“Democracy is dead in Cambodia,” pronounced US Senator Lindsay Graham last week following his co-sponsorship of a new bill that could ratchet up American sanctions on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
On February 9, a bipartisan group of US senators introduced the “Cambodia Accountability and Return on Investment Act of 2018”, which if passed would ban American funding of the Cambodian government, freeze the US assets of targeted government officials and push for international financial institutions to stop providing loans and aid apart from funds that “meet basic human needs.”
Expected to be deliberated by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations later this month, the bill aims to significantly embolden Washington’s stance against Cambodia’s democratic backsliding.
So far, the US State Department has only imposed a visa ban on senior government officials “involved in undermining democracy in Cambodia,” a limited measure introduced in December.
“The current government had squandered every opportunity to improve the lives of its people,” said Senator Dick Durbin, a co-sponsor of the bill. Senator Ted Cruz, a former presidential candidate, meanwhile spoke of Hun Sen’s “protracted tyranny.”
The bill’s co-sponsors certainly haven’t pulled their rhetorical punches, but neither has Hun Sen, who has repeatedly dared America and the European Union (EU) to follow through on threats to impose economic sanctions. “I encourage [them] to freeze the wealth of Cambodian leaders abroad,” Hun Sen said in December.
HIs government’s excuse for its latest political attacks on opposition and dissent is that a US-backed conspiracy is trying to overthrow it. Kem Sokha, the leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was arrested for treason in September and remains in jail.
Two months later, a compliant Supreme Court formally dissolved the CNRP after the government said it was trying to orchestrate a foreign power-backed “color revolution.”
The situation has deteriorated since. Last month the powerful Council of Ministers agreed to amend the constitution so that political parties must “place the country and nation’s interests first”, while forbidding individuals from “undermining the country’s interest.”
This included a plan to introduce lèse-majesté for the first time in Cambodia, which could be used to censor critical comments about politicians who hold royal titles as well as protecting the monarchy, legal analysts say.
Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) reportedly agreed to a new five-year political program at its congress held in mid-January, the content of which was obtained and printed by the Phnom Penh Post newspaper this week.
The document spoke of “strengthening” Cambodia’s surveillance system and plans to “eliminate” those who disseminate information that “twists the truth, exaggerates the situation, causes insecurity, disorder or immorality, [or] that breaks the culture or tradition of Cambodia.”
Amid Cambodia’s descent into a de facto one-party state, foreign governments have vacillated between issuing cut-and-paste denunciations and threats of financial sanctions. The European Parliament has debated a range of sanctions, but unlike the US has yet to impose any.
Most Western government warnings say sanctions won’t be imposed if Kem Sokha is released and the CNRP allowed to compete in July’s general election.
The most serious threat is that the US and European Union (EU) remove Cambodia from their preferential tax-free and quota-free trade agreements, namely the EU’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme and America’s “Generalized System of Preferences (GSP).”
That could be ruinous for Cambodia’s export-driven economy, especially its vitally important garment sector, analysts say.
“Democracy is dead in Cambodia” – US Senator Lindsay Graham
But these are still last resort options and few foreign politicians appear keen to impose such harsh measures, perhaps because they recognize they would consequently most affect the lives of many poor Cambodians.
European parliamentarians asked for trade commissioners to “immediately review” Cambodia’s inclusion in the EBA scheme in December, but not much has been deliberated since.
Japan and Australia, two of Cambodia’s key partners, have criticized the democratic backsliding, but so far have stopped short of threatening sanctions.
Voice are rising, however. Hong Lim, an Australian state congressman born in Cambodia, has lobbied his government to do so. This month he referred to Hun Sen as being “the same as Pol Pot,” the genocidal leader of Cambodia’s former Khmer Rouge regime.
Aside from defending democracy, Canberra has another dog in the fight. James Ricketson, an Australian filmmaker, was arrested in Cambodia on “espionage” charges in June. He has repeatedly been denied bail and could face 10 years in jail if convicted. He was detained shortly after flying a drone over a CNRP rally in Phnom Penh.
But the message from foreign governments has been opaque and haphazard, not least from Washington.
Carl Risch, US Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, said this week that the State Department’s separate visa ban on Cambodian foreign affairs officials could be rescinded if Phnom Penh agrees to take back Cambodian nationals that America wants to deport, some of whom may be convicts.
Neither is the newly introduced Senate bill strictly about restoring Cambodian democracy. Indeed, much of the text is predicated on America’s geopolitical drive to counter China’s rising influence in Southeast Asia.
Many analysts reckon Chinese largesse to Cambodia, now Beijing’s closest regional ally, means Phnom Penh is financially fortified from Western sanctions. US Senator Graham took a pointed shot at China when he said Beijing is now trying to “colonize” Cambodia.
If the US Senate bill is passed, it would provide funds for Khmer-language “counter influence programs [that] highlight China’s uniquely destructive role in that country during the 1970s,” a reference to Beijing’s support of the Maoist Khmer Rouge.
Unsurprisingly, however, there is no mention in the bill of America’s support of the ousted Khmer Rouge from 1979 until 1993, a period when the US as well as China considered it Cambodia’s legitimate government, not the Vietnam-installed regime.
