Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) weaves as his wife Bun Rany (top R) looks on during an opening ceremony for the Khmer New Year at Bayon temple at the Angkor complex in Siem Reap province on April 13, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Days before Cambodians cast their ballots in what the United Nations and others have already branded as an “illegitimate” election, the United States fired another punitive warning against the country’s lurch away from a tentative democracy and towards full autocracy.

The US House of Representatives passed on Wednesday night in Washington the bipartisan Cambodia Democracy Act of 2018, which among other measures will allow for the imposition of stiff financial sanctions on Prime Minister Hun Sen, his family members, military elites and senior officials from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The Act’s provisions could also prohibit US citizens from engaging in financial transactions, including business relations, with certain sanctioned Cambodians who may in future be denied entrance to the US and have their US-based assets frozen.

The Act must still pass the Senate. If it does, US President Donald Trump will determine which Cambodian individuals should be sanctioned, if any punitive measures are imposed at all.

The Act’s passage underscores the fast deterioration of relations between Cambodia and many Western democracies, a result of the forced dissolution of the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), last November.

The Supreme Court ruled that the CNRP, which almost won the last general election, was plotting with America to overthrow the Cambodian government as part of a “color revolution.”

Many CNRP party members are now in exile in the US, where they formed the Cambodia National Rescue Movement, which has retained a US-based lobbying firm to pressure lawmakers to take action against Hun Sen’s government.

Before the CNRP’s dissolution, Phnom Penh ordered the National Democratic Institute, a US State Department-funded democracy promoting outfit, to cease its operations in Cambodia.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) raises his inked finger at a polling station after voting during a general election in 2013. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

At the same time, Cambodia moved closer to China, today its largest investor and provider of aid. Analysts think Chinese provisions to Cambodia, including the US$100 million it gave to the military last month, means Phnom Penh can now afford to distance itself from Western democracies and their financial aid.

In May, the White House cut US$8.3 million in aid to Cambodia as a preliminary punitive measure. America has also refused to send electoral monitors to assess the July 29 election and has imposed a visa ban on Cambodian officials “involved in undermining democracy in Cambodia.”

America has called for the reinstatement of the CNRP and the release of Kem Sokha, the party’s president, who was arrested last September and remains held in pre-trial detention on treason charges.

Last month, America also imposed financial sanctions on General Hing Bun Hieng, the commander of Hun Sen’s private bodyguard unit, for his alleged complicity in serious human rights violations, including a grenade attack on an opposition rally in 1997 which injured an American citizen.

Those sanctions were applied under the Magnitsky Act, a law originally designed to punish Russian human rights violators. Its impositions are similar to those that could be imposed under the Cambodia Democracy Act.

Hing Bun Hieng, the commander of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, Phnom Penh, April 27, 2018. Photo: Reuters

“In four days, Cambodians will vote for a new head of government. Unfortunately, this election will not be legitimate in any way. Hun Sen and his thugs long ago decided the outcome, by marginalizing, beating and imprisoning members of the opposition,” said US Congressman Ed Royce, who serves as chairman of the House of Representative’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, in a statement on Thursday.

In the statement, Royce mentions several figures that could be sanctioned, a decision that must be signed off by President Trump. As well as Hun Sen, it includes Deputy Prime Ministers Sar Kheng and Tea Banh, who also serve as minister of the interior and minister of national defense, respectively.

This list also mentions senior military officials, including Pol Saroeun, the former commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), and former deputy RCAF commanders-in-chief Meas Sophea and Kun Kim.

All three have temporarily stepped down from their posts to run in Sunday’s election for the CPP, though they are likely to resume their military postings after the election.

Moreover, two members of Hun Sen’s family were also named in Royce’s potential targeted sanctions list. They include Lieutenant General Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s US-educated eldest son who was recently made acting chief of the armed forces and acting chief of joint staff.

Political watchers had speculated that Hun Manet could one day – some think soon after the July 29 election – take over as premier as part of his father’s believed desire to build a political dynasty. Hun Sen, however, has vowed to remain in power for another decade.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) with his West Point-trained son Hun Manet. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Hun Manet is not running for a National Assembly seat at the July 29 election, which, if the speculation is valid, means he would either need to stand in a by-election after this weekend’s ballot or take over the premiership as an unelected official. Hun Manet is thought to have close ties to America, fostered by his attendance at the elite US military academy West Point.

Royce’s list also mentions Hun Mana, Hun Sen’s eldest daughter who controls a vast business empire, including ties to major US-based firms which could be jeopardized if financial sanctions are imposed against her.

