Recalling hydraulic despotism: Hun Sen’s Cambodia and the return of strict authoritarianism

  • David J. H. Blake University of East Anglia
Keywords: Autoritarianism, Cambodia, Hun Sen, Hydraulic Society, Wittfogel


Mirroring trends elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Cambodia has witnessed a pronounced shift towards stricter authoritarianism over recent years. The state appears more firmly ruled by prime minister Hun Sen than at any time during the past three decades, while the de facto status of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) more closely resembles the single party regimes of neighboring states. One of the major tools of political control and expansion of authority employed by the hierarchical CPP network is the construction of major infrastructure projects, most notably hydropower dams and irrigation schemes. This article focuses attention on the hydraulic infrastructure aspects of exacting political authority and social control by the elite over the nation, drawing upon Wittfogelian perspectives for a conceptual framework. It maintains that Cambodia increasingly represents a modern variant of a hydraulic society, but primarily functions as a satellite hydraulic state of China. The growing influence of China over Cambodia’s hydraulic development has helped elevate Hun Sen to resemble a neo-classic hydraulic despot. Hydraulic society concepts help provide partial understanding of contemporary power relations and party-state ascendency, including the longevity and resilience of Hun Sen’s supremacy.

Author Biography

David J. H. Blake, University of East Anglia

David J. H. Blake holds a PhD from the School of International Development, University of East Anglia, UK. His research focuses on the political ecology of water resources development, environmental politics, critical human geography, and food systems, with a regional focus on Southeast Asia. 


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How to Cite
Blake, D. (2019) “Recalling hydraulic despotism: Hun Sen’s Cambodia and the return of strict authoritarianism”, Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies, 12(1), pp. 69-89. Available at: (Accessed: 21August2019).
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