The Debate

How Can Canada Respond to Cambodia’s Political Dilemma?

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The Debate

How Can Canada Respond to Cambodia’s Political Dilemma?

If Canada wants to be critical of the Cambodian government, it will have to be proactive.

How Can Canada Respond to Cambodia’s Political Dilemma?

Mu Sochua, June 2016.

Credit: VOA / Public Domain

Cambodia’s national general election is scheduled to occur at the end of July 2018. With a few months away, former opposition members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) have met with parliamentarians from Australia, the European Union, the United States, and Canada in an effort to convince the international community to impose sanctions and other measures on Cambodia as a way to add pressure on the Cambodian government to restore a “true” multiparty democracy amid the government’s crackdown on the opposition.

Unlike Australia and the United States, Canada’s relationship with Cambodia can be described as lackluster with minimal political, economic, and social connections with the country. However, Canada is one of 19 countries who are signatories of the Paris Peace Accord of 1991, which put an end to the “tragic conflict and continuing bloodshed” and paved the way for the restoration of democratic institution in the country.

Amidst the current political climate, Canadian parliamentarians invited self-exiled former deputy opposition leader Mu Sochua to testify before the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development in March 2018. Sochua is a recent Nobel Peace Prize nominee and has been at the forefront of Cambodian politics for more than 20 years, advocating for democratic reform, free elections and human rights. With Cambodia’s political climate, how will Canada respond given the lackluster bilateral relationship?  

Cambodia’s main opposition party, the CNRP, was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017, removing the only existing electoral threat to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) hold on power. Critics have characterized the ruling as the “death of democracy” in Cambodia. The decision also banned 118 members of the CNRP from political activity for five years with many opposition members fleeing Cambodia. Although restrained from political activity within the country, some CNRP opposition members have been politically active outside of Cambodia, causing a problem for the Cambodian government.

Following the arrest of opposition party leader Kem Sokha on charges of treason and the closure of several independent media outlets, Sochua fled Cambodia after being informed that her arrest was imminent. Since her departure from Cambodia, she has met with lawmakers from Australia, and now Canada, and has been an active voice in commenting on the sanctions undertaken by the United States and the European Union. If Sochua returns to Cambodia, there is a strong possibility she will be placed on trial and convicted given the new amendments to Cambodia’s constitution which aims at controlling the political “narrative.”

Amendments to Cambodia’s Constitution

In February, the National Assembly and the Senate, composed of 123 parliamentarians from the CPP, royalist Funcinpec, and two other minor parties, unanimously passed a number of amendments to the Constitution and the Criminal Code, which included a lèse majesté law and restrictions to political participation.

Amendments include Article 42, which requires political parties to “place the country and nation’s interests first,” and forbids them from acting “directly or indirectly to jeopardise the interests of the Kingdom of Cambodia and of Cambodians,” and Article 49, which mandates that “every Khmer citizen shall respect the Constitution” and has an “obligation to… defend the motherland.”

The vague language asserting the nation’s “interests” are aimed at the activities of former CNRP opposition members who have been active in trying to mobilize the international community to impose sanctions on Cambodia. Interior Minister Sar Kheng emphasized, “each individual Cambodian must not do anything to impact the national interests of the Kingdom of Cambodia both domestically and abroad.” Their activities are aimed at undermining the Cambodian government and the legitimacy of the upcoming general national elections.

Response from the International Community

As Cambodia draws closer to the national general election, the international community has yet to decide on an effective response.  

At this year’s UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Cambodia faced significant criticism and concerns from the UN deputy high commissioner for human rights Kate Gilmore, urging “the government to take action to reverse the recent serious deterioration in the status of political rights and fundamental freedoms.” Concerns were shared by 45 members, including Australia, the European Union, France and Canada. 

