Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) walks with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy
Chinese President Xi Jinping with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Prime Minister Hun Sen once described China as “the root of everything that is evil” in Cambodia during the 1980s when Beijing backed a rival political clique. Now his tune has changed – China is Cambodia’s “most trustworthy friend.”

Today, a rich supply of Chinese financial aid, concessionary loans and direct investments means Hun Sen’s long-ruling government no longer needs to maintain the same veneer of democracy and human rights it did when Cambodia relied on Western aid and assistance for its economic sustenance, according to political analysts.

Last month, Cambodia’s National Assembly accepted amendments to the Law on Political Parties, which will allow the government to dissolve parties for arbitrary reasons. The move was a thinly veiled threat to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) ahead of commune polls in June and next years general election.

If Hun Sen is testing the political waters to see how much democratic backtracking would compel Western governments to react, it doesn’t appear he has crossed the line yet. Indeed, with the rise of US President Donald Trump, rights and democracy promotion are expected to feature less prominently in American diplomacy towards the region. 

The CNRP has periodically called on the European Union (EU) to impose sanctions on Cambodia’s crucial export-oriented garment industry to punish Hun Sen’s repression of its members and supporters but to date those punitive measures have not been forthcoming.

Supporters of Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), including Yon Kimhour (front) arrive to face insurrection charges in court. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

The European Parliament approved a resolution in June 2016 that called on Hun Sens government to release a group of five CNRP-aligned political prisoners or risk losing millions of dollars worth of EU aid. Although the CNRP supporters are still being held eight months later, it is still not clear the resolution will be upheld or implemented. 

“The silence of foreign governments and aid donors…is profoundly disheartening, reflecting a failure to stand up for democratic principles and human rights when facing a determined, dictatorial plan,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, a rights lobby. “Rather than opposing his encroachments on the democratic system over the years, too often the international community looked away or persuaded itself that the situation really wasnt that bad.”

Western governments are well aware that their leverage vis-à-vis Hun Sen’s government has greatly diminished in recent years, as Chinese largesse increasingly drives the Cambodian economy. China, a one-party authoritarian state, does not make rights and democracy demands on its recipients in exchange for aid.

“In the past, the Cambodian government was dependent mostly on Western aid for the national budget,” Ou Virak, head of the Phnom Penh-based Future Forum think tank, told local media last month. “But that has all changed and I think a more confident Cambodia, particularly with China’s support, seems to be pushing back now.”

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (center front) poses with Chinese businesspeople during the Cambodia China Business Forum. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

In 2015, financial assistance from Japan to Cambodia amounted to US$110 million, America sent around US$80 million, France US$70 million and other European Union institutions less than US$50 million, according to OECD figures. Precise statistics on Chinese aid to Cambodia are rare, but in the same year it is believed Beijing provided hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance.

Hun Sen has said China’s aid and assistance comes with “no strings attached,” unlike funds from the US and EU that are often predicated on liberal reforms and democratic commitments. In 2016, Cambodias move to force the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to retract a strongly worded statement toward China was rewarded weeks later with US$600 million worth of Chinese aid and loan commitments. 

Chinese and Western aid is distributed differently in Cambodia. While Chinas aid and investment typically flows either straight into government coffers or is spent on large-scale infrastructure projects, much of the aid from the US, EU and other nations go towards civil society or non-governmental organizations dedicated to capacity building and technical assistance.

Hun Sen is acutely aware that Western aid often deliberately skirts direct cash infusions into his opaque government. “[Some countries] do not give the government aid, but they give it to NGOs, so the NGOs will die first,” Hun Sen said last year, speaking about the possibility of Western governments cutting aid and assistance to Cambodia.

Chinas comforting embrace reaches beyond economics. In January, Phnom Penh announced that its annual joint military exercises with the US, known as Angkor Sentinel, would be canceled until at least 2019.

Announced just days before the inauguration of US President Donald Trump on January 20, the move was seen as a calculated snub of the US and nod towards China. Cambodian and Chinese troops held an eight-day joint military exercise in December, known as Golden Dragon, the largest drill between the two nations.

Yu Manjiang (left), commander of a Chinese fleet in Cambodia, is welcomed in Phnom Penh ahead of joint military exercises. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Hun Sen is arguably the first regional leader to seize on the notion that Trump will de-emphasize human rights and democracy in his policies toward Asia. Earlier this week, Hun Sen justified a new hard-line stance on the media by referring to Trump’s decision in a White House briefing to bar certain outlets perceived as critical of the administration.

“We respect rights, but not the rights of anarchy, [rather] the rights of the rule of law,” Hun Sen said. “I hope our foreign friends understand this. Now, in the United States itself, CNN and some others could not get into the White House because Donald Trump sees them as causing anarchy.”

Hun Sen is arguably the first regional leader to seize on the notion that Trump will deemphasize human rights and democracy in his policies towards Asia. 

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan threatened this week to target news outlets if they undermine “national security,” specifically naming the US government-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, which he described as “foreign agents.” Both broadcasters regularly report on grass-roots democracy and rights issues that often portray Hun Sen in a harsh light.

It is still unclear how far Hun Sen can push before Western countries cut their aid, suspend their programs and consider imposing economic sanctions. “There needs to be an emergency meeting of donors and foreign governments to assess what they are going to do next,” said Robertson of Human Rights Watch, “to protect Cambodias opposition members and civil society activists from the repressive onslaught that’s just around the corner.”

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