Beating-up on Cambodia over corruption and human rights violations has become something of a regional sport. In its latest survey, Transparency International ranked Cambodia below Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar on perceptions of corruption despite its citizens enjoying a democracy and free press that the one-party governments in neighboring states can’t come close to matching.
Human Rights Watch has had Cambodia in its sights for more than a decade over human rights abuses, while Western donors that raise this country’s notorious culture of impunity are normally rebuffed and accused of bias by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Hun Sen, understandably, dislikes being told what to do. His reaction is to cite Chinese generosity, which he insists comes with no strings attached. He also insisted that the billions of dollars Beijing has sent to its tiny neighbor on its southern flank had nothing to do with his government’s siding with China and against other members of ASEAN over the maritime dispute in the South China Sea.
That may change. Xinhua, the mouthpiece of the Chinese government, has done the unthinkable and joined Cambodia’s many critics over the government’s handling of issues ranging from land-grabbing and corruption to protests following the July 28 elections.
It chastises the government for failing to react to the result, which did deliver the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) another term in office, but with a substantially reduced majority, after traditional rural voters deserted the party for the opposition.
Protests over allegations of cheating at the poll continue and were held again on Tuesday. They passed peacefully, but Beijing has expressed fear, through numerous analysts, that Cambodia could descend into the kind of chaos that is plaguing Thailand.
Importantly the Xinhua report stands is in stark contrast to another report it filed on bilateral relations between Cambodia and China shortly before the election and Beijing’s expectations of a country it has given so much to – about $12 billion through investments and soft loans over the last two decades.
The problem for Hun Sen is that he already has his hands full. He deliberately engineered a kleptocracy which has ensured successive CPP governments since the wars ended in the late 1990s based upon him remaining at the helm for decades to come.
The time for a radical rethink on how his government will manage and do business in the future has arrived. Western donors, NGOs, human rights groups, opposition politicians and the Cambodian community at large are all watching – as are Hun Sen’s most trusted ally, the Chinese.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.