U.S. legislators and the European Union Parliament have called for sanctions on Cambodia. In February, the White House announced the United States was suspending or curtailing programs worth $8.3 million, which were aimed at supporting the Cambodian government and military. Both Germany and the United States have restricted visas to high-level government officials. The European Union is also weighing similar sanctions with the review of the preferential trade treatment Cambodia receives.

However, these efforts are unlikely to deter the Cambodian government given China’s unwavering support of the current government. When the United States and the European Union withdrew their support of the national general election in January, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou reinforced China’s support for Cambodia’s election. “China respects and supports the development path chosen by the Cambodian people, and believes Cambodia’s future election can, under all sides’ supervision, reflect its fairness and select a party and leader that satisfies the Cambodian people.”

Testifying before the subcommittee, Sochua emphasized the Canadian government should impose targeted sanctions, warned investors not to invest their money in Cambodia, asked for a special Canadian delegation to visit Cambodia and put pressure on lawmakers.

“We ask the Government of Canada, that is one of the signatories of the Paris Peace Accord, not only make statements but take concrete actions that form the actions that have already been taken by your allies like the United States. And these actions are targeted sanctions, including [starting with] visa sanctions of the high-ranking officials of the Government of Cambodia. We ask that there be a legislation in the House of Commons for an act to freeze the asset of the high-ranking officials that have committed corruption and are investing their money in Canada … We ask that, that if there has to be, there be temporary economic sanctions. Only with these pressure will Mr. Hun Sen listen to the international community.”

The Unlikely Canadian Response

It is commendable that Canadian parliamentarians have somewhat of an interest in Cambodia’s current political situation. However, it is unlikely the Canadian government will adopt strict sanctions or measures against the Cambodian government, unlike the United States and the European Union who have a stronger economic and political connections with the country. Both have a more extensive range of policy tools to utilize in adding pressure on the Cambodian government.

In contrast, Canada has sought to tap into the growth and untapped potential of Southeast Asia by deepening its relationship with Southeast Asia’s regional body, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional organization that comprises 10 Southeast Asian countries, including Cambodia, and promotes economic growth, peace and security, and collaboration and assistance on matters of common interest to the region. In November 2017, prime minister Justin Trudeau attended a special Canada-ASEAN Summit, making the pitch to ASEAN members with the hopes Canada will be invited to be a member of the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN defense ministers panel. Seeking to diversify its trading relationship, Canada and ASEAN have also launched exploratory discussions on a possible free trade agreement.

Operating under the principle of consensus, also dubbed “the ASEAN way,” all 10 ASEAN member states must agree on a proposal or idea for it to move forward within the organization. This principle has been credited with bringing and keeping the members united in regional cooperation but has also been called inefficient and ineffective. Canada’s success within the ASEAN-bloc will require the support of Cambodia.

Canada’s response will be minimal. It is unlikely Canada will send a delegation to Cambodia, nor will Canadian investors withdraw their investments from the country. Sochua appeals to Canadian parliamentarians will be likely unsuccessful aside from spreading awareness on the current political situation. Following the July 2018 election, it is expected the Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland will release a press release stating Canada’s disappointed in Cambodia’s democratic progression and will emphasize the people of Cambodia deserve to have their voice heard through having a plurality of political parties, which includes the CNRP, and to release the former party leader of the CNRP Kem Sokha.

What can Canada do? Canada cannot adopt the same measures as the United States given the strategic goal of deepening relations with ASEAN. In contrast, Canada must be proactive with the Cambodian government. But how? Canada is well positioned to play a crucial role in helping Cambodia strengthen its judicial institution. By promoting the respect for the rule of law, Canada can help the judiciary become more independent and assertive in upholding the law against political pressure. If Canada wants to be critical of the Cambodian government, it will have to take a different approach and be proactive.

Darren Touch is a Masters of Public Policy and Global Affairs candidate at the University of British Columbia. He is also the former President of the Cambodian Association of the Ottawa Valley and former Associate Director, Corporate Communications and Operations of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia.