Why Dictators Are Dumb but Can Still Outsmart Others

Sorpong Peou |Ryerson University | Canada

When I say that dictators are dumb, I do not mean to suggest that they do not know how to dictate the way their citizens live or society function. Dictators can be very smart people with high IQ scores. But they tend to become dumb over time because of their tendency to err on the side of relying on too much force rather than too little of it and just do not know when to stop or how to call it quits.

We may need to give dictators a lot of credit for behaving the way they do, and for holding to power when no one else is willing or able to do the same. World history is filled with dictators, the first of whom came to power in Rome around 510 B.C. Until Julius Caesar became dictator for life, however, most dictators left office when their tasks given to them during emergencies were completed.

Oftentimes, dictators’ reigns of terror end tragically. Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C. Napoleon Bonaparte of France has been considered by historians to be the first modern dictator. He enjoyed popularity because he did some good things for his country, such as balancing the budget, reforming state institutions, and writing the Civil Code that laid the foundation of France’s current civil law. Sadly, he did not seem to know when to stop or call its quits. In 1804, he crowned himself emperor, established a network of spies to tighten his control over the government and the press, and pursued his political ambition by invading other countries across Europe. He could not be stopped until Great Britain, Prussia, Spain and Portugal surrounded his empire and when his generals rebelled against him. He was forced to give up his throne and was exiled for good in 1815, after a brief return to power.

More recent dictators also did not know when to call it quits until they were removed from power by force or execution. Adolf Hitler started WWII, was defeated by the Allied Powers and then committed suicide. His ally, Fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, was shot to death and stoned. Pol Pot of Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror was known as Brother Number One but ended up as Brother Number Zero. His regime kept slaughtering innocent people and many of his party’s members, but was then driven out of power and eventually arrested by those who served under him. His life was put to an end. Saddam Hussein of Iraq was executed after he had been found in a muddy foxhole. More can be said about Gadhafi of Libya whose fate was sealed after NATO destroyed his armed loyalists.

Health-related death can be another cause of dictators’ demise. The first two Soviet dictators, Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, died after strokes. Mao Zedong of China died at the age of 82, after a heart attack more severe than the previous ones. Fidel Castro of Cuba was replaced by his younger brother because of his worsening health. Dictators do not seem to enjoy good health – and a happy life!

With that said, it is not easy to get rid of dictators because they do not know when to stop until their defeat or death stops their reign of terror. This fact further suggests that they are usually dumb because they think they have no choice but to fight to the death because of their insecurity, if not insanity. Dictators usually come to power amidst chaos and turmoil or violence and war, rely on terror and intimidation to maintain their power bases, instead of building democratic and rule-of-law institutions to enhance their legitimacy. Sadly, they live in fear of subversion, retribution, and assassination.

This insight further explains why any efforts to bring them to justice are likely to fail if doing so without any preponderant power to defeat them decisively. Because of their paranoia and insecurity, they usually develop the strategy of ‘preemptive strike’ against any foes (real or perceived) before any threat to their survival grows stronger. The best counter-strategy for anyone to adopt when not having the level of hard power that can overwhelm that of the dictator also would not be one based on a violent threat to him. Dictators do not like threats, and they balance against them. Economic sanctions, however smart they may be, are more likely to harm civilian populations more than they hurt dictators. Appeasement does not work either because this strategy tends to embolden dictators. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement did not work with Hitler after he had consolidated power in the 1930s, though it might have worked in the 1920s when Germany was weak following WWI.

The only viable strategy when dealing with dictators in our globalized world is one that assures their security through power-sharing arrangements or credible amnesty. Dictators believe they will lose everything if they lose power. They have no reason to trust any promise that any loss of power would still keep them safe and secure. It is worth remembering that dictators are dumb because they do not know when to stop, but they can still outsmart their opponents when their survival is under threat and can stay in power for a very long time. The dictatorship of North Korea has proved this point.

Citation: Peou, S. (2020). Why dictators are dumb but can still outsmart others. Insights on Southeast Asia. Retrieved from https://sea-insights.com/2020/12/15/why-dictators-are-dumb-but-can-still-outsmart-others/

Sorpong Peou is Full Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University and a member of the Yeates School of Graduate Studies. He was formerly Chair of the Department of Political Science, University of Winnipeg (Manitoba), and Chair of the Advisory and Recruitment Committee for The Manitoba Chair of Global Governance Studies – a joint program between the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba. His major books include Human Security Studies: Theories, Methods and Themes (World Scientific and Imperial College Press, 2014); Peace and Security in the Asia-Pacific (Praeger 2010), Human Security in East Asia: Challenges for Collaborative Action, ed. (Routledge 2008), International Democracy Assistance for Peacebuilding: Cambodia and Beyond (Palgrave Macmillan 2007), Intervention and Change in Cambodia: Toward Democracy (St. Martin’s Press, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and Silkworms, 2001); and Conflict Neutralization in the Cambodia War: From Battlefield to Ballot-box (Oxford University Press, 1997).

This article was originally published by his personal page: http://www.sorpongpeou.com on May 04, 2020

A long-haul fight during COVID-19: A risky journey from the UK to Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Singapore)

Dear Insights on Southeast Asia

I have enjoyed reading this new blog for a while. As a contribution to the blog, I am writing to share my flight experience from the UK (London) to Southeast Asia (Cambodia) via Singapore. I hope this experience is worth sharing to readers who wish to fly from the UK or Europe Cambodia. In this journey, I will also compare how the UK or probably even the whole EU, handle travellers to contain COVID-19 at London Heathrow Airport with Southeast Asian nations (Singapore, Cambodia). After experiencing about nine months lockdown and living in a square room and coping with stress, last month, I decided to travel to Cambodia, my home country, as I see COVID-19 in the country was not much worse compared to the UK, between 16,000-19,000 cases per day. However, the recent outbreak in Cambodia has disappointed my plan, but I have to fly because I already paid for the airfare.