Support for Cambodian democracy is no doubt heartfelt by many in Washington. But some think its emphasis has been diluted by bickering over what should be America’s response to China’s growing geopolitical heft, as well as US President Donald Trump’s aim to use foreign policy to achieve domestic goals, namely his anti-immigration agenda.
EU officials, meanwhile, know that punitive measures against Cambodia will be decried as hypocrisy as it might soon sign a free-trade agreement with Vietnam, an even less democratic nation than Cambodia.
The agreement’s signing has been repeatedly postponed, but several European nations, most recently Portugal, have come out in support of early ratification. That could help to explain the EU’s relative quietude on Cambodia’s anti-democratic crackdown on opposition and dissent.
Why they don’t mind their own business in the first place?
Truly amazing how politicians in the West cry crocodile tears over rigged elections in countries which have no affect on them, but have no problem supporting the bombing of entire countries back to the stone age and killing millions of people in the process.
Ce beau commentaire bouleversa en totalité la géostratégie de l ‘Asie du Sud-Est.
Merci beaucoup. Michel Chai Michel
The main principle of the Paris Peace Accords – signed on October 23rd, 1991 between the 4 Cambodian warring factions and witnessed by 18 countries and the United Nations – was that all the Cambodian people of all political beliefs ceased their guerilla warfare, came to live together in peace, chose their leaders in a democratic way and started to rebuild their country which was devastated by more than a quarter of a century of civil unrests since 1970. In the last two decades at least, the CPP-led government of Cambodia has given less and less emphasis on the Accords it signed and has adopted a policy of "take, take and take" which contrasts to the spirit and the letter of the afore-mentioned Paris Peace Accors which asked Cambodia to "take and give, take and give". What does Cambodia take and what does it give? The answer is very simple. Cambodia takes economic assistance of all forms from the international community which feels obligated to assist the reconstruction of this war-torn country, but Cambodia has to give back to her people (not to the international community, though) democracy, liberty, freedom of expression and the full respect of their human rights. Is it too much to ask from Cambodia’s current government? I don’t think so if this government is sincere about economic development, security and peace as claimed on a daily basis by its current leader, Samdech Decho Hun Sen.
Sydney, 17 February 2018 at 5:45AM AEDT.
it is just pure evil hypocrisy of the US
The ancient Greeks referred to non-Greeks, especially those from what is now Europe and from which the white American forefathers hailed, as barbarians. The term "barbarian" has far greater negative connotations today. And the policies of the Americans and Europeans toward Asian nations, in this case Cambodia, have been barbaric and horrific, particularly in recent memories: ariel carpet bombings of Cambodia by the American forces several decades ago.
So, now the US wants to impose economic sanctions against certain of Cambodian citizens. For what, to show attonement for its ugly, inhumane acts against innocent people of Camboia in the 1960s and 1970s. Please.
Oh, by the way, the US has made itself irrelevant in SE Asia, especially in Camboida. The US actions of late have only driven SE Asian nations closer to the embrace of China. (Throughout human history, smaller nations have always gravitated toward one of two "super" powers. During the Cold War, nations aligned themselves with or against the "warring" Sovient Union or the United States of America. In today’s Economic War, nations are being forced, especially by the Donald J. Trump Aministration and the GOP, to choose between China or USA as friend or foe. If USA failes to wise up, it will turn more nations into its foes.)
Ironic that a US lawmaker declared "democracy" to be dead in Cambodia. US Senator Lindsay Graham likely does not fully understand the concept of "democracy" as it was conceived by the Hellenistic Greeks, which practiced "democracy" only if it enabled them to remain in absolute power. Perhaps Zeus is looking down upon with bemusement and envy at the hegemony of the USA, which labels everything it does as "democratic". Ah, moralistic hubris. As we Americans are fond of saying, "it takes one to know one."
it’s just balance of power . China is getting stronger. the us can’t take it
Now it is hart to say, westerns and the USA ???????? look ???? down on Cambodian government leaded by Samdec Hun Sen why? I see some investments and buyers but this will lead increasingly Cambodian Economics just follows what what those countries want, I think not good to do so. More importantly, ????????, ????????, and China ???????? they give loan, found, BOT to Cambodia ???????? a lot in which we can see the light ???? of economics growth. So I think if they want to help Cambodia ????????, please come very close and deep working with government. Not just see very far not good.
Those in support of Cambodia government via their comments…I am in support of your rights to write such comments. If you read all of the comments,count how many comment from an actual Khmers who are going through life daily in Cambodia perhaps you might gain an inkling view and hardship of the 90% khmer people. I am not talking about the 1% who never have to work hard in their entire lives. Those 90% khmer people want the same right as you with out…So,please think in reality and atual day to day bases and not what the Cambodia televisions project to the world or to the audience. Do your research and read the facts and not what you heard or hear. Please do your homework on Cambodia and what is actually taking place in Cambodia and may be then you retract your comments and blaming the US regarding the bombs dropped in Cambodia. If you do your homework and research then you would know why the US dropped the bombs and who really behind all the killing that took place in Cambodia during the civial war and invasion of Cambodia by the VC and NV. Please understand the players behind the scene and I promise you will come to a conclusion of current Cambodia government differetly.
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