Future Of Cambodia: Democracy Or Dictatorship?

In recent weeks, the Cambodian Government has shut down nearly 32 independent radio stations, banished the US-backed NGO National Democratic Institute, arrested its main opposition party (Cambodia National Rescue Party, CNRP) leader Kem Sokha, and threatened to ban the party altogether. In response to U.S. criticism, Prime Minister Hun Sen has suspended collaboration with U.S. to search Vietnam War soldiers’ remains and asking U.S. to withdraw Peace Corp’s volunteers (U.S. citizens).

As John Sifton, the Asia Advocacy Director commented, “The government’s actions are part of a campaign of intimidation, violence, and misuse of courts intended to neutralize political opposition ahead of the July 2018 vote – all to ensure the continued rule of Hun Sen and the CPP [Cambodian People’s Party].” The measures taken by the government were reasonable given that Hun Sen and other stakeholders were afraid they would lose the election next year. Hun Sen’s move is aligned with maintaining power despite violations against rights to speech and association.

As predicted, the international community decried the actions as unacceptable. For instance, on the issue of banishing the National Democratic Institute, the Spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Liz Throssell said, “We call on the Royal Government of Cambodia to ensure due process in all measures taken, including the right to appeal, and to respect the rights to freedom of association and expression.”

It is clear that Prime Minister Hun Sen prioritized his own agenda over the rights of the people he governs. However, human rights issues are complex and in this case are not simply a question of true or false.

Above all, Hun Sen would like to control the country for the next six years. Regardless of internal and external pressures, Hun Sen is unable to quit the politics or transform Cambodia into a real democracy. According to Transparency International, the Corruption Perceptions Index of Cambodia is only 21, which is ranked 156th worldwide. Hun Sen has been criticized by the international community for corruption since he became the Prime Minister of Cambodia. Staying in power is an effective way for him to avoid the punishment of the law. Moreover, the CCP has been the majority in parliament for nearly 30 years, and the different interest relations were rooted in this party. The stakeholders of the CCP will not allow Hun Sen to bring any change to this country. In turn, avoiding anti-corruption political cleansing requires Hun Sen and the CCP to secure leadership again, no matter the measures they must take.

A reliable first step to control a country is to control the media. Hun Sen’s move to shut down independent radio stations is his first step to tame the country, even if his excuse is vague and unconvincing. Expelling the National Democratic Institute is a blatant provocation to the international community, and also some ingratiation with China. With the elimination of opposition voices in mainstream Cambodia, Hun Sen arrested the main opposition party leader Kem Sokha. In addition, his threat to ban the opposition party openly demonstrates that, even if CNRP holds nearly half of the seats in parliament, CPP has been controlling Cambodian society firmly and CNRP is just a nominal opposition party. The extreme imbalance of power between CPP and CNRP is clear after these events. Thus, we can say, without international community’s interference, it is not possible for Cambodia itself to transform to a democracy unless there is a major revolution, which seems to be unlikely.

However, in the modern world, there is no isolated nation. As reported, the “gunfire” in the statements between the Cambodian government and U.S. government has been continuous. Hun Sen’s blatant provocation to U.S. demonstrates that Cambodian government is not afraid of U.S., which indicates U.S.’s weakening influence on this nation. Although the U.S. government has tried to “Return to the Asia Rebalance” during the Obama period, the U.S. strategy has been gradually sifted by its current President, Donald Trump, alongside its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement on January 23rd, 2017. In addition, the long-term involvement in overseas human rights violations has resulted in a decline of economics in U.S. These factors impede U.S.’s capacity for interference in Cambodia.

If we look at Southeast Asia, the region as a whole is in disarray. The Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar shows Ann Sun Suu Kyi’s inability to control the country, which also aggravates the refugee conflict between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Thailand just signed the New Russia-Thailand Military Pact last week, and its tie to China is more intimate than before. Vietnam is still a one-party ruling country, controlled by the Communist Party of Vietnam. In addition, the human rights violations are still serious in other Southeast Asian countries. Within this context, the human rights violations in Cambodia seem to be minor. After all, unlike Myanmar, there is no one killed in Cambodia. Fortunately, the political scheme by Hun Sen and CPP will possibly be “safe” to be enforced and their aim will be achieved.

Since Cambodia is an ally of China, the Chinese Communists’ Party’s attitude (CCP) is also important in this issue. An announcement last week by the head of the CCP international department Song Tao revealed the CCP’s firm support of Cambodia. As I discussed earlier, the international community has most of its attention on North Korea, which may lead to a neglect of the real solution to human rights violations in Cambodia. Moreover, even if there is no emergent crisis in North Korea, CCP is still unlikely to make compromises, for it is a contest of power between China and U.S.

The human rights infringements in Cambodia in the last four weeks are civil and political in nature. Although the international community and Western media have harshly condemned the violations in Cambodia, the issues are unlikely to be resolved this way. The imbalance of power in politics, the absolute control of Hun Sen, the unwillingness and inability of U.S. to interfere, the firm support from China, and the disarray of Southeast and Northeast Asia all contribute to the result that human rights violation in Cambodia cannot be solved in the short term. Therefore, it is likely that Hun Sen will win the election next year, and Cambodia will remain a dictatorship.