throws up. When dissolving the CNRP, his ruling party wanted to emphasize the threat. Yet if the CPP was the only provider of peace and security in Cambodia, as the ruing party constantly says it is, then it failed to provide such security for years, if the CNRP was insurrectionist all along.

Remember that the CNRP sat in parliament between 2014 and 2017, and the main evidence so far provided about the opposition party’s putschist intent came from public speeches Kem Sokha gave before 2014, speeches that were widely reported in the press and, therefore, must have been known by the government.

Moreover, if the CPP was so popular then why, according to the party’s own statements, did it reckon that a significant part of the Cambodian population was ready to orchestrate a coup against it? Indeed, if the CNRP was plotting a coup, as the CPP claimed, then such a putsch would have had to have been orchestrated by ordinary people alone, since the CPP and the military leaders had spent years boasting that the armed forces were firmly behind the ruling party.

Just months after the CNRP’s dissolution, Hun Sen told the opposition party’s commune councilors and chiefs – elected at the 2017 ballot just months before the party’s dissolution – that they could keep their posts if they defected to the ruling CPP. Some did just that. And Hun Sen noted at the time that “this is a win-win policy.” Yet Hun Sen never even attempted to explain how he circled the square of freely admitting into his party people who, according to him, were only months earlier planning to participate in a coup against it.

Yet again the ruling CPP is trying to have its cake and eat it too with its response to the Covid-19 crisis, namely its passing of a state-of-emergency law, which grants the government even more arbitrary power than it currently wields. (Note that one article of the legislation, which was passed last month, grants the government the right to impose martial law “at times of war, or in other circumstances in which national security is confronted with grave danger.”)

Despite no new Covid-19 cases being recorded since April 13, according to the government, it still felt the need to rush through “state of emergency” powers that, it says, are needed to fight a battle it is already supposedly winning, or has won.  

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts.