Is Hun Sen turning Cambodia into a pariah state in ASEAN?

Photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As Prime Minister Hun Sen strengthens his position, he threatens to make Cambodia a pariah state – similar to North Korea – within ASEAN.

By John Pennington

The long-standing ties between Cambodia and North Korea are – for the Southeast Asian region – unusually strong. However, that relationship is weakening. At the same time, parallels between the countries are growing as Prime Minister (PM) Hun Sen steps up moves to strengthen his position.

Now the world’s longest-serving PM, Hun Sen recently declared his intention to rule for another decade. “Thanks to the recent developments in connection with the treacherous activities of the Cambodian who has been arrested…I have decided to continue for at least another ten years,” he proclaimed.

He referred to Kem Sokha, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The CNRP made significant gains in recent communal elections. Hun Sen’s government accused him of working alongside the US to usurp power. He now faces trial and could spend up to 30 years in prison if found guilty.

Sokha was among several opposition politicians that the government recently arrested as their crackdown on so-called dissent intensified.

The CNRP’s rise motivated Hun Sen

Hun Sen is running scared of the CNRP. In the 2013 general election, despite suspected vote-rigging by the ruling party, the CNRP won 55 out of 123 seats. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claimed a majority of 68. However, the CNRP more than doubled its tally while the CPP lost 22 seats.

In local elections in June, the CNRP claimed 46% of the vote (up from 30% in the same elections in 2012 and up from 45% in the 2013 general election). The CNRP’s gains suggested they had the momentum to sweep into power next year. However, the crackdown that followed suggests Hun Sen is not going to let that happen.

Source: National Election Committee via Wikipedia

The charges against Sokha are baseless, and the crackdown is a ploy to intimidate his rivals and destroy the CNRP as a party. Hun Sen also forced the independent English-language daily newspaper Cambodia Daily to shut down along with several independent radio stations.

“After they close down all the independent newspapers and radio stations, no one will be able to print true information for the upcoming election,” Aun Pheap, who worked for the Cambodia Daily, said. Even though observers strongly doubt elections in Cambodia are fair, Hun Sen feels he must destroy any semblance of genuine opposition. At his fingertips, he has the tools to dissolve the last vestiges of Cambodian democracy. He is using them to consolidate and entrench his position in power.

Support from China and a blind eye from the US emboldens Hun Sen

Other than expressing concern – which is tantamount to doing nothing – the US has largely ignored Cambodia since Trump came to office. Hun Sen stepped up his stance against them. He accused the US of trying to orchestrate regime change and warned them to stay out of his country’s affairs.

Following previous crackdowns, the PM stepped back. He did so in order to receive much-needed aid from the US and other nations. As China will give financial backing to Cambodia whether the government governs democratically or autocratically, Hun Sen can pivot away from those alliances and act with more freedom. He is not expected to step back this time.

Cambodia and North Korea now share obvious similarities

Cambodia appears set for a future of autocracy and corruption, led by Hun Sen until he decides otherwise. Silencing dissent and cracking down on free speech is now common to both Cambodia and North Korea.

One key difference is that the international community has not exiled Cambodia or imposed sanctions. The country does not instil the fear in others that North Korea does. As long as China needs allies in the South China Sea, Cambodia can bank on its support.

Observers suggest the PM is paranoid – as North Korea’s supreme leader also appears – and he has threatened to “eliminate” hundreds of people if he has to. Hun Sen is a man who will do anything – including inciting civil war – to cling onto power.

Cambodia becoming a pariah state could negatively affect ASEAN

Cambodia’s alliance with China consistently prevents ASEAN from acting together against Chinese interests in the South China Sea. Cambodia is not alone in finding itself reluctant – or unable – to stand up to China. Like Malaysia and the Philippines, they traded political leverage for financial aid.

Crucially, the pivot towards China took the country away from the scrutiny and pressure of the West, and that could bring about major concerns for Southeast Asia. It opens the door for more repression and more human rights abuses. China offers Cambodia more aid than the US and its aid does not depend on any evidence of good governance or democracy.

Cambodia’s fast-growing economy may suffer. The US and other countries may become increasingly reluctant to trade with Cambodia as a result of the move towards autocracy. If one ASEAN economy suffers, the whole region will be adversely affected.

It seems likely that the CNRP will either be dissolved or fragmented to the point where they do not come close to toppling Hun Sen and the CPP in next year’s general election. “They seem more draconian, sinister, and clever than usual,” said political scientist Sophal Ear. “I guess the message is: If you can’t beat them, dissolve them.”

As links between Cambodia and North Korea weaken, it is no coincidence that Hun Sen is turning his country into ASEAN’s own version of a pariah state. North Korea is taking up so much of the world’s attention – and that of the US in particular – that he has been able to use the changing world order to his advantage.

“Because Donald Trump has demonstrated little interest in promoting human rights and democratic processes, Cambodia is off the hook,” said Southeast Asian analyst Carl Thayer. Cambodians and Southeast Asians will suffer as a result.