Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers a statement to journalists in Phnom Penh on January 30, 2020. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

The foundations underpinning the tenure of one of the world’s longest-serving prime ministers are starting to shake. For 35 years, Hun Sen has staked his claim to power in Cambodia through a combination of strongman rule and breakneck growth. But now the global pandemic threatens to leave the authoritarian with only one string to his bow. While the Southeast Asian nation reports only around 120 cases, its trade and China-reliant economy could implode and impoverish millions. 

Hun Sen has long taken credit for Cambodia’s post-conflict development. By the early 1990s the country had been reduced to rubble by civil war and the bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge, a communist regime that tried to turn it into an agrarian utopia.

Under his watch over following decades, the economy surged. Growth averaged 8% between 1998 and 2018, and the poverty rate fell from 47.8% to 13.5% in the seven years to 2014. The capital Phnom Penh now boasts trendy cafes, large shopping malls, glitzy real estate, and soaring skyscrapers.

The visible transformation and improvements in living standards helped vindicate Hun Sen’s ongoing rule. Yet Cambodia’s rapid growth belies a more fragile reality. Around 4.5 million remain vulnerable to falling back into poverty. Meanwhile average micro-loan debt per borrower is more than double the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita – and the world’s highest.

These frailties are also dangerously exposed to global shocks like ovid-19, with the bulk of the country’s emergence generated by trade, tourism, and aid flows.

Cambodia is heavily dependent on its garment sector, which accounts for 80% of its export earnings and employs around 850,000. The global pandemic has caused order books to dry up, and workshop closures have already left thousands jobless.

The government has guaranteed suspended workers the equivalent of US$70 a month, just over one-third of the minimum wage. But factories have otherwise been kept open, with employees fearing for their health.

The sector is already reeling from Cambodia’s partial removal from a European Union preferential trade scheme. The bloc sanctioned the country for its democratic decline after Hun Sen shuttered the free press, imprisoned political opponents, and banned the main opposition party in the run-up to national elections in 2018.

Meanwhile the country’s tourism sector, which relies on Chinese travelers, employs some 800,000, and has ground to a halt. Chinese aid and investment – which accounts for 40% of its foreign direct investment inflows – may also slow.

Overall, GDP growth will plunge to just 2.3% this year from its recent average of 7%, according to the Asian Development Bank. A return to high figures will depend on the length and knock-on impact of the pandemic.

Trade and travel will remain jammed for a while. Continued lost income from factory work and tourism will also mean thousands more are unable to provide for families or pay debtors. Rural remittances will plummet, and land titles could be seized as collateral.

The fallout will challenge Hun Sen’s legitimacy. Cambodia’s influential garment workers and highly populated provinces are demographics he has often been keen to ingratiate.

The prime minister’s initial downplaying of the virus’ threat will also raise doubts over his competence. Lockdowns have only recently been announced. Meanwhile, a bailout package of loans and tax breaks, alongside the meager wage support, has underwhelmed – particularly with 95% of small and medium-sized enterprises being part of the ineligible informal sector.

More significant, a recently passed state-of-emergency law has granted Hun Sen potential powers to seize property, restrict movement, and conduct mass surveillance in times of national crisis. Human-rights groups fear it will be exploited long after Covid-19.

Indeed, Hun Sen is set to become even more powerful just as his popularity is likely to tank. As livelihoods crumble around him, the autocrat’s narrative as the pioneer of Cambodia’s economic prosperity will be tainted. Ruling by force may soon be all he has left.

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Tej Parikh

Tej Parikh is a global policy analyst and journalist. He was previously an associate editor and reporter at the Cambodia Daily. He tweets @tejparikh90.