Almost two months ago, before flying or choosing airlines, I did some researches and asked friends who had experience of a long-haul flight (up to 15 hours in total to exclude layover). I chose Singapore Airline. There are flights via South Korea, Thailand, and Japan, but I chose Singapore Air in term of airfare, service and safety measures.

A month before my departure, I prepared 4 3M/N95 masks (1: for inflight, 1: transit, 1: another flight, and 1 when you landed in Cambodia), a transparent face shield, hand sanitiser jells, cough sweets, and diarrhoea and flu tablets. I like cough sweet the most, even I am healthy, but it is very dehydrated on 13 hours flight from London to Singapore. I took immune pills two weeks before the flight to boost my immune system. I BELIEVE THIS IS ESSENTIAL EVEN YOU DO NOT TRAVEL BY AIRE. I STRONGLY RECOMMENDED N95 Mask as in the photo. Unlike other masks, this one is much convenient because when you speak your lips will not touch the mask layers. Imagine 13 hours flight, you will smell YOUR OWN MOUTH and get sick by that.

To the Airport. Compared to public transportation: buses and underground trains, I would spend some money on a private taxi, or Uber to be safe. Travel alone is better than with unknown herds using public transpiration services. You may know that the spike of COVID cases in the UK is linked to public transportations. London underground is a crowded since they do not have proper seat arrangement, social distancing and space between travellers to avoid close contact.


At London Heathrow. I arrived at the airport about 2.5 hours before the flight. At Terminal 2, there was no standard social distancing arrangement besides queueing from the passenger drop off section to the check-in counters.  Not many cared about social distancing, 2 or 1.5 meters apart from each other, even FACE COVER (they called it that, not a mask; I FOUND FACE COVER unhelpful) is compulsory inside the terminal. At the check-in counter, I was asked to present a health certificate: COVID-19-free. I was exempted since I was travelling to my home country (I will explain that it is not helpful at all). After checking in, I went through a security check, and again there was no proper arrangement beside lining, not even 1.5 meters apart. THIS MIGHT BE THE CASE WHY THE TRANSMISSION RATE IN THE UK or EU increased sharply after first or second waves or lockdown.

Inside Heathrow’s departure terminal: Shops are opening, and as you know, BLACK FRIDAY remains, and you can still enjoy duty-free shopping. Discount everywhere. You can kill time and wander around shopping, and some of them do not respect social distancing.

Before boarding: I had temperature checked by Singapore Airline staff and was called by our row and seat number to board the flight, to avoid the crowd. Before entering the plane, each of us gets a health kit bag containing a hand sanitiser, a mask, a wipe, and a bottle of water.

In the plane: we were arranged to sit with empty seat/ space in between seats we were assign (unless you know each other you can chose to seat together). IT IS AN EXCELLENT IDEA, and I FELT SAFE instead of sitting next to an unknown person (I MET a CAMBODIAN STUDENT FROM AUSTRALIA said her flight from Brisbane to Singapore arranged seat the same mine). ONE IMPORTANT NOTE is that if you could check online and select your preferred seats would be great. I DID SELECT SEAT in advance. I would recommend those at the EXIT AREA, LAST ROW, and ROW against the laboratory seats to avoid being SURROUNDED. If you cannot do that, you might be lucky to sit next to those EU/UK citizens who have COVID-19-free certificate. I WOULD FEEL SAFE TO SIT NEARBY THESE FOREIGNERS WHO HAD TEST NEGATIVE to board the flight. Test negative for COVID-19 is a must to travel to another country that is not your home.

Layover in Singapore. It was very unfortunate that I had 8 hours of layover in Singapore. All passengers were disembarked row by row, about 3-5 rows at a time. Those who transited at Changi Airport were well directed by a guide to the transit hall. TEMPERATURE WAS TAKEN as soon as you disembark, and BEFORE ENTERING THE transit HALL. Wrist bands were given to identify us as layover passengers. There, we were not allowed to move around like in London. If you want to eat and shop, you need to order online (there is a banner instructing how to do so). Duty-free shopping need to be placed at least 8 or 12 hours in advance. I THINK THIS IS WHY SINGAPORE COULD CONTAIN COVID-19 TRANSMISSION and or imported CASES. To avoid a close contact with other passengers, I located myself somewhere at the corner of the hall.


SINGAPORE-CAMBODIA: Before boarding, we were again asked to queue about 10-20 passengers each line with at least 1 m apart. They rechecked our temperature. A number of Cambodian flocks flown (mostly) from Malaysia joined us. The guide/staff navigated and led group by group to the security check. AGAIN, We were given health kit as we board. But, UPON BOARDING I WAS DISAPPOINTED THAT THE AIRLINE (Silk Air, a regional subsidiary of Singapore Airlines) did not follow the long-haul flight standard mentioned above. All seats were occupied except three rows left empty as the flight attendant told me that they reserved for quarantine or in case if anyone gets sick they would isolate him or her there. I AM DISAPPOINTED that we were asked to stay apart during the transit but HAD TO PACK US TOGETHER in a tinny Airplane. EVEN MASKS are still compulsory, but we sit close to each other. From HERE YOU DO NOY TRUST your CAMBODIAN FELLOWS since, like me, THEY DIDN’T COVID-19-Free certificate. IT seems Singapore does not care when they send travellers out of their country. THIS MIGHT BE THE CAUSE of COVID-19 transmission and importing CASES to CAMBODIA. The Government of Cambodia should instruct incoming flights to follow space inside the plane.