Analysts say the proposed financial sanctions are intended to hit the money sources of senior CPP officials and military elites, particularly those who have lucrative connections to US-based multinationals. As such, some analysts speculate that sanctions could sow dissent within the ruling party.

Those at the very top, including the individuals mentioned in Royce’s statement, are no doubt wealthy enough to weather the punitive sanctions. But, some suggest, the effects could be felt by those lower down the political and military hierarchy, fomenting dissatisfaction at the direction Hun Sen and CPP elders are taking Cambodia.

A 2016 report by Global Witness, a London-based anti-corruption group, attempted to document the business interests of the Hun Sen family and individuals connected to his ruling party. It estimated that the wealth of the first family could be anywhere between US$500 million and US$1 billion, though this might just be a fraction of their total affluence, it noted.

The report also noted that Hun Mana is director of K Thong Huot Telecom, a local company that has exclusive distribution rights in Cambodia for Nokia Mobile, whose parent company is US-based Microsoft. The husband of Hun Maly, another of Hun Sen’s daughters, is the chief executive officer of the Soma Group, which in 2012 signed a US$3 million deal with US conglomerate General Electric.

Other members of Hun Sen’s family have links to major US-based brands, including Apple, Visa and Procter & Gamble, according to Global Witness.

Hun Sen and US President Donald Trump in a front page image on the Phnom Penh Post newspaper, November 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

“Under Hun Sen’s rule, a small group of politicians, military chiefs and business tycoons have looted the state to enrich themselves and consolidate their power,” said Global Witness campaigner Emma Burnett in a statement.

“This has come at phenomenal cost to the Cambodian people, many of whom have been beaten, arrested and even killed for standing in the way. The Cambodia Democracy Act is the first big move towards tackling the damage that has been done to Cambodian people,” she added.

So far, the Cambodian government has not responded to the passing of the Act. Attempts to contact ruling party spokespeople went answered. When US Congressmen put the legislation before the House in May, Phnom Penh claimed it was a “violation of independence and sovereignty of Cambodia,” local media reported.

At the time, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan asserted that the proposed law was “proof the US supports those who commit treason,” a reference to the government’s claim that the US administration was assisting the CNRP in trying to overthrow the Cambodian government.

Relations are likely to deteriorate further with the Act’s passage. Months after the US and European Union (EU) said they wouldn’t send electoral monitors for Cambodia’s upcoming election, Japan, another major donor, said it would. On Wednesday, in a reversal, Tokyo announced that its monitors won’t be dispatched to Cambodia for the polls.

This means that the elections will be monitored by officials sent primarily from undemocratic nations like China, Singapore and Myanmar.

On Tuesday, the US embassy in Phnom Penh advised its citizens living in Cambodia to be cautious over the election weekend, a statement the Cambodian government claimed was politically-motivated.

More than 60,000 security personnel will be deployed to maintain public order during the election, though Human Rights Watch, a rights advocacy group, reported that security forces are actively campaigning for the ruling party.

“Apparently the CPP thinks it also needs to deploy some of the country’s most feared generals to campaign and intimidate people into going to the polls,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director, in a statement.

Cambodian police stand in formation during an inspection ceremony at the Olympic National stadium in Phnom Penh on July 25, 2018 in preparation for the July 29 general election. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Still, America’s Cambodia Democracy Act and its potential targeted sanctions will be relatively feeble compared to what could happen if US or EU remove Cambodia from their preferential trade agreements. Some analysts think currently imposed sanctions are just warning shots, intended to convince the ruling party to shift course.

EU representatives recently toured the country as part of a fact-finding mission to determine whether Cambodia should be removed from its Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, which grants exports tariff-free and tax-free status. America provides similar incentives through its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) scheme.

More than 61% of Cambodia’s exports, worth US$10.1 billion in 2016, go to either the US or EU. If Cambodia is suspended from the EBA scheme, then revenue for the garment sector, by far the country’s most important sector, could be reduced by up to 11% per year, based on export figures from 2016 and a memo by Cambodia’s Ministry of Commerce that was leaked in December.

That would be potentially ruinous for Cambodia’s emerging economy, threatening the jobs of some 800,000 people currently employed in the garment sector, as well as millions who depend indirectly on the sector.

It would also be problematic for China considering many of its nationals are heavily invested in the Cambodian economy, especially the garment sector.

There are no indications yet if or when the financial sanctions included in the Cambodia Democracy Act will actually be imposed. That will ultimately be decided by the White House, which has often overlooked Cambodia amid other foreign policy priorities in the region.

But as Sunday’s controversial general election approaches and the ruling CPP shows no signs of backing down to the demands and threats from the West, America’s warning shot could augur a far worse future for Cambodia.

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