Can the US Bring Cambodia Back from the Brink?

But the United States government wisely has two clearly delineated policies: A hardline approach to the Cambodian government, on the one hand, and a soft overture to the country’s people, on the other. The United States, by building on the latter, can take additional steps to rebuild the “people power” that Cambodians need to claim their democracy and, given domestic anti-Chinese sentiment, to potentially counter Chinese expansion in Southeast Asia.

តែអាមេរិកមានគោលនយោបាយគូសវាស់ពីរយ៉ាងច្បាស់គឺប្រើប្រាស់កំឡាំងតឹងរឹងមួយផ្នែកនិងប្រើប្រាស់កំឡាំស្រទន់ទៅរកប្រជាជនមួយផ្នែក។ សហរដ្ឋអាមេរិកដោយការខាងខិតខំផ្នែកចុងក្រោយ អាចបង្កើនជំហានទៅរកការប្រើប្រាស់អំណាចប្រជាពលរដ្ឋបន្ថែមដែលប្រជាពលរដ្ឋអាចទាមទារលទ្ធិប្រជាធិបតេយ្យត្រឡប់មកវិញនិងក្តីកង្វល់រួចប្រឆាំងចិននៅក្នុងស្រុក ដែលជាកត្តាប្រឆាំងការពង្រីកឥទ្ធិពលចិននៅអាស៊ីអាគ្នេយ៍។

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Can the US Bring Cambodia Back from the Brink?

The road to democratization in Cambodia is paved with obstacles. By Charles Dunst October 01, 2019

Can the US Bring Cambodia Back from the Brink?
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen stands as he watches the boat races during the water festival in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018.Credit: AP Photo/Heng Sinith

In 1993, the United States believed Cambodia was on the path to democracy. In July of that year, Secretary of State Warren Christopher presented Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh at an event at New York’s famed Waldorf Astoria Hotel as Cambodia’s co-premiers — and as the supposed guarantors of the United Nations’ $2 billion investment in the country. 

Secretary Christopher could not have been more wrong. 

American support helped empower Hun Sen, who had in fact lost the 1993 elections, but nonetheless forced his way into power. Hun Sen ousted Ranariddh in 1997 and soon after eliminated the largest rival party. He then took control of the country’s security forces. Hun Sen has since consolidated power, targeted political opponents and placed himself at the center of a nationwide web of patronage

And although Hun Sen for years maintained his profitable autocracy while balancing the United States and China, he is now leaning almost exclusively on the latter, whose backing has enabled the strongman to more firmly tighten his iron fist, further frustrating U.S. interests in the region.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) performed poorly in the 2013 and 2017 elections. So a CPP-controlled court banned the main opposition party in 2018; the CPP then secured 80 percent of the vote in that year’s sham elections. Hun Sen’s CPP has since “intensified its onslaught on the political opposition, civil society groups, and independent media,” per Human Rights Watch.

In the wake of Hun Sen’s crackdown, the Trump administration has thrown away the carrots and doubled up on the sticks. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had maintained functional, although tense, relations with Hun Sen, hoping to utilize Cambodia geopolitically and salvage the international community’s investment in the country’s democracy. Trump has made no such efforts. Last year, citing “deep concerns” over “setbacks in democracy,” the White House cut aid to Cambodia, suspending funding that supported Hun Sen’s regime: the military, taxation department, and local authorities. Additionally, a bipartisan team in Congress is pushing to remove Cambodia from a preferential trade scheme for developing countries, and to sanction senior Cambodian government officials for “acts to undermine democracy in Cambodia.” (The European Union is likely to end its own preferential trade agreement with Cambodia, a move that analysts believe will “flatten” Cambodia.)

In the meantime, Cambodia has become a Chinese vassal state. Phnom Penh receives steady political support and financial aid from Beijing. In return, the Southeast Asian capital has repeatedly blocked the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in its efforts to counter China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea. Long-running rumors of a potential Chinese military base on Cambodian territory — about which U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has expressed concern — are, to some scholars, indicative of Beijing’s plans to secure hegemony over the Mekong Delta. More concretely, Phnom Penh announced on July 29 that it would increase arms purchases from China by $40 million. The Wall Street Journal’s July report that Cambodia will allow China to utilize a naval base on its soil should only further raise these concerns.

The Trump administration’s 2018 aid cuts are an effective first step in the effort to counter Hun Sen’s crackdown and frustrate the rapprochement between Cambodia and China. But the United States government wisely has two clearly delineated policies: A hardline approach to the Cambodian government, on the one hand, and a soft overture to the country’s people, on the other. The United States, by building on the latter, can take additional steps to rebuild the “people power” that Cambodians need to claim their democracy and, given domestic anti-Chinese sentiment, to potentially counter Chinese expansion in Southeast Asia.

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