FOOD dining is the most CONTAGIOUS time in this small flight. When foods and drinks were served, everyone removed masks and dug in. THIS IS a risky time, but I DID NOT EAT UNTIL the nearby passengers ate. BUT, I WAS LUCKY ENOUGH TO SIT NEXT TO A FOREIGNER. AS I TOLD YOU BEFORE, THEY WERE ONCE TESTED NEGATIVE up to 72 hours before boarding the flight.

Food and drink served Singapore-Phnom Penh

LANDING in PHNOM PENH. Again, DISAPPOINTED since passengers compete to get out of the plane, and the cabin crews did not advise them to disembark row by row like the long-haul flight. NO SOCIAL DISTANCING at all.

Passengers were about to disembark

IMMIGRATION CHECK and COVID-19 TESTING. I think many have written on this aspect, I should not spend more time on this. We had to fill out health status and condition and presented to the Health Officer to inspect. AGAIN, WE NEED TO line up, and there was no social distancing practice (by passengers). YOU KNOW THAT THE AIRPORT IS SMALL; it cannot follow Singapore. From there you will be given a form to fill out your choice of QUARANTINE ACCOMMODATIONs: Free and private hotel. In the form, you must include your personal info, and contact information (phone and e-mail). As I once heard about the condition of free accommodation, I CHOSE HOTEL as I will need to work during this period. AS I SAID BEFORE, it is a must now that all passengers are required to quarantine 14 days at the hotel and the free accommodation, not two days to get the test result and check out to quarantine yourself at home.


I proceeded to collect my baggage and presented the health information form to the doctors who interviewed where about I would stay after the quarantine period (part of the contact tracing).  From there, samples were taken from your mouth and noise. You will be asked to remove your face mask. Upon the samples were taken, you must wear you mask immediately as I believe it is where people were asked unmask; it can be a CONTAGIOUS area. DON’T be scared, ALL DOCTORS and OFFICERs were equipped with Personal Protection Equipment’s (PPE).

Waiting to be transferred to the hotel by a bus

Transferring to the hotel was complicated as well. AGAIN, NO SOCIAL DISTANCING AT ALL. It was confusing as not many officers could speak English well. Some foreigners joined different queues: hotel and free accommodation. It took about 2 hours to get ready on the bus to the hotel. Both foreigners and Khmer passengers were frustrated with the arrangement. I THINK IT IS TYPICAL BUSINESS AS USUAL IN THIS COUNTRY.

I will tell you more how I felt when I was transferred to the hotel. It is again a typical thing. Stay tuned!

If you have questions, please comment and I will respond.

How Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province becomes the first Khmer Rouge controlled area?

In the 1960s, the northern province of Ratanakiri of Cambodia, predominantly inhabited by indigenous populations, became a scene of virulent armed confrontation between Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s regular army and Cambodian ultra-Maoist dissidents. The latter came first in 1965 to hide out in the forests, along the Cambodia-Vietnam border region. The ground was not virgin against the royal power, indigenous popular uprisings—already supported by the Vietminh troops broken in guerrilla warfare—had prepared the ground. The forthcoming leaders of a nation-wide terror regime (April 1975-December 1978) skilfully managed to take advantage of these local revolts, at first with the Jarai, Lao, Brao and Kachok people, by giving them a new meaning and simultaneously concealing from the populations of the province their intention to establish a totalitarian regime. Ratanakiri province became the first Khmer Rouge controlled territory in 1970.

Many have argued that a great majority of autochthonous (or indigenous) people have been complicit with the Pol Pot regime, mostly in Ratanakiri Province. This is not a Truth and is a misleading claim. In reality, indigenous people have been, like most human beings in Cambodia, not only victims of this ultra-Maoist regime, but also the first who suffered from the Khmer Rouge brutality from early 1971 onwards, more than four years before the fall of Phnom Penh. All ethnic minorities in Ratanakiri started to be threatened and defenceless, long time before the overwhelming majority of the Khmer population, with forced labour, famine, sickness, family separation, torture and mass killings. And nobody elsewhere was aware of this ongoing ethnic genocide.

Long after the civil war and once the order was restored, the indigenous populations—who were among the first victims of the Angkar (the revolutionary ultra-Maoist organization)—started to be indiscriminately associated (by the Cambodian population, some journalists and scholars) with the Khmer Rouge genocide. Such a misunderstanding is rooted in a denial of history mixed with an insidious form of ethnic xenophobia. To render memory and justice to the Cambodian indigenous populations living in the northeast, it is important today to study the impartial history of these misjudged ethnics.

These are key arguments of Frédéric Bourdier’s new book entitled “Time of war, time of revolt with the autochthonous populations of Cambodia. The emergence of the first Khmer Rouge controlled area in Ratanakiri (1967-1971), Paris, 2020, L’Harmattan, 166p (French version).

Cover photo by Michael Vickery, in the early 1960s or 1970s

This book can be bought from here

Temps de guerre, temps de révolte chez les populations autochtones du Cambodge : Première assise populaire khmère rouge à Ratanakiri (1967-1971)

Au cours des années soixante, la province septentrionale de Ratanakiri, majoritairement habitée par des populations autochtones, devint un théâtre d’affrontement acharné entre l’armée régulière du prince Norodom Sihanouk et les dissidents ultramaoïstes cambodgiens. Le terrain n’était pas vierge : contre le pouvoir royal, des soulèvements populaires, soutenus par les troupes vietminh rompues à la guérilla, avaient préparé le terrain. Les maquisards cambodgiens, futurs leaders d’un régime de terreur, surent habilement tirer parti de ces révoltes locales et leur conférer un tout autre sens, dissimulant aux populations de la province leur intention d’instaurer un régime totalitaire. C’est à Ratanakiri que s’établit, dès 1970, la première assise khmère rouge.

