The Spiral Repetitions of Cambodia’s 2018 General Election
Photo Credit: ABC News
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

The Spiral Repetitions of Cambodia’s 2018 General Election

Aug. 01, 2018  |     |  0 comments

In his book Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze (1994) highlights the difference between bare and spiral repetition: while an event perfectly cycles upon itself in bare repetition (p. 292), an event undergoing spiral repetition cycles back upon itself with differences (p. 20). The Marxian observation that historical events repeat “first as tragedy, then as farce” identifies a particular type of spiral repetition which can be observed in the 2018 General Election in Cambodia, which may be paired as the farcical repetition of the country’s tragic General Election two decades earlier.

The 1998 General Election in Cambodia was held in the aftermath of a violent coup d’état staged the previous year when then-Second Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ousted from power the royalist Funcinpec Party of then-First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh. (Funcinpec had won the UN-organized 1993 General Election, but Hun Sen forced Ranariddh into accepting a power-sharing arrangement with the CPP.) Hun Sen’s 1997 coup included the killings of over 70 Funcinpec members and left him as the sole Prime Minister (Ear, 2013, p. 25). The 1998 General Election, which was organized at the urging of ASEAN, resolved the international crisis caused by the 1997 coup but left Hun Sen and the CPP in power (Lim, 2018a, p. 124).

A separate human rights atrocity that also took place in 1997 and which would have repercussions in 2018 was the deadly grenade attack on a peaceful demonstration by supporters of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who would go on to become one of the exiled leaders of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), the opposition group whose absence had a significant presence in the 2018 General Election.

Just as the 1998 General Election was held in the aftermath of the crushing of the Funcinpec Party, the 2018 General Election was held in the aftermath of the ouster of the CNRP. But where Funcinpec was tragically crushed in 1997 through brute military force, the event’s farcical repetition in 2017 saw the CNRP ousted through legal means.

In 2017, the CPP-dominated National Assembly pushed through legislation that allowed for the dissolution of any political party that was found to have conspired with traitors. This allowed the CPP-led government to file a complaint against the CNRP after its president Kem Sokha was arrested and charged with treason, and in November 2017 the Cambodian Supreme Court ruled for the dissolution of the CNRP and banned over a hundred of its senior leaders from politics. With the CNRP gone, the opposition field was left with a motley collection of minor parties which had little hope of electoral success.

The urge to dissolve the CNRP can be traced back to the 2013 General Election, when the CNRP made major gains against the CPP, such that the CPP lost the two-thirds parliamentary majority it needed to amend the Constitution (Lim, 2013, p. 68). The CNRP’s striking ability to mobilize mass support — as demonstrated in its organization of mass anti-government protests in Phnom Penh in December 2013 — would fuel the government’s later accusation that the CNRP had been plotting with the US to stage a “color revolution” in Cambodia.

The government’s dissolution of the CNRP was supplemented with its suppression of the country’s independent media, including “the closures of the newspaper The Cambodia Daily, and the radio stations Voice of America Cambodia, Voice of Democracy, and Radio Free Asia Khmer” (Lim, 2018b, p. 3). This helped to limit the spread of opposition viewpoints among the Cambodian electorate, and two days before the election the government escalated this with the blocking of access to independent media websites.

The dissolution of the CNRP and the suppression of the independent media gave the CPP an easy victory in the 2018 General Election. While exiled leaders of the CNRP such as Sam Rainsy had issued appeals from overseas for their supporters to stage a mass election boycott, the government pressured the electorate to come out to vote, and the National Election Commission declared voter turnout to stand at 82.71 percent, a significant increase from the 69.61 percent turnout in the 2013 General Election. In his final election campaign speech, Hun Sen firmly denounced the exiled CNRP leaders’ calls for an election boycott:

“People who listen to the words of the country’s betrayers, and don’t vote, are the ones who destroy democracy in Cambodia. You will regret it. So I suggest all Khmer citizens think about that, because the majority of people will vote but the ones who don’t vote, how will they live with those who do? [sic]”

Cambodia is once again functioning as the location for a new proxy war, this time with China leading the alternative to the US-led liberal world order.

Dissatisfied CNRP supporters who were pressured against boycotting the election were however able to register their unhappiness at the ballot box by spoiling their votes, and “8.4 percent, of the 7.64 million votes cast, were invalid and spoiled ... By comparison, spoiled ballots in the last election, in 2013, comprised just 1.6 percent of the total.”

The farcical nature of the 2018 General Election raises the question of the inspiration behind the CPP’s comparatively gentler method of legally ousting the CNRP from the electoral contest as compared with its violent crushing of Funcinpec in 1997. As it turns out, the dissolution of the CNRP was itself a spiral repetition of the dissolution of a major political party in neighboring Thailand.

In 2006, a military coup in Thailand forced the country’s then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra into exile, and the following year Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party was dissolved and over a hundred of its senior leaders banned from politics. The dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai Party quickly became a farce, with the party’s former MPs regrouping under the banner of the People’s Power Party, and when that party was dissolved, the remaining MPs regrouped under the banner of the Pheu Thai Party, which in turn has recently been threatened with dissolution by Thailand’s ruling military junta.

