Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in a March 19, 2017 file photo. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in a March 19, 2017 file photo. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

“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.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks to the media after registering for next year's local elections, in Kandal province, Cambodia September 1, 2016. REUTERS/Samrang Pring - RTX2NRDV
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks to the media in Kandal province, September 1, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring 

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.”

Members of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) attend the party's congress in Phnom Penh, Cambodia January 19, 2018. REUTERS/Samrang Pring
Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) members attend the party’s congress in Phnom Penh, January 19, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

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.

Australia filmmaker James Ricketson (C) speaks to the media at the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, January 17, 2018. REUTERS/Samrang Pring
Australian filmmaker James Ricketson (C) at the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh, January 17, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

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.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (L) hugs Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) upon his arrival at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on April 22, 2016. Wang Yi is on two-day visit to Cambodia. / AFP PHOTO / TANG CHHIN SOTHY
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (L) hugs Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on April 22, 2016. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy 

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.

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