By Murray Hiebert —
In the months leading up to local elections in June 2017 and national elections in July 2018, Prime Minister Hun Sen has moved to shrink ties with Washington and deepen relations with China. He has stepped up controls over the opposition in an attempt to ensure that he does not face a repeat of 2013, when his ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) came close to losing. His actions to distance himself from the United States appear intended to give Washington less leverage to voice criticism of his moves in the wake of the elections.
Not so long ago, Hun Sen, who has served as prime minister for 32 years, had been one of Donald Trump’s biggest fans in Southeast Asia. He openly predicted Trump’s election last November and then praised the new U.S. president for excluding certain news organizations from one of his early press conferences. Despite that, Phnom Penh announced a few days before Trump was sworn in that Cambodia, a country of 15 million wedged between Thailand and Vietnam, would not participate in its annual joint military exercise with the United States, Angkor Sentinel, until at least 2019.
A military spokesman said the joint exercise was suspended because the armed forces were busy implementing an anti-drug campaign and tens of thousands of troops would be needed to maintain order during local elections on June 4. The announcement came in December 2016, only a month after Cambodia had taken part in its first Golden Dragon military exercise with China. Last year the Chinese and Cambodian navies also conducted their first naval training exercise.
In April, Cambodia abruptly asked the United States to end nearly a decade of assistance by a Navy construction unit, known as the Seabees, that was building schools and maternity wards around the country.
Soon after Trump was elected, Hun Sen made a series of appeals for Washington to forgive Cambodia’s debt dating back to the 1970s, when the United States gave the Lon Nol government fighting the Khmer Rouge some $278 million in loans for food and agricultural supplies. That debt has now nearly doubled to over $500 million due to accumulated interest. In February, Hun Sen harked back to the U.S. bombing of Cambodia during the war when, according to reports in the Phnom Penh media, he rhetorically asked Trump, “How can this be?…You attacked us and demand we give you money.”
Hun Sen insists the loan is invalid because Lon Nol toppled the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk in a 1970 coup, but Washington argues the international financial framework would collapse if governments are not responsible for debts incurred by their predecessors. No one knows what suddenly set Hun Sen off on an issue that has mostly lain dormant for decades.
Hun Sen made his moves against Washington despite the fact that Trump has made clear that pressing for democracy and human rights is not as high a priority for his administration as it was for his predecessor. They also come not long after Chinese president Xi Jinping made his first visit to Cambodia in October 2016, offering a new aid package worth nearly $240 million and pledging to forgive nearly $90 million in Cambodian debt.
In recent years, Beijing has become Cambodia’s most important foreign aid donor, its largest foreign investor, and one of its largest trading partners without imposing any political conditions like the United States and the European Union have long done. Beijing has become Cambodia’s top arms supplier, is helping Phnom Penh “reform” the judicial system, and is providing aid worth nearly $12 million for the election commission as the country prepares for the upcoming elections.
China’s largesse has paid off handsomely for Beijing. In 2012 and again last year, Phnom Penh blocked efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to reach consensus protesting China’s assertive moves in the disputed South China Sea.
Hun Sen has long been frustrated by U.S. protests about human rights abuses and moves to limit opposition and democratic voices in Cambodia. In February, U.S.-Cambodia relations were further strained when the National Assembly passed amendments to the Law on Political Parties, which will make it easier for courts to suspend the activities or dissolve opposition parties. The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh warned that steps to ban or limit parties would call into question the legitimacy of the upcoming elections. With increasing support from China, Hun Sen appears to be less susceptible to pressure from the West.
Most analysts saw the new law as aimed at the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which nearly topped the ruling CPP in 2013 elections and gave Hun Sen political heartburn. Then-CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who was living in exile under threat of arrest on defamation charges, resigned when it became clear the new law, which allows parties to be disbanded if one of its leaders is convicted of a crime, would be passed. The mantle passed to Rainsy’s deputy, Kem Sokha, but his efforts in the upcoming elections could be hurt because the new law bans foreign donations, including from Cambodians overseas who have long provided the opposition party with important support.
In the run-up to the local elections, which many analysts view as a bellwether for next year’s national elections, Hun Sen has repeatedly threatened that the country will again descend into civil war if the opposition wins. The prime minister has also called on the military to put down any protests that might erupt if the opposition loses. In the weeks before the elections, opposition politicians have been charged with defamation, democracy campaigners have been arrested, and rights activists say close to 30 people are now being held awaiting trial.
Cambodian rights activists are concerned that as the Trump administration downplays democracy and human rights as a foreign policy priority they will lose one of their strongest champions at time when their country is heading toward a critical period. Many fear that the new priorities of the U.S. government will embolden Hun Sen and his ruling party ahead of the upcoming elections.
With China providing Hun Sen with plenty of diplomatic and economic cover to reshape the political landscape and the United States distracted at home, Cambodia’s efforts at clinging to some semblance of democracy appear to be hanging by a thread. Despite Hun Sen’s current standoffishness toward the United States, it is important that Washington stays engaged with Cambodia. At 64, Hun Sen needs to step down eventually and it will be important for the United States to have strong links to the next generation of leaders.
Mr. Murray Hiebert is a senior advisor and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @MurrayHiebert1. This post originally appeared in the May 8, 2017, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.
Murray Hiebert serves as senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.