Cambodia was once a focus of global efforts to promote democracy and repair the legacies of the Vietnam war: civil war, the genocidal reign of Khmer Rouge, and over a decade of Vietnamese occupation. But twenty-five years after peace talks in Paris paved the way for national reconciliation between warring Cambodian factions and a guilt-ridden West poured billions of dollars in aid, the country seems to be moving back toward a new sort of 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 hard and fast 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 that the government had drawn up plans for a five-year plan would increase surveillance, shut down opposition, and prevent the spread of information that “twist 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 told WikiTribune 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 told WikiTribune, “We have crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing in Burma. We have military junta in Thailand… What’s the cost this kind of repressive behaviour gonna 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 Paris Peace Accords. One WikiTribune commentator said: “I lived in Cambodia for more than six years, leaving Cambodia for Thailand in 2000. I didn’t see democracy at that time”. [HOW CAN WE CHECK THIS?]
But 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 willingness to flaunt basic democratic principles might be part of a calculation also be traced to a United States that is more concerned with domestic matters and a president who hasn’t shied away from giving support Asian strongmen in the Philippines and Thailand.
But Cambodia’s increasing authoritarianism cuts both ways, says Adams. The country may 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, it will force a reckoning from the liberal international community.
Once Western government realize “that there will no longer be even pretence of democracy in Cambodia, I think they will lose most, if not all, of their foreign assistance… And that would be a tragedy for average Cambodians,” says Adams.
Hun Sen quotes Donald Trump on the media being enemies of the people and clearly believes that the US president, who has given support to other Asian strongmen in the Philippines and Thailand [LINK], won’t interfere. Besides, Moscow and Beijing are his new best friends, not Washington [rewrite].
Why has the country’s ruling party been able to get away with a more sudden erosion of democratic mores over the past few years?
The combination of China and Trump has made for an incredibly autocratic 2017 for Cambodia, and the momentum continues through 2018. They just passed a Lèse-Majesté Law that not only makes it illegal to insult the king , but also obligates Cambodians to “defend the motherland” whatever that means. Does it mean that if you criticize the total meltdown of democracy in Cambodia, you are not defending the motherland? It’s all in the eye of the Dear Leader.
Hun Sen has made clear he listens to Donald Trump in his attacks on the media, what’s going on there and what can the U.S. do?
He 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. 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. The U.S. has been threatening further sanctions on Cambodia–beyond the visa ban for those who undermine democracy. It’s time to raise the stakes. The Graham, Durbin, Cruz, Cardin and Leahy Cambodia Accountability and Return On Investment (CARI) Act is one step, but way more needs to be done. Dozens, if not hundreds of names must be added as Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons by Trump via Executive Order to the Global Magnitsky Act. The passage of this five-year plan to minimize the opposition three or four weeks ago by the ruling party’s Congress qualifies that Congress’s membership among those who undermine Cambodian democracy.
What does this mean for Cambodians?
It appears likely he will have a free hand, despite wittering from the United Nations and the European Union, because he feels he no longer needs the billions which have kept the country afloat from NGOs and Western aid. China, SOMEONE SAYS, is filling in the gaps.
The West’s moral debt
Western countries, particularly the United States, have had a nearly 40-year guilt trip about Cambodia. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger illegally bombed Cambodia during the Vietnam war, ultimately leading to a takeover by the Khmer Rouge — a fanatical communist regime which believed in starting afresh from an agraian state.
Pol Pot and his regime killed perhaps a fifth of the population, evacuated the capital Phnom Penh almost overight, and ushered in twenty years of civl war which ended in 1993.
Hun Sen has since presided over what his backers see as an economic miracle but which is opponents argue has been the creation of a kleptocratic state run by oligarchs, the military and his family in ever-narrowing concentric circles.
Strangio: [00:34:30] I think that by comparison with Cambodia’s history, it’s very minimal and tragic history, the current situation … There’s a lot to be optimistic about. Young populations less shackled by the horrors of the past and more willing to demand better government from their leaders. There’s also the question, are the CPP capable of this sort of thing? [00:35:00] Whether its mentally capable, but also whether it can actually reform itself. Whether the system is reformable, even if the will is there. That’s a very open question. There’s a lot of powerful people with a lot at stake in the current arrangements of Cambodia and those people may not be happy with having to bring in their abrupt activity.
Gomez: I see this [00:13:00] being a new era of Chinese political imperialism and Cambodia clearly manifests a dangerous example. And that’s why we should be concerned.