Bien après la guerre civile et une fois l’ordre retrouvé, les populations autochtones – qui furent parmi les premières victimes de l’Angkar (l’organisation révolutionnaire ultramaoïste) – seront associées sans discernement au génocide khmer rouge. Un tel contre-sens puise ses sources dans un déni de l’histoire mêlé à une forme insidieuse de xénophobie ethnique : cela tient de l’irresponsabilité. Pour rendre mémoire et justice aux populations autochtones du Cambodge, il importe aujourd’hui que cette histoire soit restituée. C’est ce qui est réalisé dans cet ouvrage, en suivant les trajectoires d’un adolescent des hauts-plateaux de Ratanakiri, de sa famille et de son clan.

« Ce livre offre un aperçu fascinant et révélateur du génocide cambodgien ainsi que du conflit avec le Vietnam qui l’a accompagné et l’a en partie défini. » (Ben Kiernan, préface)

Frédéric Bourdier est anthropologue à l’Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) et à l’Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne. Il travaille depuis une vingtaine d’années en Asie du Sud-Est, principalement au Cambodge. Une grande partie de ses livres et articles traite des racines et du destin des populations autochtones, des relations nature/société et de l’anthropologie critique du développement.

The Unpredictable Way of Pandemics in Global Politics

Sorpong Peou | Ryerson University | Canada

I am not an epidemiologist or a virologist, nor am I a medical scientist of any sort, but my interest in pandemics is based on my understanding that they have emerged as a source of threat to peace and security on different levels: human, national, and international. Pandemics can indeed threaten global peace and security. From my perspective, the way of pandemic is still largely unpredictable.

This does not mean social scientists can’t predict or theorize about some of the effects of epidemics and pandemics on our world, which include the following: the Antoine Plague of 165-180, the Black Death of 1347–53, avian influenza (i.e., the bird flu, caused by a virus, such as the Spanish Flu of 1918-20 and the Swine Flu of 2009), and corona-viruses (such as SARS of 2003 and COVID-19 of 2020).

Epidemics and pandemics are killers. The Antoine Plague (165-180 AD) killed a third of the Roman Empire’s population. The Plague of Justinian (541 AD), which spread across Asia, North Africa, Arabia and Europe, killed between 25 and 50 million people. The Black Death killed approximately 25 million people, almost one-third of Europe’s population. The 1918-1920 Spanish Flu infected 500 million people, about one-third of the world’s population, and killed at least 50 million people. The Swine Flu of 2009 killed between 151,000 and 575,000 people worldwide. Corona-viruses are also killers. The SARS pandemic reportedly infected 8,098 and left 774 people dead, but the COVID-19 has been more devastating: having infected close to 2 million people in a matter of several months and left more than 100,000 dead.

On one level, we can say that pandemics pose a threat to human security: they kill people, but we don’t really know when exactly and from where the next one will strike. So far, Asia has been a region where some big pandemics originated: the Black Death (China and Inner Asia), avian influenza (i.e., the 1957-58 Asian Flu, the 1968-69 Hong Kong Flu, and the 1997 Bird Flu). The last two corona-viruses also broke out in Asia: SARS (China) and COVID-19 (China). But pandemics also have a history of originating in other regions: the Spanish Flu originated in Spain and the 2009 Swine Flu in Mexico. The first ever-recorded pandemic broke out in Athens, an ancient Greek state (known as the Plague of Athens around 430-426 B). The Antoine Plague swept through the Roman Empire. The Plague of Justinian may have started in Egypt. Thus, where the next pandemic will strike is hard to know.

The negative effects of COVID-19 on human security can be be identified when social-economic consequences are further assessed. According to ILO Director-General Guy Ryder who spoke early in April 2020, the economic effects of this pandemic could exceed the global financial crisis in 2008 and could result in a loss of closer to 200 million jobs within the next several months.

On another level, epidemics and pandemics can also threaten national and international security in different ways. Firstly, they may have devastating consequences for states and societies in that they can produce domestic instability, civil war, or even civil-military conflict. Price-Smith (2002), for instance, puts it this way, “the potential for intra-elite violence is increasingly probable and may carry grave political consequences, such as coups, the collapse of government, and planned genocides.”

Secondly, both epidemics and pandemics may also result in disputes between or among states because of potential disagreement over appropriate policy responses. For instance, this new round of China-U.S. tension is related to COVID-19, and some observers think that the pandemic has the potential to cause a military confrontation or even a Cold War between the two world powers.

Thirdly, they may alter the balance of power between competitive states within the international security system and lead to conflict. The diminished size of a population may provide a greater incentive for some state or a social group unaffected by a pandemic to attempt military conquest. The Antoine Plague (165-180 AD), for instance, swept through the Roman Empire and devastated its armies. A recent example of how a pandemic might affect the balance of power is when COVID-19 infected more than 580 sailors of a 4,865-person crew aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a US aircraft carrier deployed to the Pacific Ocean and docked on March 27. Another recent development was when some 50 crew members aboard Charles de Gaulle (France’s only nuclear-powered aircraft carrier) were positive.

Fourthly, epidemics and pandemics may also alter the outcome of international conflict. For instance, Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431 BC – 404 BC), not only because of Sparta’s military might but also because of an epidemic that broke out in Athens around around 430 B.C. and killed between one-third and two-thirds of the Athenian population.

While history can help shed some light on the dangerous effects of pandemics in global politics, it’s important to bear in mind that they remain unpredictable. They are killers for sure and may or may not cause domestic instability and violent conflict when states and societies suffer from economic, financial, and political crises, but a world war or a Cold War is very unlikely nor is it inevitable.

Much still depends on what states and their peoples choose to do. The threat of a great pandemic like COVID-19 may bring them together. Sometimes there is nothing more unifying a popularized world than a common foe, but a dangerous pandemic may also drive them apart as some evidence may suggest, especially when state leaders blame each other or when some of them exploit this global threat to advance their own geo-strategic interests and pursue their own political ambitions.

