Much of the Western world lined up to admonish Cambodia’s Supreme Court’s ruling last month to dissolve the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), with the European Union and United States in the lead threatening punitive sanctions, including visa restrictions on complicit officials.
But Cambodia has found bonhomie among the world’s autocracies, with China quick to say that it supported Phnom Penh’s own path to development, which it has funded for years through generous aid packages and soft loans. Reports rightly noted that Chinese largesse has helped to underwrite Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ongoing crackdown on political opponents, independent media and civil society.
Less has been reported, however, on Russia’s role.
Weeks before the CNRP’s closure, Hun Sen met his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, on the sidelines of a regional summit in Manila. Medvedev offered to send a team of observers to next year’s election, which many observers have said would be a sham without the CNRP’s participation.
While China supports the Cambodian government economically, by reducing Phnom Penh’s reliance on Western aid and loans Russia is offering to lend certain moral support for the clampdown. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has taken a sharp anti-Western line in recent weeks.
The ability of Moscow to affect global politics, including the US presidential election, through social media and Kremlin funded news stations is well-known. In this respect, Russian media has been conspicuously mute on the Cambodian situation.
RT, a popular international news network financed by the Kremlin, has not published one article about the CNRP’s dissolution last month, despite the event garnering widespread international news coverage.
The only two articles published by RT on Cambodia in recent months are related to Phnom Penh ordering the closure of the National Democratic Institute, a US State Department-funded democracy promoting outfit.
Both articles on the issue feature a typically heavy anti-American tinge, with one headline quoting Hun Sen calling US democracy “bloody” and “brutal.” Moscow’s repressive tactics, on the other hand, have long been a source of inspiration and replication for other aspiring autocracies.
In September, when the Cambodian government moved to close the Cambodia Daily, an American-owned independent newspaper, it did so over taxation issues. Russia’s government has long used its Federal Tax Service to intimidate and shutter critical nongovernmental organizations and media.
Last month, Russia’s Parliament passed legislation that could demand foreign media organizations operating in the country to register as “foreign agents.” Cambodia’s crackdown on its independent media bears a striking resemblance.
In August, Phnom Penh went on the attack against Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA), two US Congress-funded news agencies which have long been accused by the CPP government of fomenting anti-government propaganda from overseas.
Over 20 radio stations that carried RFA and VOA news programs were closed in the provinces on the grounds they had abused their operating contracts. RFA closed its office in Cambodia in September.
Pa Nguon Teang, director of local radio station Voice of Democracy and founder of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, was branded a “foreign agent” in August by Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan.
In 2012, Russia became one of the world’s first autocracies to pass a law requiring NGOs that receive funding from abroad to register themselves as “foreign agents,” a term that Moscow’s propaganda machine now considers as “spies.”
Some analysts believe the move gave inspiration to the likes of Egypt, Hungary and China to pass similar legislation.
Cambodia’s Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO), passed amid controversy in 2015, contains no such requirement for NGOs to designate themselves as “foreign agents,” though it does require them to be “politically neutral,” a vague and broad term.
But the same narrative that foreign influence is equivalent to subversion underlines the government’s response to independent NGOs.
Last month, Hun Sen told the Interior Ministry to investigate and potentially close the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), a prominent NGO founded by jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha, because “they follow foreigners.” The CCHR has so far avoided closure.
It remains unclear whether Moscow has had any direct influence over Phnom Penh’s repressive strategies or if the Cambodian government is simply imitating its actions.
Nikolai Patrushev, a former director of the Russian Federal Security Service, the KGB’s successor, and now the Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, met with Hun Sen in February ostensibly to discuss anti-terrorism collaboration.
In retrospect, there are now suspicions that the two discussed other issues as Hun Sen may have been preparing his crackdown on the political opposition and foreign-backed NGOs.
What is clear is that Phnom Penh now sees its future with China and Russia, not Western democracies. In a speech in September, Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn announced that the “the West has become weak” before praising Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership style.
The Phnom Penh Post reported that he also said “Cambodia’s foreign policy future lay with China and Russia.” Part of the incipient shift is likely due to Russia being one of the most vocal – and most hypocritical – proponents of non-interventionism.
Last month, Cambodia joined Russia and China in a ten-nation grouping that voted against a mild United Nations draft resolution on the ethnic cleansing of ethnic Rohingya in Myanmar which if passed would have called on Naypyidaw to protect the persecuted minority group’s rights.
“For us, the principle of no interference is a very big thing,” Hen Sen said after his country’s vote at the UN.
Some analysts put this down to the Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s (Asean) long history of non-interference in member states’ internal affairs. Four other Asean members – Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines – voted against the UN motion, meaning the bloc’s other five nations voted for it.
A more likely explanation is that the non-interventionist doctrine, well-versed by Russia, has become a necessary defense mechanism for Phnom Penh against democratic nation criticism, including from the US and EU. Both are now weighing potentially crippling economic sanctions.
Moscow apparently sees that censure as an opportunity. There are already indications that Cambodia and Russia are trying to form a closer economic alliance. Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn visited Moscow in August, where he spoke about boosting trade with Russia by 2020, including the possibility of creating a Cambodia-Russia Business Council.
Bilateral trade in goods was worth only about US$110 million in 2015, compared to the US$3.4 billion recorded between Cambodia and the US that year. In the second quarter of this year, total trade with Russia was worth US$34.1 million, up roughly 15% from the same period last year.
