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 25 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 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 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 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 told WikiTribune, “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 willingness to flaunt basic 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 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 will 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 death and 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 CCP 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.”