This is a possible thesis topic! Share your thoughts with me if you think otherwise. I will share more of my arguments on this topic in my book to be published someday, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Sorpong Peou is Full Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University and a member of the Yeates School of Graduate Studies. He was formerly Chair of the Department of Political Science, University of Winnipeg (Manitoba), and Chair of the Advisory and Recruitment Committee for The Manitoba Chair of Global Governance Studies – a joint program between the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba. His major books include Human Security Studies: Theories, Methods and Themes (World Scientific and Imperial College Press, 2014); Peace and Security in the Asia-Pacific (Praeger 2010), Human Security in East Asia: Challenges for Collaborative Action, ed. (Routledge 2008), International Democracy Assistance for Peacebuilding: Cambodia and Beyond (Palgrave Macmillan 2007), Intervention and Change in Cambodia: Toward Democracy (St. Martin’s Press, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and Silkworms, 2001); and Conflict Neutralization in the Cambodia War: From Battlefield to Ballot-box (Oxford University Press, 1997).

This article was originally published by his personal page: http://www.sorpongpeou.com on April 13, 2020

Economic development and cultural genocide in Cambodia

Listen to audio

Frédéric Bourdier | Anthropologist | IRD France

Cambodia is home to 24 Indigenous peoples speaking Mon-Khmer and Austronesian languages. Numerically important groups are the Tampuan, the Kuy, the Bunong, the Jarai, the Brao and the Kreung. While the exact population of these ethnic groups is controversial, they constitute about 2-3% of the national population, between 350,000 and 400,000 individuals as of 2020. Some recuse their ethnic identity because of social discrimination, intermarriage, migration, urbanization and diverse processes of acculturation. Indigenous people’s territories are scattered in 15 provinces (out of 24), but a majority is located in the three north-eastern provinces (Preah Vihear, Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri). While they are not disaggregated in the national census, human right groups maintain that Indigenous Peoples face discrimination and coerced displacement from their lands that is extinguishing them as distinct groups. Scientific investigations confirm that these patterns are driven by ongoing state and transnational corporate ventures for resource extraction and land conversion (timber, minerals, hydro, and agro-industrial plantations), coupled with the growing in-migration from other parts of the country. National authorities regularly deny these assertions under the guise of an expected “national economic development for all”.

It is admitted that the principal adversaries of indigenous territorial and land claims in Cambodia, and by extension throughout the world, are the protagonists of a neo-liberal economic model that has impoverished and dispossessed major sectors of rural societies, blocked the improvement of locally based production (subsistence and commercial agriculture), and promoted capitalist expansion by excluding local populations. In the absence of any reliable mechanisms to secure land, many of the fertile and forested areas, traditionally occupied by autochthonous groups, started to be coveted by agribusiness companies, multinational consortia and wealthy politicians for monoculture exploitation: rubber, cassava, and cashew (north-east), sugarcane and corn (north).

Funeral ceremony, Andong Meas district, Rattanakiri. Photo by Frédéric Bourdier

After a decade of Vietnamese occupation, Cambodia has followed a free-market ideology. In the 1990s, Cambodia’s economy relied on external financial support, but socio-political elites constantly captured the bilateral/multilateral aid from the West. Insufficient allocation redistribution for the general population and feebleness of public services reinforced social and economic inequalities. Furthermore, the 2001 Land Law, a by-product of Western aid, with improved additional legislations for monitoring Economic Land Concessions sanctioned by the sub-decree in 2005, offered legal tools for granting Economic Land Concessions to national and international (joint-venture) companies, even though Article 29 of the same Land Law states that “no authority outside the community may acquire rights to immovable properties belonging to indigenous communities”. Indigenous Peoples expected that the 2002 Forest Law would lead to a substantive remedy for protecting their lands, but it led to the contrary (extensive logging by officials and local Khmer/Indigenous elites). In 2004, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia ratified a Master Plan, of which Ratanakiri Province was the epicentre. Once a remote area, nearly exclusively inhabited by non-Khmer populations, the province became a destination not only for landless migrants but also for politically connected opportunists, absentee landlords, and foreign corporations, due to its geostrategic position, Cambodia-Vietnam borderland region with fertile basaltic soils.

Illegal logging with the complicity of military forces, Ratanakiri. Photo by Frédéric Bourdier

Leading developers/policy-decision makers keep on arguing that Indigenous peoples have to adapt to the contemporary economic world. Cambodia has to be competitive and must attract Foreign Direct Investment to advance the country’s economy as well as to modernize rural areas like the north-eastern provinces. Megaprojects constitute the ongoing skeleton of modernity. Subsistence agriculture and worse again slash and burn cultivation are mere testimonies of the past that can be confined to local places (for ecotourism purposes, under the label of cultural heritage) but which cannot contribute to the economic growth of the Kingdom. Land concentration restricts small scale ownership but, according to national authorities, will contribute to maintaining labour forces, providing Indigenous peasants “reasonable” daily wagers.

Dispossessed indigenous families work for a rubber plantation in Bokeo, Ratanakiri. Photo by Frédéric Bourdier

Working for others has always existed in a context of exchange of services among indigenous groups. Reciprocity conditions its acceptability. But the idea to be permanently or even seasonally employed is less conceivable, even for the Indigenous farmers having small plantations who prefer to recruit lowland workers. Disinterest for agrarian paid work in the plantation prevails. A job with restricting hours appears incongruous and unthinkable to the vast majority, except for the Indigenous landless families who have no other option. As a result, investors and companies recruit experienced Khmer and Cham from the lowland valley to work in their plantations located in indigenous territories. These skilful in-migrants and workforces decide to settle permanently (more jobs, better weather, less pollution, the myth of “abundance of nature”), and these, therefore, contributed not only to land speculation and socio-ecological conflicts but also exacerbated tensions between autochthonous people and new business-minded settlers. This new population have in turn convinced relatives and friends to flock into the indigenous people’s territories for lucrative business opportunities, opening small businesses, being seasonal workers, suppliers and contractors, or elaborating a partnership for a development project (transport/delivery services, construction, training, collective land acquisition).

