Hun Sen pushes Cambodia to the brink of a dictatorship

Photo: World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons
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The situation in Cambodia is approaching a dictatorship. What do Hun Sen’s repressive measures mean for Cambodia’s future?

By Oliver Ward

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has moved closer towards becoming an outright dictator. In early September, Hun Sen arrested his main political opponent, Kem Sokha. The Cambodian Supreme Court then disbanded Sokha’s party and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The move is a signal of Hun Sen’s desire to further restrict democratic activity across the country.

The West condemns what China applauds

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang expressed China’s approval of Hun Sen’s conduct. He said China “supports the Cambodian government’s efforts to protect national security and stability.”

The response from the West has been less supportive. In mid-November, the US stopped US$1.8 million of election funding to Cambodia. It had promised Cambodia the financial assistance towards a general election in 2018. The US also hinted at taking “more concrete steps” in the future.

Hun Sen’s government may also face a backlash from the European Union (EU). Respect for human rights is a pre-requisite for Cambodia’s tariff-free access to the EU markets. Hun Sen’s dissolution of the main opposition party could lead to the EU withdrawing Cambodian preferential access.

Democracy is in danger

Hun Sen is eroding Cambodian democracy. In September, the Cambodian Daily newspaper closed. The Finance Ministry presented the newspaper with an alleged tax bill of more than US$6 million. The government gave the newspaper two weeks to pay the bill or close its door.

The government also told 15 radio stations to stop playing Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Cambodian authorities closed the National Democratic Institute, a US-funded group which organised election monitoring and political activity. Hun Sen is making preparations to guarantee his election victory in 2018.

Chinese investors gain from Hun Sen’s anti-democratic measures

For China, Hun Sen’s guaranteed victory in the 2018 general election offers stability. He will offer continuity in economic policy. Chinese companies operating in Cambodia will benefit from long-term political and economic stability.

Source: CEIC

Between 1994 and 2016, Chinese businessmen invested around US$14.7 billion into Cambodian industries. This figure is almost half of the US$30.2 billion total foreign direct investment in the country. Cambodia’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) dipped in the early part of 2017. This was likely due to uncertainties surrounding the 2018 election. Chinese investors want continuity. If Hun Sen is defeated, there is no guarantee there will be continuity with the next successor.

What happens next?

US and EU sanctions would hurt Cambodia. Together they make up 60% of Cambodia’s export markets. But Cambodia has other options. In recent years it has diversified trade relations. It has reinforced its relationship with Russia, Trade with Russia increased from US$10.8 million in 2006 to US$133.2 million in 2013. It has also increased its bilateral trade with China, up from US$3.8 billion in 2014 to almost US$5 billion at the start of 2017.

Source: Atlas

Cambodia’s strong export diversity means it could limp through 2018 by relying on its non-western allies. After the turmoil of the election dies down, Cambodia will be able to open negotiations to end the sanctions.

Western sanctions are unlikely to end Hun Sen’s democratic crackdown. There will be little respite for the Cambodian population anytime soon. But by resorting to repressive measures, Hun Sen may be orchestrating his eventual downfall.

Power lies in persuasion, not in repression. The strength won through aggressive repression is always precarious. The Cambodian government’s descent into a quasi-dictatorship is a signal of its desperation and inability to rely on democratic methods to create a stable government.

Reliant on repression alone, Hun Sen will eventually lose control of the situation. It may not be in the immediate future, and Cambodians may have to endure some dark days before it happens. As Mugabe showed in Zimbabwe, control through repression cannot last forever; it only buys more time.