The ruble’s hard decline in 2014 undercut Russian tourism to Cambodia, though there are signs that numbers are picking up again. Earlier this year, Tourism Minister Thong Khon outlined a new strategy to boost Russian arrivals, including new direct flights from Russia and bilateral tourism forums.
Nuclear cooperation is also on the cards.
Last year, Russian and Cambodian government departments signed many memoranda to develop the latter’s nuclear energy sector, including the building of an Information Center for Atomic Energy in Phnom Penh. It will reportedly be advised by Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear firm.
Another intergovernmental agreement was signed in September in Vienna to boost cooperation between the two nations for the development of nuclear energy for peaceful means.
Whether Russia is willing to buy influence in Cambodia will be seen if it decides to write-off or revise down the US$1.5 billion Soviet-era debt Cambodia incurred during the 1980s. Phnom Penh has long called on Moscow to cancel the debt.
America attracted Cambodia’s opprobrium earlier this year when Hun Sen revived the issue of a US$500 million debt Phnom Penh owes dating back to the 1970s. The US government has long said Cambodia must pay the debt incurred during a US-backed rightist regime which Hun Sen this year referred to “blood-stained” and “dirty.”
Russia seldom attracts criticism for maintaining its historic debt with Cambodia, worth three times as much as America’s. When Hen Sen broached the subject with Medvedev last month, the Russian premier reportedly promised to establish a working group to study the issue.
Moscow made the same vow in 2014, but failed to propose a mutually agreed resolution.
Some analysts believe Moscow might restructure the debt, though probably not write it off, in a bid to deepen bilateral inroads. One scenario, they say, would give Russia special access to Cambodia’s ports and resource extraction contracts in exchange for a debt write-down.
Given that Cambodia’s total national debt was US$6.2 billion as of June this year, representing roughly 28% of GDP, any such gesture would be well-received in Phnom Penh at a time it braces for the pinch of US and EU sanctions imposed against its anti-democratic backsliding.
You wrote – "Four other Asean members – Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines – voted against the UN motion, meaning the bloc’s other five nations voted for it." in relation to an ‘aberration’ or exception to the ASEAN usual policy of non-interference in another nation’s internal affairs. Why did you not name the ‘other five countries’? Surely readers overseas who do not know the member States of ASEAN might wish to know. You might perhaps not wish to disclose that such States might be ‘Muslim’ States or States already ‘allied’ to or aligned with the U.S.?
I should not really add to the speculation. What happened was that the three Muslim Nations of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei voted for the resolution. Can you expect them to do otherwise? What would the fanatical extremist Muslims in these countries who do not see global issues other than in simple Muslim v Infidels quantification do in retaliation? Singapore and Thailand abstained.
What I am saying, by keeping silent on the full facts, you are an accomplice to misrepresentation, and might convey the mistaken impression that there is solid unwaveringly support for injunction against Myanmar.
And how hypocritical the two faced United States! Did you balance out your report about Trump’s keeping out the Muslims and the Mexicans?
Global conflicts are too complicated to evaluate in simple right or wrong or black and white terms. And one must understand local issues and local politics within the framework of a the local conditions and cultural and historical hangovers. We are not all at the same stage of erudite wisdom or socio-political sophistication.
Hun Sen is not a Saint. Neither is Trump! Neither is Putin nor any other world leader! But Hun Sen is a long way better than the Khmer Rouge! Or, have you conveniently forgotten your recent history of the Killibg Fields!
What Asian countries need is not Western democracy but traditional Asian autocracies but benevolent ones. A la Singapore or China.
There is no single blueprint to what is the ideal ideology? But like food and beauty, surely it I should to each his own eh? Or are you for a Western hegemony as to what is right or wrong, as in food and beauty as well?
I do not claim to know the answer. But neither should you!
One has to wonder why any country should tolerate any foreign financed NGO inside their borders. The US in particular will not tolerate such a situation, as they have just shown with their demand that R T register as a Foreign Agent.
What do these American NGOs do other than to promote disorder, regeime change, insurrection etc. NOGs financed by foreign countries is much like smoking to the human body, they can only kill the host. Look at the Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltics.
As many underdevelped countries in the world, Cambodia is being used by the Communist bloc and the Free World to leverage their influences. Hun Sen clearly understands that his policies and governant would not stand with the West, he therefore turns to who else but China. In return Beijing could not be happier to welcome a "friend" like Phnom Penh with mutual benefits.
Russia’s engagement in Cambodia is merely a helping hand to China in undermining the U.S. The one and only time that USSR involved, in modern history, in Cambodia was because of Vietnam’s invasion in 1978.
As Cambodian Australian, I believe most if no all Khmers would be very proud of being like the "autocrat" of Singapore than "dictatorship" of Phnom Penh today.
Is Asia times that desperate to let such a novice that wouldn’t qualify to write children books
In Cambodia recend history, European colonized and brutalized their land, the American killed many with their indiscriminate B52 bombing not too long ago. Couple with the turmoil they see elsewhere these two groups of past colonialists ratcheted up resulting in millions of broken home in middle East, no wonder they prefer Russia, China and other who come to do business. It is insane to expect Cambodian to welcome those criminals who now wanted to use sanction to get back their influence.
This is not Mr Hutt’s first article on Cambodia———-BUT after reading his thoughts I said this could be a piece for "Comedy Central"——-I wonder how does Asian Times allow this FAKE NEWS on their site!!
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