Frédéric Bourdier is a senior anthropologist from the national scientific research centre from France (Research Institute for Development: IRD) and the University of Paris Panthéon-Sorbonne. He started conducting ethnographic work in Cambodia (1994-1995), with the aim to compare the social ecology of various autochthonous communities in Ratanakiri Province – Tampuan, Kachok’ and Jarai. Since 2004, he came back to the Kingdom (after ten years spent in Brazil Amazon, South India, Columbia, China and Cuba). He has been in charge of two programmes focussing on health policies and the socio-political mobilisation of the civil society in the fight against HIV/AIDS. He has been also involved in an ethnogenetic program in the Highlands, in a critical research insisting on the impacts of development on the livelihoods of the forest peoples. After being in charge of an interdisciplinary malaria research, an ethno-historical investigation of the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Ratanakiri in the sixties, he is actually organising anthropological surveys of the green economy in Cambodia. He periodically returns to Ratanakiri in the villages where he previously lived.

Citation: Bourdier, F (2020). Economic development and cultural genocide in Cambodia. Insights on Southeast Asia. Retrieved from https://sea-insights.com/2020/11/30/economic-development-and-cultural-genocide-in-cambodia/

How Chinese investors build patron and client networks to secure their investment in Cambodia

Sokphea Young |University College London|UK

This piece explains: i) how the new generation of Chinese investors and companies acquire licenses in a host country of a predominant Sino-diaspora community, and ii) how these Chinese investors and companies instill patron-client networks to influence regulations and secure business in the host country. It will address these topics by drawing on existing literature, field interviews and observation. It will begin with a brief overview of the relations between China and Cambodia, and other Western count parts. It will then illustrate how Chinese aid and trade have been playing a significant role in Cambodian business and regulatory frameworks by drawing on political culture and patronage-clientelism concepts.

Chinese diaspora and China’s relation within Cambodia

Contemporary Cambodia-China relations can be traced back to just before the collapse of the French protectorate in Indochina. In September 1947, China established its Phnom Penh consulate[1] although the first generation of Chinese migrants probably began settling in Cambodia as early as the late 12th century when Zhou Daguan visited the Khmer Angkorian Empire. In the early 1950s, there were approximately 3,000 Chinese living in Phnom Penh alone[2]. As a business strategy, the Chinese migrants established good connections with Cambodians who were wealthy or were officials working for the French administration. Since then, the ties between Chinese migrants and Cambodian elites has become entrenched and been maintained, up to and including the current younger generation[3]. This has shaped how the younger Chinese generations in Cambodia, commonly known as Sino-Khmer or Sino-Cambodia, operate their small and large-businesses in the country.


Politically, following the collapse of the French protectorate in 1953, the leaders of the two countries (Zhou Enlai and Norodom Sihanouk) met in 1955 at the Bandung conference, where their relationship became closer[4]. Due to geopolitical turbulence and intervention, especially by the US War with Vietnam—which trampled the neighbouring countries of Cambodia and Laos—the region became engulfed by civil war. Beginning in the early 1970s, when Nororom Sihanouk was deposed by a coup orchestrated by the pro-US General Lon Nol of Cambodia, the relationship between China and Cambodia become volatile, even though Shihanouk’s tie with China remained the same. After defeating the pro-US government, the Khmer Rouge’s communists re-established the bilateral relationship with China, from 1975 until 1979, and maintained contact until their surrender in the last battle in 1998. China then re-established a relationship with the new government that emerged from the United Nations organised-election in 1993.

After the election, there was an influx of European and US trade and aid into Cambodia (similar to what occurred in Myanmar after their 2015 election). The inflow of Chinese aid and trade did not draw much attention from the US and EU donors until the 2010s, when China’s economy surpassed some of the world biggest economies, and when China’s Belt and Road Initiative officially launched in 2013. Compared to other donors, the EU had been the most generous donor in terms of grants, followed by NGO core funding, and the US. But as of 2010, China alone is the biggest donor to Cambodia (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Foreign aid to Cambodia (US$ million)[5]

Following the 1998 elections, Cambodia reformed its economy by amending investment laws and regulations to attract foreign capital as well as to integrate Cambodia into the region, and into the larger global economy. Cambodia’s trade with the US has benefited from the granting of a “Generalised System of Preference”, which allows the country to export duty-free products into the US market. Because of this, a huge number of garment factories were opened and operated within Cambodia. In 2001, Cambodia was listed as a least developing country, able to receive the EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preference, which allowed Cambodia to export products to EU countries, tariff and quota-free. The inflow of foreign capital also increased significantly starting in the early 2010s, from around US$800 million in 2010, to more than US$1billion in 2012-13, and US$3.5 billion in 2018 (Figure 2). While intra-ASEAN investments played a significant part in this rapid inflow of capital, China alone has provided approximately 20.40% of total foreign investment to Cambodia, and has thus become the single most important strategic investment partner to Cambodia.

Figure 2: Total foreign investment to Cambodia (US$ million)[6]

However, Cambodia has been ranked low in ease of doing business enabling environment ranking, placed at 138th out of 190th (World Bank, 2019)[7]. The enforcement of regulations is generally weak and uncertain, as admitted by investors[8],[9]. This has caused obstacles for most Western investors, but not for China. Since 2005, the inflow of Chinese investment exploits the government’s economic policies, including the privatisation of public resources, such as land, water, forest, and mines, by endorsing a number of regulations, such as the economic land concession (ELC) in 2005[10]. Foreign investors, including the Chinese, have flocked to Cambodia to acquire licenses for resource extraction. Investing in real estate has also been popular among Chinese individual investors and companies. One of the most popular areas is the coastal area is Sihanouk province, where casino and real estate are owned predominately by Chinese businessmen. These investments, though not all, often sparked grassroots communities’ reaction against the regulatory enforcement of license permits[11].


