It has become de rigueur among observers in Phnom Penh to ask how much longer before the international community acts against Cambodia’s mounting anti-democratic crackdown. The time could be nigh after last week’s dissolution of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

The CNRP, the only party counterbalancing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), will be barred from competing in next year’s 2018 general election. Many analysts expected the party to improve on its 2013 performance and perhaps even knock the CPP from power.

On November 16, the Supreme Court officially banned the party on accusations of working with foreign powers to topple the government. In the run-up to the decision, several party members, including leader Kem Sokha, were detained or fled the country fearing arrest on trumped up charges of treason.

“Donors and diplomats have a choice: do nothing while the chances for democracy are extinguished, or send the message that there will be serious political, economic, and diplomatic consequences if Hun Sen returns Cambodia to a de facto one-party state,” Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, a lobbying group, said in a press release last week.

The United States (US) and European Union (EU) warned Phnom Penh that the CNRP’s dissolution could be met with crippling economic sanctions.

Senator John McCain looks on during a press conference in July. Photo: Reuters/Aaron P Bernstein
US Senator John McCain during a press conference in July. Photo: Reuters/Aaron P Bernstein

Last week, US Senators John McCain and Dick Durbin put a resolution to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to impose targeted sanctions on senior Cambodian officials and demand Kem Sokha’s release from jail. The motion was unanimously passed by the Senate on Thursday.

“Now more than ever, we must remain committed to promoting democratic values in Cambodia,” Senator McCain said in a statement.

The resolution, while not binding, calls on the State Department to freeze Cambodian officials’ assets in the US and prevent American citizens from having business dealings with them.

Senator Ted Cruz, meanwhile, had called for a travel ban on Cambodian officials if Kem Sokha was not released from jail by November 9. He’s still being held.

“On current course, next year’s election will not be legitimate, free, or fair,” reads a White House statement, which added that “concrete steps” will be taken by the US government to address the issue. So far, it has withdrawn funding for Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) for holding general elections next July.

A spokesman in Brussels said on Thursday that respecting human rights is necessary if Cambodia is to enjoy access to the EU’s tariff and tax-free “Everything But Arms” scheme. That might have been a less-than-subtle insinuation that Cambodia could soon be removed from the scheme.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen attends a meeting with garment workers, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Samrang Pring
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen meets with garment workers on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, November 8, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Cambodia exported almost US$4 billion worth of goods to the EU last year, making it the country’s largest export destination, taking roughly 40% of all exports. With the US, both markets receive about 60% of Cambodia’s total exports.

If Cambodia is removed from the EU’s “Everything But Arms” scheme, then the addition of tariffs and taxes on exports will make certain sectors of the economy uncompetitive. This would be especially true for the country’s foreign-invested garment industry, which exports chiefly to the EU and US, and is one of the country’s biggest employers.

Such punitive measures might force many factory owners, mainly from Hong Kong and Taiwan, to move shop to more cost competitive destinations like Myanmar or Vietnam, the latter of which is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU.

That would have the potential to decimate a large part of the Cambodian economy, risking unemployment for hundreds of thousands of people employed in the garment sector – and perhaps thousands more whose jobs indirectly depend on garment exports.

It would also cut the remittances these workers send home from the capital to their rural families, which make up for falling incomes in the still largely impoverished countryside.

The CPP-led government no doubt looks warily at the potential for economic instability, given that stability and raising living standards are key to its political legitimacy and electoral campaign slogans.

The CPP has become more rhetorically nationalistic in recent months, a sign perhaps that it may not back down to Western sanctions. At a meeting with garment factory workers outside the capital on Friday, Hun Sen told them not to “bow your head to foreigners.”

The pro-government Fresh News reported Hun Sen told garment workers that he welcomed the US to cut all of its aid to the country.

A man holds a newspaper that shows a picture of Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, who shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump during a gala dinner at the ongoing ASEAN Summit in Manila, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Samrang Pring NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
A local newspaper with a picture of Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen and US President Donald Trump during a gala dinner at the recent Asean Summit in Manila. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

At the same time, photos of a jovial Hun Sen posing next to a thumbs-up Donald Trump at a summit meeting in the Philippines last week have spread widely on social media. A letter Hun Sen reportedly penned to the US president was also recently leaked online, striking a contrast to the jingoistic message he delivered to garment workers.

“You are a wonderful president for me,” the Cambodian prime minister wrote. “We want you to be strong and develop and be independent in your own country, trying your own efforts, for your people.”

Referring to Trump’s self-reputed non-interventionist policy, Hun Sen entreated him: “Your policy is being changed but the [US] embassy in Phnom Penh has not changed it yet.” He asked Trump to control his diplomats in Cambodia, who he as claimed worked with the CNRP to overthrow his government.

Some analysts, however, speculated that Trump probably has little knowledge of Hun Sen or Cambodian domestic politics – and little interest in Cambodia at all – and that America’s response to the CNRP dissolution decision will likely to come from the State Department, not the White House.

Hun Sen has already said that he doesn’t care if the international community fails to endorse next year’s general election as free and fair, adding that only the will of the Cambodian people matters. He said on Friday that next year’s general election will go on “as normal.”

Buddhist monks walk past a banner of opposition leader and President of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Kem Sokha at the party's headquarters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 17, 2017. REUTERS/Samrang Pring
Buddhist monks walk past a banner of opposition leader and President of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, Kem Sokha, at the party’s headquarters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 17, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

To be sure, Phnom Penh will still find some nations and international organizations willing to legitimize the ballot. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who met with Hun Sen at a summit in Manila last week, promised his country would send a team of observers next year.

There are also the likes of the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP) and the Centrist Asia Pacific Democrats International (CAPDI), two regional forums that have been accused in the past of “rubber-stamping” illegitimate elections as legitimate.

Sok An, Cambodia’s former Deputy Prime Minister who passed away in March, had been vice-chairman of the ICAPP and senior vice president of CAPDI. Lee Morgenbesser, an Australian academic, has called such groups “shadow” electoral observers that provide a veneer of legitimacy over unfair elections.

While analysts say it will be impossible to quickly fill the gap left by lost US and EU trade, Hun Sen’s underlying assumption seems to be that China will come to his economic rescue

Anticipating sanctions, Ouch Borith, second-in-charge at Cambodia’s foreign ministry, said in September that the government was looking for “new markets to replace the US and EU.”

While analysts say it will be impossible to quickly fill the gap left by lost US and EU trade, Hun Sen’s underlying assumption seems to be that China will come to his economic rescue. China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Friday that Beijing supports the Cambodian government’s actions.

The West’s influence over Cambodian affairs has recently been weakened by Phnom Penh’s growing ties to Beijing. China is now the largest investor in Cambodia, as well as the largest provider of aid and loans, and has repeatedly said it will honor the two nations’ relationship regardless of domestic politics.

China’s help could limit the effectiveness of Western sanctions, including in holding stage-managed elections.

Last year, the US allocated US$1.8 million to help fund last June’s local commune elections and next year’s general election. China, however, gave US$11 million worth of goods at the end of last year to the National Election Commission and will likely fill any shortfall from the US’ withdrawal, if asked by Phnom Penh.

But Chinese support for the ruling CPP depends on Beijing believing that it is still the right party to maintain Cambodian stability and economic progress. If it decides otherwise, a decision that might be affected by international sanctions or a still unforeseen CNRP counter-response, Beijing could readily change sides.

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