As geopolitical tensions from Russian aggression in Ukraine and the ongoing United States-China rivalry intensify, Southeast Asia will be hard-pressed to maintain peace and security. Despite their relatively small size, Cambodia and Laos are two countries whose political trajectories will shape regional outcomes. While Cambodia has consolidated domestic political power with dynamic economic expansion, Laos is looking like a regional laggard facing a deep debt crisis. As Cambodia moves forward, Laos is at risk of being left behind.
The political narrative of Cambodia is fundamentally about how Prime Minister Hun Sen has got away with electoral dictatorship. Over the past five years, Cambodian politics has moved from Hun Sen's systematic decimation of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and consolidation of political power under the ruling Cambodian People's Party to the cultivation of dynastic rule with a looming leadership succession passing on to his eldest son, Lt Gen Hun Manet, the country's army commander.
It should be noted that the CNRP was also divided from within due to the split between co-leaders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha. The former faced legal persecution and went into exile, while the latter was put on trial for treason until his deteriorating health and will gave in. The weakness of Cambodia's main opposition party together with Hun Sen's coercion facilitated the CPP's power consolidation without any significant opponent for the foreseeable future.
Educated at the US's famed West Point military academy and the University of Bristol, where he earned a doctorate in economics, Hun Manet has been the anointed successor to his wily and shrewd 70-year-old father who has been in power since 1985. At issue is how Hun Sen will manage the leadership transition and how and whether Hun Manet will be up to the task. As the next general election is scheduled for July 2023, Hun Sen has hinted he may step down in time for his son to contest while maintaining power in an indirect role, perhaps as president of the Senate or the National Assembly.
With the 125-member National Assembly already filled with CPP representatives, Hun Sen has complete control of the corridors of power to oversee the rise of Hun Manet, who was asked to form a "reserve cabinet" last December as part of his grooming for the leadership role. Much will depend on how Hun Sen perceived the preparedness of Hun Manet in the run-up to the election. If Hun Manet needs more time to gain acceptance from the CPP's rank-and-file, Hun Sen could run again and transfer power later. But if Hun Manet is ready, Hun Sen may well take on a hovering and supervisory role above politics to ensure stability and continuity.
The Cambodian strongman's political strategy resembles that of Singapore, which has been ruled by the People's Action Party via the Lee family under founder Lee Kuan Yew. When Lee in 1990 became "senior minister" after stepping aside for Goh Chok Tong, who stood in as prime minister until Lee Hsien Loong was ready, the PAP benefited from continuity. Cambodia is going in a similar direction, with Hun Sen in a supervisory capacity as de facto senior minister without portfolio.
Dynastic rule is not confined to the Hun Sen-Hun Manet duo. A range of other elder cabinet members, such as Defence Minister Tea Banh, are also grooming their offspring for high office. With the home front fully secured and because of China's Covid-induced geostrategic slowdown, Hun Sen has rebalanced Cambodia's foreign policy orientation by becoming relatively more favourable towards Vietnam and Asean as its current chair, less anti-Washington and less pro-Beijing. For example, after Hun Sen led Asean leaders to the "special summit" with US President Biden in May 2022, he declared that Cambodia would not allow China to use its territory as a military base. Hun Sen also moved closer to Vietnam as a hedge vis-à-vis China.
As for Laos, its two most critical and entwined issues are the official opening of the 414-kilometre Laos-China railway and the land-locked country's dire economic conditions. The $5.9 billion (223.5 billion baht) rail link connecting Vientiane with Kunming in southern China underpins Laos' debt woes, worsened by rising petrol, fuel and gas prices amid galloping inflation and currency depreciation as knock-on effects from Russia's aggression and the global energy crisis take their toll. As the Lao People's Revolutionary Party has ruled the country with an iron grip since it won power in 1975, there is virtually no chance of a leadership change and little prospect of mass protests.
The big difference between the LPRP and its counterparts in the Communist Party of Vietnam and the Chinese Communist Party is that the latter two have been delivering growth and development in exchange for the limit and violations of civil liberties and political freedoms. This social contract and state-society bargain of the lack of rights and freedoms for growth and improving standards of living is not in operation in Laos. While its leaders who took office at the 11th Party Congress in early 2021, under President Thongloun Sisoulith and Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh, are not under immediate threat of a popular uprising. Yet economic desperation and the spectre of sovereign bankruptcy, coupled with entrenched political repression suggest the Lao people might not be spared from hardships.
Caught between overdependence on investments and loans from China and trade in minerals, food and hydropower mainly with Thailand and Vietnam, the Lao leadership hardly diversifies its economic structure and partners. In reaction to hard times, domestic dissent is visible on social media but has not materialised elsewhere. It has been argued by some that China will not allow Laos to become insolvent, and is willing to restructure debt repayments as needed. But that would mean Laos becoming even more of a vassal state of the major creditor. As global demand remains weak in the face of rising inflation and the economic doldrums in China and Thailand, Laos also cannot hope to recover soon after the pandemic on the back of trade and exports to its immediate neighbours.
The international community should remain committed and probe ways to engage Laos' younger demographics among up-and-coming leaders and provide capacity-building programmes with social safety nets to the wider population. Laos' political sphere remains closed while its economy and society need help to pull through the next few years. At a time when Laos looks like a lost cause and Cambodia a runaway autocracy, the international community should do all it can to provide countervailing options for both countries.