Cambodia’s socio-political culture, patronage and clientelism

The uncertainty in Cambodia’s regulatory enforcement appears to oppose the deregulation or race to the bottom theories (which enabled the inflow of foreign investment). This uncertainty instead seems to encourage multinational corporations, not only from China but now also from European countries, though China still predominates. How do these Chinese companies: i) acquire investment licenses; ii) secure their business operations over a long-term period; and iii) cope with risks in the uncertain regulatory enforcement environment? Based on my observation and case studies, these questions can be addressed through a careful study of Cambodia’s socio-political culture in relation to an entrenched patronage and client network.

Both clientelism and patronage imply the politically motivated distribution of favours that aims to promote personal and political interests. The two terms are often combined when speaking of patron-client relationship, which can be understood as a dyadic tie involving a largely instrumental friendship[12]. In this friendship, an individual of higher socio-economic status (the patron) uses their own influence and resources to provide protection or benefits, or both, for a person of lower status (the client) who, for their part, reciprocates by offering general support and assistance to the patron. Developing a clientelist network is a means by which to gain protection and achieve goals in a situation of societal uncertainty created by public institutions which may behave in ways that are not predictable.

Patron-client network has been generally accepted by Cambodia’s political culture, having the ruler as the central patron of the neo-patrimonial regime. Characterising Hun Sen as a man of prowess, scholars assert that he has remained in power because he is culturally perceived as a man possessing merit or bunn, which can be translated to power[13]. In essence, all decision-making must be referred to the patrons of the regime (having Hun Sen as chair or central patron).

To maintain their patronage system, the patron of the regime has, since the early 1990s, not only awarded lucrative positions to clients, but also allocated natural resources[14]. For instance, the awarding of licences for resource extraction (mining, oil, agricultural land, commercial forest logging and energy) and the privatising of state properties has been given to those individuals who support and are loyal to the ruling party (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: A model of Chinese investors operating in Cambodia

Generally, government officials seek lucrative positions and use their positions to extract rent. These appointments are not made freely, but based on rents. As the rent increases, so does the price of the position. In so doing, the allocation of lucrative positions is subject to (invisible) auctions and competition within the network, and relies on connections with the patrons and the ruling party. “They have to pay a certain amount of money to secure their position.”[15] If someone, in addition to his or her popularity, dares to pay more or contribute more to the party’s patrons, they will be offered the position. To ensure access to ministries with authority over resources and power, including lucrative sectors, a strong network is highly necessary[16].

The foregoing political culture of doing internal business in Cambodia has become a contact point of the foreign investors. Foreign investors (the clients) need powerful politico-commercial officials (the middle patrons) to support long-term business operations in Cambodia, where lax regulation enforcement and an uncertain business environment persistently prevail (Young, 2016), see figure 3. The network of middle patrons and client (foreign investors) is installed through one of two pathways: being a local joint venture partner, or being a broker who later becomes a local partner. Without these pathways, it is extremely difficult for foreign investors to get access to natural resources[17]; no business can enjoy the medium term in Cambodia without connecting to the patron’s affiliates. Through joint ventures with local reliable and powerful businesspersons, foreign investors can be granted ELCs and secure long-term successful investments. If there is no such relationship, foreign investors will not be able to access the resources. If there is no powerful local partner, foreign investors are likely to face high risk and fail in securing an ELC or long-term investments.[18] For example, a Chinese state-owned company, Fuchan and China Cooperative State Farm Group, partnered with Cambodian Pheapimex to develop agricultural plantations in the north-eastern province of Mondulkiri, and in Kampong Chhnang and Pursat provinces; such an arrangement caused adverse impacts on the socio-economic conditions of the local communities, including displacement, loss of access to natural resources and land, food insecurity and impoverishment[19]. These investments have nevertheless been secured in Cambodia through a joint venture between Chinese investors and Cambodian magnates, dominated by Sino-Khmers[20]. In this instance, this patron-client network has been installed not only within the government administration, but also between these politico-commercial elites and foreign investors or investment projects in Cambodia. Another pathway is through a broker (or licence trader) who later becomes a local joint venture partner. Foreign investors have to find a local broker who is powerful and has strong connections with senior government officials in order to facilitate the process of requesting ELCs. The foreign investors have to pay a substantial amount that is not indicated in the regulations. On receiving ELC licences, foreign investors have to allocate some number of shares to the broker free of charge[21] and then the broker becomes a local partner to protect the business operation. Otherwise, other corrupt or influential senior government officials might intrude into the business during its operations.[22] In so doing, the domestic partners become middle patrons of the foreign investors (the clients). The patrons have an obligation to protect the client in return for rent; for example, confronting allegations from affected communities, activists and NGOs.

