Cambodia |Analysis

Cambodia inches toward a Chinese-style system

  1. Five-year plan has 'alarming' resemblance to Chinese tactics
  2. Cambodia could prove its own authoritarian model for Asian states
  3. One-party elections would force West to take notice

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Cambodia was once a focus of global efforts to repair the legacies of the Vietnam conflict: civil war, the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge, and over a decade of Vietnamese occupation. But 27 years after peace talks in Paris paved the way for national reconciliation between warring factions, and the West poured billions of dollars in aid, the country seems to be moving towards an authoritarianism modelled on China’s one-party system.

Hun Sen, the longest serving prime minister in the world and a former Khmer Rouge officer, has moved against political rivals, a free press (Cambodia Daily) and NGOs (Global Witness) in the lead-up to national elections in July 2018. Few doubt his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will lose.

Billions of taxpayers’ dollars invested in Cambodia by the international community since the peace accords risk being “flushed down the toilet,” says Brad Adams, executive director of the Asian division of Human Rights Watch. But he also told WikiTribune that the West should care because of its role in “getting the Khmer Rouge to power, and failure to intervene when they were in power.”

Although the CPP “is an incompetent administration,” according to Adams, “they can scare a lot of people.”

Cambodia’s ‘alarming’ five-year plan

Last week, English-language newspaper The Phnom Penh Post reported on government plans for a five-year agenda that would increase surveillance, quash opposition, and prevent the spread of information that “twists the truth”.

The plan had “alarming” similarities to China’s one-party, authoritarian political model, according to James Gomez, regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific at Amnesty International, an NGO. “I see this being a new era of Chinese political imperialism and Cambodia clearly manifests a dangerous example,” he told WikiTribune.

Gomez said he was also concerned about how the country’s “creeping authoritarianism” could serve as a model for other authoritarian regimes.

HRW’s Adams echoed these concerns. “Countries in the region are looking at each other and seeing how much they can get away with,” he said. “We have crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing in Burma. We have a military junta in Thailand… What’s the cost this kind of repressive behaviour going to be? And if there’s no cost, then it will certainly continue.”

A new normal

Periods of political repression, usually timed to elections, have been a staple of Hun Sen’s Cambodia since the 1991 Paris Peace Accords. WikiTribune community member Ronald Keeler said: “I lived in Cambodia for more than six years, leaving Cambodia for Thailand in 2000. I didn’t see democracy at that time”.

A recent surge in Chinese money and influence is transforming the country’s political landscape, says journalist Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia. “There’s always a tension between the [Cambodian] government’s aims to secure power and its need for Western support and Western aid money,” Strangio told WikiTribune. “China has resolved that contradiction present within the CPP. With Chinese support, they don’t really need Western countries.”

Hun Sen’s apparent willingness to flaunt democratic principles might also be traced to a United States that is more concerned with domestic issues, and a president who has given support to other Asian strongmen, like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.

“The combination of China and [U.S. President Donald] Trump has made for an incredibly autocratic 2017 for Cambodia,” says Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, Los Angeles.

The Cambodian prime minister has also made clear he pays attention to Trump’s language on media and “fake news” (The Phnom Penh Post). “[Hun Sen] listens to Donald Trump insofar as what he hears suits his purposes. The game is simple: whatever can be used to justify your actions, all the better,” Ear told WikiTribune via email. “Trump’s utterances on Twitter can be mined for gold. Then use it to attack your enemies and when the U.S. lectures you, use Trump’s own words to lecture the U.S.”

Youth expects better

But Cambodia’s move to increasing authoritarianism cuts both ways, warns Adams. The country might lack the strategic importance it once had during the Cold War, which helps explain why Western countries have been slow to act. But if Hun Sen goes through with one-party elections this year, that could force a reckoning from the liberal international community.

Once Western governments realize “that there will no longer be even pretence of democracy in Cambodia, I think they [Cambodians] will lose most, if not all, of their foreign assistance… And that would be a tragedy for average Cambodians,” says Adams.

However, Strangio says there is still cause for optimism. Younger Cambodians are not shackled by memories of decades of destruction, and have higher expectations than previous generations. “The government’s going to find out very quickly that it can abolish the opposition, but it’s much harder to abolish the people’s desire for better government, more accountable rule, and less corruption.”

He added: “The CPP is going to have to work out ways to improve people’s lives. And if it doesn’t, it’s going to court the possibility of serious social upheaval in the decades to come.”

See also our WikiProject on Cambodia.

Started by

United Kingdom
George Engels is a staff journalist and producer at WikiTribune. He has a background in history and philosophy and a strong interest in international politics and security, and social affairs. His work has been published by The Sunday Times, The Camden New Journal, The West End Extra and the Islington Tribune.

