A year on from elections that cemented its control over national politics, Cambodia’s powerful leadership remains determined to guide the country down an overtly authoritarian path. Many would have expected some respite after the international community responded to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s heavily gamed victory in July 2018 with condemnation and retributive sanctions. Instead, his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) only defiantly doubled-down in their bid to secure absolute dominance.
In lead-up to last year’s polls, the CPP systematically undermined the country’s then nascent democracy. It intimidated NGOs, shuttered independent media outlets, and arrested the opposition leader, Kem Sokha, on dubious charges. The party subsequently used its sway with the country’s highest court to dissolve his growingly popular Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Unsurprisingly, the CPP then took all parliamentary seats on offer in the polls. Facing criticism following the flawed vote, Hun Sen released a number of high profile political activists, including Kem Sokha, though he is now under house arrest.
Beyond these deliberately overt concessions, Hun Sen — in his 35th year in charge — has stayed true to his dictatorial style. Activists, political opponents, and journalists have continued to be antagonized into silence, while a punitive approach from the international community to jolt Cambodia’s top brass into action has also gone unheeded. The CPP have hardly given an inch despite enjoying now unassailable power.
The party’s audacity was tested early on when the European Union (EU) threatened to revoke Cambodia’s Everything But Arms (EBA) trading preferences — which give quota and tariff-free status to some exports from developing nations — in response to the democratic crackdown. If enacted the move could cost the country at least $700 million per year, lead to job losses for hundreds of thousands, and put Cambodia’s economy on a precipice by exposing its over-reliance on its trade dependent garment sector.
Yet, the CPP has remained stubbornly defiant even with the EU’s deadline for a decision looming (in mid-August), and the potential ramifications for serious unrest in the country. At start of the year Hun Sen retaliated with his own warning to the EU: ”If you want the opposition dead, just cut it,” he said, referring to the trade preferences.
Anyone not toeing the government line has also continued to receive hostility. Hun Sen urged the army, headed by his son, to “destroy” the government’s opponents earlier this year, while a UN review of Cambodia in June cited concerns about the targeting of free speech. Human Rights Watch also recently reported that this year Cambodian authorities have already issued over 140 arbitrary court and police summonses against CNRP members or supporters.
Despite many opposition parliamentarians and activists fleeing the country, the CPP have not taken any chances. In March, arrest warrants were made for eight CNRP leaders in exile, to further deter their return. Meanwhile, keen to assuage the threat of online mobilization, the government has continued to interrogate social media users for seemingly dissenting content. It has also drafted a new anti-cybercrime law ostensibly to tackle fake news. The draft law has raised concerns that it will be used as a smokescreen to further clamp down on freedom of expression by targeting online critics.
This renewed crackdown — after delivering what seemed like the hammer blow to Cambodia’s opposing voices ahead of last year’s election — is likely to be driven, in part, by fear. Hun Sen has been particularly eager to ward off so-called “color revolutions” — especially given the country’s youthful demography (around two-thirds are under 30) — ever since the Arab Spring brought greater awareness of collective protest. Now he exerts closer control over the country’s judiciary, executive, legislature, media, and military.
Ever since the UN arrived in the country in the early 1990s to secure peace, the West has funded Cambodia on the provision it undertake democratic reforms. The wily Hun Sen has instead fooled donors with cosmetic changes that were easy to erase when he pleased. Now with China as his patron he has little need for Western money, and so threats, criticism, and calls for reforms are falling on deaf ears. As such, if the international community desires to reverse Cambodia’s authoritarian turn, it may have to revise its approach to break the impasse.
Faced with Hun Sen’s intransigence, the EU must establish whether the removal of EBA trade preferences is worth it in the long-run, given the repercussions for severely damaging diplomatic relations and the Cambodian economy. Less overt, yet better targeted, sanctions that instead focus on limiting the leadership’s financial and international wiggle room, with travel and funding restrictions and asset freezes — as the United States is currently mulling — are likely to be a more pragmatic next step.
Second, the international community might consider, counterintuitively, extending an olive branch to Cambodia by opening talks on new trade, aid, and investment deals to bolster its development. It could be a long-term pathway to reopen positive communication with the CPP, support the emergence of a middle class in the country and maintain its economic openness (which is necessary for democracy to flourish), and challenge China’s influence at the same time. Alienating the country with brash sanctions might run counter to this.
Any new carrots or sticks must come with clearer and more realistic conditionality. The paranoid Hun Sen sees demands for the release of Kem Sokha and reinstatement of the CNRP, while crucial endeavors, as violating Cambodia’s sovereignty. He seems unlikely to budge. The international community must also call — and provide technical support — for specific underlying improvements to the rule of law, transparency, and accountability. Small and gentle steps could be the best means to progress.
Cambodia’s democratic progress was virtually decimated in a short span of time, and it will take some care and patience to begin rebuilding it again. Maintaining open channels with the government and focusing on the building blocks of democracy — economic growth and good governance — however gradual or unsatisfying in the short term, should not be sidelined on the long road forward.