In a case of Sino-Khmer who facilitated Chinese investment in Cambodia, a senior government official unveils that “… They, the foreign investors, do not know the entry point for investment in Cambodia, where to go and how to process the legal documents.”[23] Such a process is confirmed by a legal advisor who facilitates access to granting ELC licences. She argues that if investors had no connection and wanted to follow the procedure stated in the concession regulatory framework, the concerned ministries of the government would not be available to talk and work with them. Investors have to seek local investors or facilitators/brokers who are powerful and have strong connection with powerful officials to get an ELC approved within a short-period, although they have to pay transition fees[24]. She pointed out that: “Newcomers [investors] … find someone who has good networks and relationships, and the process of granting licence goes smoothly…”[25]

In this case, by connecting with a local Sino-tycoon, it took a Chinese foreign investor only three months to obtain from the council of ministers (CoM),[26] much faster than for most companies. Acting on this advantage, the joint company did not conduct proper public consultation or social and environmental impact assessments (EIA|), as required by the sub-decrees of economic concession (2005), Land Law (2001) and EIA (1999), before approval by the CoM. This concession is thus accused of violating these regulations. As stated in the Land Law, no concession is granted to a private company of greater than 10,000 hectares. This agro-sugar industrial investment was, however, awarded up to 19,100 hectares, as it claimed to be two companies but was, in fact, operating as a single company.[27] This case has suggested how a local Sino-Khmer could influence regulatory process in doing and securing business in Cambodia in the amid of rampant protests of the civil society organisations and the affected communities.


With long historical migration, business and diplomatic relations between the two countries, the influx of new generations of Chinese foreign investments and aid to Cambodia is the by-product of geopolitical expansion, but complementing both the host and foreign country’s political economic interests. The continuance of Chinese investment to Cambodia’s least favorable business environment has been secured and maintained as new Chinese investors have exploited socio-political cultural practices instilled by older generations of Sino-Khmer (tracing back to the 12th century, and very clearly from the end of the French protectorate era in Cambodia). Cambodia’s long established clientelism and patronage culture are seen as a mesh network, within which the stronger influence the weaker, and both share reciprocal but not always equal benefits. This culture has influenced regulatory enforcement and become an invisible form of business regulatory practice in Cambodia, where their ruler, also known as the patron at the apex of the pyramid, has been in power for decades. The patron, the middle-patron and the client (including the new generation of Chinese investors) become what is called “paralegal” mediating and easing doing business in the host country’s ambiguous regulatory enforcement environment. The ability to embrace and adopt the entrenched patron-client networks in the host country is a powerful weapon to ensure and secure long-term business operations (generally enabled by high-level bilateral diplomatic and political economic relations).  

[1] Chanda Nayan, China and Cambodia: In the mirror of history, 9(2), Asia Pacific Review, 1, 11 (2002).

[2] Groslier, 1958 cited in Chin J.K. (2017) Ethnicized Networks and Local Embeddedness: The New Chinese Migrant Community in Cambodia. In: Zhou M. (eds) Contemporary Chinese Diasporas. Palgrave, Singapore

[3] Nyíri Pál. Investors, managers, brokers, and culture workers: How the” New” Chinese are changing the meaning of Chineseness in Cambodia1(2), Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review, 369-397 (2012)

[4] Chanda (2002)

[5] CDC (Council for the Development of Cambodia). 2018. Development Cooperation and Partnerships Report. Phnom Penh: CDC, available at http://www.cdc-crdb.gov.kh/cdc/dcpr_images/docs/english.pdf (accessed 24 August 2019)

[6] ASEA Statistic: https://data.aseanstats.org/fdi-by-hosts-and-sources (accessed 02 September 2019)

[7] World Bank (2019). Doing Business 2019: Training for reform, economy profile Cambodia. https://www.doingbusiness.org/content/dam/doingBusiness/country/c/cambodia/KHM.pdf (accessed September 03, 2019).

[8] Subedi Surya P Land rights in countries in transition: A case study of human rights impact of economic land concessions in Cambodia. In Asian Yearbook of International Law, 1, 46 (2018). Brill Nijhoff.

[9] Young Sokphea, Movement of indigenous communities targeting an agro-industrial investment in North-Eastern Cambodia 44 (1.2), Asian Journal of Social Science 187, 213 (2016).

[10] Subedi (2018)

[11] Young Sokphea, Protests, Regulations, and Environmental Accountability in Cambodia 38(1), Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 33, 54 (2019)

[12] Scott, James, The erosion of patron-client bonds and social change in rural Southeast Asia 32(01). The Journal of Asian Studies, 5, 37 (1972).

[13] Jacobsen Trude & Stuart-Fox Martin, Power and political culture in Cambodia Working Paper 200. Singapore: Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore (2013).

[14] Hughes Caroline. Political economy of the Cambodian transition (2003). London: Routledge.

[15] An interview with a member of parliament and standing committee of the party (18 Dec 2013)

[16] Hughes Caroline & Conway Tim, Understanding pro-poor political change: The policy process–Cambodia (2004). London: Overseas Development Institute.

[17] Senior legal advisor (09 Dec 2013); a company Chief Executive Officer (CEO) (18 Dec 2013) & ELC general manager (27 Nov 2013)

[18] ELC general manager (27 Nov 2013) & Senior legal advisor (09 Dec 2013).

[19] Un Kheang, China’s foreign investment and assistance: Implications for Cambodia’ development and democratization16(2) Peace & Conflict Studies, 65, 81 (2009).

[20] Un Kheang (2009)

[21] A deputy provincial governor (15 Dec 2013) confessed that foreign investors allocate certain shares to their Cambodian brokers and they later become local partners.

[22] A CEO (18 Dec 2013) & ELC general manager (27 Nov 2013).

[23] A deputy provincial governor (15 Dec 2013).

[24] NGO deputy director (20 Dec 2013) & senior legal advisor (09 Dec 2013)

[25] Senior legal advisor (09 Dec 2013).

[26] The licence is approved by the council of minister in the form of a notification (sor chor nor in Khmer), which is usually exaggerated by companies and local and provincial authorities as a ‘law’ or chbab.

[27] NGO lawyer (20 Dec 2013).

Citation: Young, S. (2020). How Chinese Investors build patron and client networks to secure their investment in Cambodia. Insights on Southeast Asia. Retrieved from https://sea-insights.com/2020/11/18/how-chinese-investors-build-patron-and-client-networks-to-secure-their-investment-in-cambodia/(opens in a new tab)