“Cambodians are well aware of what a democratic process means. You do not need to tell us what it is,” Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen wrote on Thursday in an open letter directed to the United States, the latest example of his government’s rising anti-Western sentiment.
It went on to describe American democracy as “bloody and brutal.”
The missive came in response to comments made by a US State Department spokesperson days earlier, who said Washington was “deeply concerned” over Phnom Penh’s recent actions which are “curtailing freedom of the press and civil society’s ability to operate.”
This week, the Cambodian government told the National Democratic Institute, an international organization funded by the US State Department, to cease its operations in the country and send its staff home. It has also closed local radio stations which broadcast US-funded news outlets Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
Anti-foreign sentiment provides a “rhetorical justification for the crackdown,” said Lee Morgenbesser, author of Behind the Façade: Elections under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia.
The Cambodia Daily, now also under threat of closure for alleged tax evasion, recently wrote that Fresh News, a local news outlet that operates as a government mouthpiece, sees “traces of US-funded conspiracy at every corner.”
A quick flick through popular social media pages will reveal similar anti-Western conspiracy theories, including far-fetched claims the US aims to invade Cambodia.
Fresh News has claimed that foreign media outlets like the Cambodia Daily and Voice of America, as well as international nongovernmental organizations such as Freedom House, are “in cahoots to overthrow the ruling party and spill Khmer blood under the pretense of democracy.”
Such messages have resonance due partly to Cambodia’s history. America backed the military-coup that saw Lon Nol come to power in 1970s and its illegal bombing of Cambodia during that decade is thought by some to have been a reason for the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge.
Tensions with America rose again in March this year when US President Donald Trump told Phnom Penh to pay a US$500 million debt it still owes from the 1970s.
“All this stems from a long-standing and genuine resentment about the ‘meddling’ – as they see it – of foreign governments in Cambodia’s affairs,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of the book “Hun Sen’s Cambodia.”
Claims the US is interfering in Cambodia’s internal affairs have ascended at the exact same time that Washington has appeared to shy from commitment to upholding liberal values in Southeast Asia.
Most analysts agree that US leader Trump has withdrawn America’s interests in Cambodia. In April, it was announced that because of Trump-inspired international aid cuts Cambodia could be hit with a 70% cut in American aid.
Another possible reason for the rise of nationalist sentiment is that elections are on the horizon, scheduled for July 2018. Stoking anti-foreign feelings remains a major political device for both the ruling and opposition parties. “It’s just to get support and to claim what they are doing is right,” said Sereiboth Noan, a local blogger.
Hun Sen stepped in this month to settle a border dispute with Laos that has been on the boil since the beginning of the year.
Because the Lao Prime Minister agreed to withdraw troops from Cambodian territory at a meeting with Hun Sen, it was a “nice patriotic, feel-good win” for Hun Sen, which will no doubt win the CPP some votes at next year’s election, Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy at Occidental College at Los Angeles, said at the time.
None of this is to say Cambodia’s main opposition party won’t also be stoking nationalist sentiment for votes. The CNRP has long been accused of expressing anti-Vietnamese messages that remain popular with swathes of the electorate to target Hun Sen, who was first installed by Hanoi.
The CNRP’s proposed a plan to scrap the use of the US dollar, using only the local riel currency instead, has been described as a nationalist move by some analysts who believe it would be economically disastrous.
Another explanation for the jingoistic shift relates to geopolitics. “Now, with strong backing from China, and less need to make promises to secure American and European aid, Hun Sen is moving against organizations whose presence in Cambodia he has always resented,” said author Strangio.
Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has always been geopolitically protean, swayed by whichever foreign benefactor tends to offer up the most cash. In the 1990s, it was the United States, European nations and Japan, all of which invested heavily in Cambodia’s recovery after decades of civil-war.
According to Hun Sen in 1988, a time Beijing backed the rebel Khmer Rouge, China was the “root of everything that is evil” in Cambodia. Twelve years later, after peace was achieved, the long-time leader referred to China as Cambodia’s “most trustworthy friend.” Those bonds have grown in more recent years with generous Chinese aid.
Today, Beijing is the biggest foreign investor and provider of loans and aid to Cambodia. In what some saw as a quid pro quo, Phnom Penh cancelled joint military operations with the US for two years in December, but continued similar bilateral exercises with China.
Cambodia is not the only autocratic country in the world to have separated itself from the US and Europe in recent years. Many nations have pivoted either towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia or China, which today head anti-liberal fronts against the democratic world often deploying anti-US and anti-Western rhetoric.