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21 February 2018

16:59:43, 21 Feb 2018 . .‎ George Engels (Updated → transcripts in PDF)
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  1. Other

    Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with a one party state. It’s doing some good things for China, it’s excelling at science and technology and tidying up the area. Sure, there are some not so great things that happen too, but here in the UK I can walk in my nearest city and see loads of homeless people – and compared the the rate of progress in the UK compared to China we seem to be standing still. Good luck to Cambodia I say!

    1. Rewrite

      Hey Paul, thanks for your comment. Do you see any drawbacks to one party state systems?

      1. Rewrite

        Sure, it can lead to corruption but as we’ve seen with Xi Jinping you sometimes get new leadership to clean the corruption up. With that said, there’s plenty of corruption all around the world; IE the Queen in my country likes hiding the money that she takes from tax payers. I sometimes wonder why my country is held up as a bastion of democracy actually, we have an undemocratically chosen head of state with countless palaces while every city centre has a growing number of homeless people.

        1. Rewrite

          What about rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of press or human rights?`One party states usually don’t grant their citizens these rights. States like China might be more efficient like the UK. But there is price for it, and that’t the freedom and security of the individual. It was just at the end of last year that in Beijing tens of thousands migrant workes were kicked out of their appartments and houses (without a warning, in the cold winter time and with just a few hours to leave). Something like that wouldn’t be possible in states like the UK.

          1. Rewrite

            Hopefully I’m not being seen as sabotaging the comments section in anyway I’m very serious on my position.

            What about rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of press or human rights?

            The West largely has these things, yes, but there are many issues with each. On rule of law we often see people differently affected by the law, a common example is the number of blacks being shot at and killed compared to whites or Muslims and Latinos bring viewed unfavourably. Additionally, the rich get off easier, take MeToo, loads of people have been accused but only years after, and I’m still not aware of any arrests.. your average rapist gets picked up right away.

            Your point on freedom of speech is another with issues. I’ve been on several anti austerity demoes and some papers pick the story up… When they want to smear Jeremy Corbyn. However protests in the West never get picked up on BBC like those in Hong Kong or Iran.

            Then there was the incident of the guardian being forced to destroy hard drives during the snowden saga, that flies in the face of a free press. In the UK it’s worth noting that while we have a fair number of papers they’re hardly a wide variety. They have too much influence over people’s voting decisions and a generally reactionary, not good. Yes I’m free to start my own publication but in reality it probably won’t get seen by many people so it’s just like a token gesture.

            On human rights, I looked up the story about the migrants in China, it says that was initiated by a fire in one of those shanty houses they were all living in so China decided to tear them down, much like France did with ‘the jungle’. It was widely reported last year that China actually removed hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the last 30 years meanwhile in just the past 8 the UK has done a brilliant job of plunging lots into poverty, myself included.

            The only reason countries like China are hostile to freedom of this and that etc is because a certain set of countries (see g7) use such organisations for their own political, money making, projects. Where they’re decoupled from imperialist politics I think they’re very good ideals.

            1. Rewrite

              Sorry to hear that you don’t recognize the differences between democratic systems with the rule of law and its checks and balances. You may be right that these values are not in perfect shape. The western world is in a deep crisis. But still: personal freedom is only guaranteed in liberal western democracies.

              The story about migrants in China is a good example. Because it’s totally different from the “jungle case” in France. These people are chinese citizens, they are the ones that do the hard work. But yet: they weren’t born in the cities and therefore don’t have the right to send their children to city schools, they don’t have the right to get access to the city health systems. They are citizens but don’t have the guarantee to stay where they work. Yes, there was a fire in one of those (as you call them) shanty towns (that actually aren’t that bad because these are real houses) . But is it necessary to throw all of those hard working citizens out of their homes (without any warnings and no other place to stay)? The real reason is that Beijing just wanted to get rid of them. And the fire was a good excuse.

              “The jungle” in France was inhabited by people (mostly Africans) that had no legal right to stay there, that wanted to migrate to UK (but couldn’t), that didn’t work legally and occupied land that wasn’t theirs. It took the french state a very long time to react and to destroy this place. The people were informed, they were bused to temporary reception centers or relocated to a camp or to informal settlements.

              Can you see the difference? Yes, I admit, China did a good job in reducing the poverty. Their politicians are smart and far-sighted. But the individual doesn’t count anything in this system. And the surveillance and the hard grip of the state is tightening a lot right now. In a few years every Chinese will even get a social score.

              I oppose imperialist politics and I think that China has the right to decide on its own. But: I don’t want this kind of political system (with all its advantages and disantvantages) in my country.

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