While Cambodia’s embattled civil society and independent media — supported by sympathetic foreign allies — have vigorously protested the repression in Cambodia that climaxed with the dissolution of the CNRP, there was noticeably less civil society and media outrage over the travails of the Thai Rak Thai Party and its subsequent incarnations. One key factor was that Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai Party had assiduously courted the poor with controversial populist policies which in turn had so alienated Thailand’s middle class that members of the middle class eventually formed the support base for the 2006 military coup.

Another factor that accounts for the depth of the civil society and media outrage over the CNRP’s absence from the 2018 General Election is China’s growing influence in Cambodia, which the CNRP leaders had long denounced. The Nikkei Asian Review was representative of the recent international media coverage of Cambodia with its July 19, 2018 print edition which had the blunt cover headline “Cambodia’s Chinafication,” and which had a cover story which warned: “Cambodians wary as Chinese investment transforms their country.”

In recent years, China has become Cambodia’s most important international partner. In return for geopolitical support — such as Cambodia’s advocacy in ASEAN for China’s position on the South China Sea dispute — China has provided significant amounts of aid and investment for Cambodia. China has also supplied much-needed support at times when the Cambodian government faced US and European sanctions for various human rights violations (Lim, 2018a, pp. 126-127). For the 2018 General Election, despite the withdrawal of US and European funding prompted by the Cambodian government’s repression of the CNRP, China provided USD 20 million worth of support, “including polling booths, laptops and computers.”

In this sense, the intensity of the negative coverage of Cambodia’s 2018 General Election in US- and European-aligned media outlets — and the pushback from Chinese-aligned media outlets like the Global Times — shows that the battle in civil society and the media over the election is actually a spiral repetition of an older global conflict. Just as various countries in the developing world — including Cambodia (Shawcross, 2002) — served as locations for proxy wars between the US and the Soviet Union and their respective allies during the Cold War — with the complications following the Sino-Soviet split impacting Cambodia during the Indochina Wars of the 1970s and 80s — Cambodia is once again functioning as the location for a new proxy war, this time with China leading the alternative to the US-led liberal world order.

Looking even further back, this new proxy war in Cambodia — albeit at the level of a Cold War between the US-led liberal world order and the nascent alternative world order that is being shaped by China — may be seen as one of the battlegrounds of the latest iteration of the deep spiral repetition of history which Graham Allison (2017) has identified as the Thucydides Trap — the pattern of conflict that periodically emerges throughout history between a hegemonic power and its rising challenger. Should the tension between the US and China eventually escalate into a hot war, Cambodia, with its close geopolitical and economic ties with China, could have a small but important role to play in how this conflict will be resolved. In view of this, the contest over the legitimation of the 2018 Cambodian General Election assumes deeper significance.


Ai, J. (December 13, 2017). EU funding for Cambodia’s election betrays democracy. Global Times.

Allison, G. (2017). Destined for War: Can America and China escape Thucydides’s Trap? Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Ben, S., Mech, D., and Baliga, A. (2017, November 17). ‘Death of democracy’: CNRP dissolved by Supreme Court ruling. The Phnom Penh Post.

Cambodia blocks some independent news media sites: rights group. (2018, July 28). Reuters.

Deleuze, G. (1994). Difference and Repetition. (P. Patton, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press.

Ear, S. (2013). Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy. New York: Columbia University Press.

Faulder, D., and Kawase, K. (2018, July 18). Cambodians wary as Chinese investment transforms their country. Nikkei Asian Review.

Garella, R., and Pape, E. (2005, April 15). A tragedy of no importance. Mother Jones.

Harmer, J. (2018, July 27). Cambodian leader wraps up campaigning blasting boycott calls. AP.

Heijmans, P. (2018, July 28). Cambodia strongman extends 33-year rule in boycotted election. Bloomberg.

Kurlantzick, J. (2011, March 24). Thailand: A democratic failure and its lessons for the Middle East. Council on Foreign Relations.

Lim, A. C. H. (2013). Cambodia Rising: Neoliberal Violence and Development. JATI: Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 18, 61-72.

Lim, A. C. H. (2018a). Cambodia and Maritime Southeast Asia. In S. O. Deth, S. Sun, & S. Bulut (Eds.), Cambodia’s Foreign Relations in Regional and Global Contexts (pp. 119-134). Phnom Penh: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Cambodia.

Lim, A. C. H. (2018b). Cambodia and the Asian Values Debate. Review of Human Rights, 4(1), 1-10.

McGeown, K. (2007, June 1). Thai party’s disbandment solves little. BBC News.

Mech, D., and Meyn, C. (2013, December 23). CNRP holds biggest demonstration in decades. The Cambodia Daily.

Prak, C. T. (2018, July 30). Spoilt Cambodian ballot papers seen as protest over ‘sham’ election. Reuters.

Prak, C. T., and Allard, T. (2018, July 29). Cambodia’s ruling party claims victory in much-criticized election. Reuters.

Rainsy, S. (2018, July 27). Boycott Cambodia’s elections and Hun Sen’s regime. The Washington Post.

Sattaburuth, A. (2018, February 27). Regime sets sights on axeing Pheu Thai. The Bangkok Post.

Shawcross, W. (2002). Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. New York: Cooper Square Press.

Wallace, J. (2018, July 11). ‘Fireflies’ and ‘ghosts’ in Cambodia prop up facade of real election. The New York Times.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *