By Le N. Nguyen —
Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen has become increasingly defiant towards the United States and Europe, ramping up his crackdown on the opposition while also ratcheting up anti-American rhetoric. Recent events have exposed the limits of U.S. leverage with Cambodia as compared to China, with which Washington is competing for influence.
Hun Sen has unambiguously said that he wants to stay in power for 10 more years. With the general election less than a year away, it is imperative for him to defeat the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) by any means available to him. The two most recent elections made Hun Sen aware that the CNRP poses a real electoral threat. In 2013 the CNRP managed to wrest 26 seats from Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Then came the local commune elections this June, when the CNRP gained 43 percent of the popular vote, up from 30 percent five years ago.
Hun Sen’s repressive moves to engineer a victory, while disturbing, should come as no surprise. During his long tenure, Hun Sen has taken advantage of the weak institutions — especially the parliament and the courts—of a fledgling democracy for his own purposes and to ensure that no one can challenge him. Sam Rainsy, the former leader of the CNRP, has probably suffered the most from Hun Sen’s tactics. Hun Sen in 1995 threatened to imprison Rainsy to force his party to vote in favor of a constitutional amendment. Rainsy’s political career then went back and forth between threats, charges, trials, jail sentences, and exile. After Rainsy led the CNRP to big gains in 2013, he was charged with defamation, went into exile again, and was finally banned from political activity.
With Rainsy gone, Hun Sen has turned against Kem Sokha, Rainsy’s successor, and the broader CNRP party. Sokha was jailed in September on charges of treason, while his deputy Mu Sochua and more than half of CNRP parliamentarians fled the country after Hun Sen threatened to arrest “opposition rebels.” Hun Sen also moved to dissolve the CNRP using the recently amended law on political parties, which now allows for parties to be dissolved on national security grounds.
The Cambodian prime minister also took aim at the United States. He ordered the expulsion in August of the foreign staff of the National Democratic Institute, a U.S. non-profit with ties to the Democratic Party, and in September shut down the American-owned Cambodia Daily newspaper over unpaid taxes. His government in September also forced Radio Free Asia to close its Phnom Penh bureau, and he called on the Peace Corps to pull out its staff in Cambodia. Most seriously, Hun Sen accused the U.S. embassy of conspiring with opposition leaders to topple his government, demonstrating a determination to play hardball with the Americans while continuing his crackdown on the political opposition.
Hun Sen is playing a high-stakes game that could have significant backlash for a country so heavily reliant on international aid. Cambodia seemingly cannot afford to irritate donor countries and rights groups, but Hun Sen is relying on steady backing from China to make up for losses suffered by attacking the West. China has long been Cambodia’s largest donor, trading partner and investor, and Cambodia’s falling out with the West may serve to lock in Phnom Penh’s pivot to Beijing. With Hun Sen ready for a U.S. backlash with strong Chinese backing, any punishment of Hun Sen for his political crackdown will likely be counterproductive.
An independent and non-aligned Cambodia is desirable from Washington’s perspective, but Cambodia is currently far from that vision. At best, the United States can encourage Hun Sen to tone down his rhetoric and repression after his party wins the upcoming election. Hun Sen cannot cling to power forever, and an opportunity may exist down the line for the opposition to return to Cambodian politics.
It is unlikely that Cambodia will make a dramatic swing away from Beijing to strike a balance with the United States even after Hun Sen passes from the scene. Hemmed in between Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia naturally needs a protector it can rely on to ensure its security. With Washington more focused on other ASEAN countries, Beijing is keen to cultivate its staunchest ally in a region whose security structure is already dominated by the United States.
As the late king Norodom Sihanouk famously put it: “The French and the Americans come and go, but the Chinese will not go.” It’s worth noting that, with the exception of Lon Nol’s brief rule in the 1970s, independent Cambodia has turned to China for backing. Even Hun Sen, who originally came to power after Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge and was originally antagonistic to China, gradually gravitated toward Beijing.
While most ASEAN countries try to strike a balance between China and the United States, Cambodia seems to be an outlier. Beijing is eager to fill any void left by the United States in the region, but in Cambodia the void is already filled.