7 September 2017


Hun Sen’s Cambodia slides into despotism

Western neglect and Chinese patronage have both played a role


In one of the last editions of the Cambodia Daily newspaper, the headline ran as follows: “Descent into outright dictatorship”. It ran above a picture of Cambodia’s main opposition leader being arrested in a midnight raid.


The independent English-language newspaper, which began publishing in 1993, was shut down this week by Hun Sen, the prime minister, in response to its reporting on his regime’s assault on Cambodia’s freedoms.


With the arrest of Kem Sokha, Hun Sen has stepped up repression, exposing his insecurity ahead of a general election scheduled for July next year. He openly frets about the potential for a central Asian-style “colour revolution” and worries that an opposition landslide could spell the end of his three decades in power.


He has ordered his citizens to refer to him as “glorious supreme prime minister and powerful commander”, vowed to stay in office for “not less than 10 more years” and openly threatened a return to civil war if his ruling party does not win the election “at all stages”. Coming from a former commander in the Khmer Rouge, which instigated a genocide in the 1970s in which millions died, these are not idle threats.


For decades, Hun Sen’s autocratic tendencies have been constrained by his country’s reliance on western aid, which is usually tied to good governance and democracy benchmarks. But billions of dollars in state-driven investment from China in recent years have allowed him to indulge his true political inclinations.


In charging Kem Sokha with treason on Tuesday, the Hun Sen regime presented as evidence a video of the opposition leader from 2013 in which he tells supporters of his party that he enjoys American support and advice. For that speech, which has been publicly available for the past four years, Kem Sokha is accused of “colluding with foreigners” and faces up to 30 years in prison.


Hun Sen’s vow to fight against “puppets of foreigners” is laughable given his reliance on Beijing — and Cambodia’s de facto position as a client state of China. Tellingly, amid the international condemnation that followed this week’s crackdown, the only country to express support for Hun Sen’s “effort to uphold national security and stability” was China.


Western countries, in particular the US, must take some of the responsibility for the retreat of democracy and human rights in Cambodia, which stands out as a failed example of western democratic nation building.


After a flurry of interest and activity in the early 1990s, the west largely forgot about Cambodia. The building of democratic institutions in the ravaged country was too often outsourced to well-meaning but under-resourced western non-governmental organisations.


With its attention focused overwhelmingly on the Middle East in the aftermath of the September 11 2001 terror attacks, the US has often neglected its interests in Asia. As a result, Cambodia is just the most striking example of a Southeast Asian country tilting away from the sanctimonious west and moving closer to China. Other examples include the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand, all of which have decided they needed to court Beijing more assiduously and publicly reject Washington.


China’s insistence on supporting corrupt and unsavoury regimes such as Hun Sen’s may work in the short term. Eventually, it is likely to backfire. Asia’s longest-serving leader cannot rule forever. The longer he stays, the greater resentment will build against him as well as his Chinese patrons.