Cambodia is fast removing any pretence that Prime Minister Hun Sen is interested in democracy, secure in the knowledge it has the backing of its ally to the north.
The veteran leader is apparently moving to disband the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) ahead of next year’s general election, with analysts pointing to the growing importance of China in the country.
The government’s filing of a politically motivated legal case to dissolve the CNRP would render elections next July undemocratic, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
The CNRP made significant gains during both the 2013 general election and June’s commune election and Hun Sen has clearly become agitated.
But he has little to fear from the receding western world as China props up his regime.
China is now the largest investor in Cambodia and is focused on securing Cambodia’s backing over the South China Sea dispute rather than democratic rights.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has scaled back US efforts to promote human rights overseas.
“With his total control over the military, police and the courts, this is a strongman’s coup, with Hun Sen shaking off the last vestiges of democratic rule,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW.
But Cambodia’s opposition is calling for sanctions against the 65-year-old Hun Sen.
“China can give Hun Sen money but not legitimacy,” acting CNRP leader Mu Sochua told Bloomberg on her journey into exile. She was a former human rights activist who studied social work at Berkeley in California. She is reportedly heading to Morocco.
“Hun Sen will run a high risk of economic sanctions.
“It’s the total destruction of democracy,” Mu Sochua added. “The red line has been crossed so many times. I don’t know what the international community is waiting for.”
Last month, the government arrested CNRP leader Kem Sokha on improbable charges of treason and threatened to arrest other senior party members. It forced the closure of the independent Cambodia Daily newspaper and radio stations that re-broadcast Radio Free Asia and Voice of America’s Khmer service.
Sam Rainsy, the CNRP’s founder, stepped down from the leadership because of a criminal conviction in a supposed defamation case from 2013, in order to avoid giving the government an excuse to dissolve the party. Rainsy has been in exile since 2015 and faces at least two years in prison if he returns.
None of this has harmed the economy.
Chinese investment is helping to boost growth while per capita income remains among the lowest in Asia. The International Monetary Fund projects 6.9-per-cent growth this year.
“If we waited around for the US or Canada, we’d be without lights,” said Sok Eysan, an MP in Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party. “We went from 4 million people under Pol Pot to 15 million now, so we have a lot of needs, and we welcome China’s help.”
China overtook the US as Cambodia’s largest trading partner in 2014 and it tops the list for foreign tourists, with giant casinos a key attraction. President Xi Jinping has cancelled around US$90 million of debt while Trump is demanding that Cambodia pay around US$500 million in loans from the Lon Nol era of the early 1970s. The US bombing of eastern Cambodia during the Vietnam War drove farmers from the countryside, destroying food production and creating a refugee crisis in Phnom Penh.
The US charged its puppet leader, Lon Nol, for relief supplies and is still waiting to be paid. It is a remarkable case of self destruction by Washington.
Beijing says Chinese companies have built a third of Cambodia’s major roads and numerous large bridges and hydropower stations. China funded an elaborate office building for Hun Sen’s cabinet and has started work on a national stadium.
A Chinese private equity company recently signed a US$1.5-billion deal to build a “Cambodia-Chinese Friendship City”. Cambodia’s biggest conglomerate, the Royal Group of Cambodia, has agreed to work with the state-run China Huaneng Group to build hydropower plants.
In return Hun Sen has vetoed all Asean attempts to establish a unified approach to Beijing’s expansion into the South China Sea.
A former Khmer Rouge cadre, Hun Sen, fled Cambodia in 1977 and returned with the Vietnamese military during that country’s war against the savage regime in 1979. He was first appointed foreign minister and was named prime minister in the Vietnamese-supported government in 1985. But his allegiance has since shifted away from Hanoi to the Khmer Rouge’s backers in Beijing.
China’s growing dominance in Cambodia, and the US retreat, is being replicated in other Asean countries, like Myanmar and Laos, and will be the defining factor in the region’s century.
China was the main supporter of the Khmer Rouge regime. Picture credit: Wikimedia