Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) and his then Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Tan Dung stand next to a border marker during an inauguration ceremony at Cambodia's Bavet commune in Chantrea district, Svay Rieng province, September 2006. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, and his then Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Tan Dung next to a border marker in Svay Rieng province in September 2006. Trade between the two countries has increased dramatically in recent years. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

As global pressure steadily mounts on Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen over his crackdown on the opposition, independent media, nongovernmental organizations and other critics, he is also in danger of losing one of his few close allies: Vietnam.

While Asia’s longest serving leader has ignored criticism and calls from the United Nations (UN), United States (US), European Union (EU) and others to reinstate the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and free its jailed leader Kem Sokha, sources say the most important critic of his hardline stance lies much closer to home.

Government insiders say that senior Vietnamese politburo members expressed their displeasure behind closed doors during a November meeting in Vietnam, even going as far as telling Hun Sen to step down after July’s elections. Most observers believe the polls will be neither free nor fair with no credible opposition in the contest.

“Hun Sen was told by the Vietnamese very bluntly that he’d been in power too long and it was time to go,” the insider with close ties to senior figures in the premier’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), which is believed to be divided over his tactics to sideline the main opposition party, told Asia Times.

“The two issues that annoyed the Vietnamese the most were his close ties to China and the deportation of Vietnamese citizens from Cambodia.” Other Cambodian sources in Phnom Penh with close ties to Vietnam verified accounts of the meeting to Asia Times.

Another inside source said that Vietnam did not agree with the way Hun Sen had dismantled the opposition, adding ironically for a country with a one-party system that Hanoi was concerned that July’s national elections would be seen as a sham by the outside world and Cambodia’s government would be isolated internationally after the one-sided poll.

Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang (R) with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on June 15, 2016. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy 

How much sway Hun Sen’s old ally now holds remains to be seen. The Cambodian strongman and Vietnam have a special relationship dating back to the 1970s, when then Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen and a small group of like-minded comrades fled across the border to Vietnam.

They had become disillusioned with the Khmer Rouge and eventually returned to Cambodia when Vietnam invaded and deposed the genocidal regime led by Pol Pot in 1979. After that invasion, Hanoi provided much needed economic help to the war-ravaged country and eventually put Hun Sen in power.

Now, two factors have played a role in Vietnam’s apparent change of heart towards the long-serving leader they helped to install.

The first factor is Hun Sen’s reliance and dependence on China, which has provided aid, loans, grants and helped build infrastructure in the once war-ravaged country, outspending other major donors like the US, EU and Japan, among others.

Trade between China and Cambodia increased almost 30% annually over the past several years, reaching US$4.8 billion in 2016. Foreign direct investment from China reached US$5.1 billion that year, the most from any nation.

Chinese tourism is booming as well, with 830,000 tourists visiting Cambodia in 2016, a 20% increase on the previous year. Cambodia’s biggest exports are garments and footwear, with more than 700,000 people employed making clothes and shoes in the many Chinese-owned factories in the country. Vietnam never had the financial clout to match China when it came to investing and setting up businesses in Cambodia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) walks with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

And while China’s assistance does not come with conditions attached for the promotion of democracy and human rights like US and EU disbursements, Beijing does demand Cambodia’s support on the international stage. So far Hun Sen has lived up to his end of the bargain.

One of the best examples of Hun Sen’s government towing China’s line was when Phnom Penh hosted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit in 2012, where Cambodia refused to sign a joint communique criticizing China over its actions in the South China Sea.

Several Asean members, including Vietnam, have competing territorial claims in the maritime area. It was the first time in Asean’s history that a joint communique had not been issued after a summit.

Those disputes escalated as recently as March 22 over a Vietnamese oil drilling project in an offshore area claimed by both Beijing and Hanoi. Under pressure from China, Vietnam shut down the operation. China and Cambodia held joint military exercises on Cambodian soil earlier this month, further antagonizing Vietnam.

The second factor leading to Vietnam’s loss of confidence and faith in Hun Sen is the harassment and deportation of Vietnamese citizens from Cambodia, some of whom had been living in the country for generations.

On January 24, Cambodian media reported on an ongoing crackdown on “illegal foreigners,” the majority of whom were Vietnamese. Despite being neighbors, Cambodia-Vietnam ties have always been volatile. Cambodia has long accused Vietnam of taking its territory dating back to the French colonial period and long parts of the border between the two countries is still not agreed.

Ethnic Vietnamese have lived in Cambodia for generations, but when Vietnam invaded in 1979, many Vietnamese settled there to escape the ravages and deprivation of war in their own country.

Sam Rainsy speaks to his supporters upon his arrival in Phnom Penh on 19, July 2014. Photo: AFP/Kimlong Meng/NurPhoto

It is something resented by many Cambodians, and their removal was a popular xenophobic rally cry by opposition leader Sam Rainsy. Now, Hun Sen has adopted the same stance in what many see as a way to win voters ahead of polls.

“We have revoked 9,934 documents, including family books, residence books, birth certificates, marriage certificates, ID cards and passports from 6,244 families of foreigners living in the country,” Lieutenant General Keo Vanthan, a spokesman for the Cambodian Interior Ministry’s Immigration General Department, told local media.

Last year, the Interior Ministry started a campaign to update the national census, which showed more than 76,000 foreigners living in Cambodia. The number was made up of 20 nationalities and many were said to have “irregular” documents.

Vanthan said the majority of those with “irregular” documents were Vietnamese nationals. The moves to deport Vietnamese living in Cambodia started when Hun Sen signed a sub-decree in August last year targeting those who lived, worked and who crucially voted in the country.

The crackdown on Vietnamese in Cambodia came despite an earlier agreement on January 10 between Hun Sen and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc signed at the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation Summit, where the Cambodian premier pledged to push for legal status for ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia.

These two factors – Hun Sen’s increasingly close relations with and reliance on China to prop up his government, and his government’s crackdown on Vietnamese living in the country – were apparently the final straw for those in power in Hanoi.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen arrives to attend the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) congress in Phnom Penh, January 19, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring Photo

On March 13, Hun Sen spoke publicly for the first time about the differences of opinion with his old ally and questioned the relationship between Vietnam and his long-time political nemesis Sam Rainsy. “I will question our friend Vietnam, whether they are actually loyal to me and Cambodia,” he said.

Cambodian political analyst Meas Nee, one of the few brave enough to comment on political matters in Cambodia since Hun Sen’s determined efforts to silence all forms of dissent, told local media that the rift between Cambodia and Vietnam was possibly part of a broader regional shift.

“When you look at it from a distance, one side is moving towards the US and another is moving towards China,” he said, referring respectively to Vietnam and Cambodia. This might “affect the trust between Hun Sen and Vietnam,” he added.

While Hanoi may be quietly seething over China’s rising influence in Phnom Penh, there does not appear to be much it can do in retaliation. Any move to crimp brisk border trade would likely hit Vietnam as hard as it would Cambodia.

But it may be able to undermine support for Hun Sen through its old allies in the CPP, a chord Hanoi may look to pull after July’s general elections.

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