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

Determined to put words into action, after decades of rhetorical statements concerning Cambodia’s human-rights violations, the European Union (EU) is set to implement its 13-point resolution passed in September.

When Hun Sen attended a meeting with officials in Brussels last month for the first time, he failed to assuage the concerns of his country’s international “partner.” This means Cambodia’s status as a recipient of the EU’s special tariff concession under the scheme, known as “Everything But Arms,” will be revoked.

Cambodia and Myanmar are the only two countries being met with waves of condemnation and threats of sanctions for their recalcitrant attitudes toward serious breaches of their respective international obligations on human rights. Consequently, both countries have been named, shamed and sanctioned.

Of great significance is the status of Cambodia’s prime minister’s as a “strongman.” The move by the EU is historic. For the first time, Cambodia’s “strongman” is being seen as a “withered man.”

In fact, Cambodia’s authoritarian leader regularly adopts combative rhetoric and constantly challenges the US and EU to proceed with their threats of sanctions – it is often claimed that the country would be able to withstand such measures. It typifies Hun Sen’s bullying attitude as a former Pol Pot cadet. But when the reality set in of the impending EU sanctions, Hun Sen had no choice but to attend the meeting.

Does Cambodia really need financial aid?

As a skilled veteran taught by Vietnam and China, Hun Sen’s political strategy involved calculated risks and threats to both his countrymen and the international community.

For example, Hun Sen defied the West when he held July’s national election – despite there being no financial support from the West and Japan – after the Supreme Court he controls decided to dissolve the major opposition party in 2017.

The election was concluded and declared “successful, democratic, free and fair” by the Hun Sen-appointed monitoring group – although no financial assistance was provided by the US and the European Union.

Hun Sen’s spending during the so-called political campaign on buying votes and celebrity endorsements, recruiting supporters among the Cambodian diaspora in the West, and promoting the ruling party via media outlets controlled by his regime mirrored the cash-fueled operation that put Donald Trump in the White House.

The mass mobilization of supporters was far larger and more sophisticated than during the previous five elections held since the first UN-sponsored poll in 1993. These polls were funded by the international community because Cambodia was regarded as an “impoverished” nation.

The ruling party, of course, won 100% of the parliamentary seats in the 2018 election– a different outcome would have meant “civil war.” Cambodia’s king, seeing nothing wrong with that threat, warmly and confidently entrusted Hun Sen with another term as prime minister.

Questions must now be posed: What happened to the financial assistance given to Cambodia to hold the previous five elections? Did Cambodia really need aid to hold a national election? Are donor countries legitimizing Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule and contributing to Cambodia’s corruption?

What happened to the financial assistance given to Cambodia to hold the previous five elections? Did Cambodia really need aid to hold a national election? Are donor countries legitimizing Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule and contributing to Cambodia’s corruption?

The answers to these questions would require substantial space to fully address. But Sophal Ear has written quite objectively and extensively about the subject of endemic corruption in his 2012 book Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy.

Likewise, Hun Sen has been making his case for the US to waive the debt incurred by the former regime during the 1970s. This should be should be rejected.

The US decision to pursue Cambodia is justified. Cambodia is controlled by Hun Sen and it is Hun Sen, not Cambodia, that would likely benefit from non-payment of the approximately $500 million owed to the US. It is unlikely that Hun Sen’s regime would use the money to create jobs and infrastructure for Cambodia – when all these sectors are already being funded by the West, Japan and China.

Being a dictator whose family and associates control Cambodia’s economy, the course taken by the US, forcing Hun Sen to be accountable and responsible for past debt, is commendable – a rudimentary skill for all leaders, whether one is an autocrat or an ex-communist.

Last month, it was reported that Hun Sen flew with his entourage in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner jet to New York to attend the UN General Assembly last month at a cost of over $700,000. That money could have been used to help pay off the US debt.

Another example of profligate spending is that the ruling regime recently launched a massive political drive aimed at students and overseas diaspora communities in Australia, New Zealand and other Western nations. Hun Manet’s so-called youth network has been active in areas where there are large concentrations of Cambodian diaspora. The recruitment drive in Australia involves giving out free uniforms, scarves and hats – all of which would have been paid for by Hun Sen’s wealthy supporters.

A prudent leader would opt to pay every penny to the US government, particularly if his country is considered one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia.

Sanctions will not affect ordinary Cambodians

Ordinary Cambodians are not likely to feel the impact of the proposed sanctions. It is Hun Sen and his tycoon supporters that will be severely affected. The prime minister’s image, reputation, legitimacy and authority as a strongman are likely to be weakened in the eyes of his cronies. However, the argument that ordinary Cambodians will be affected by these sanctions is not a valid claim.

Inevitably, some sacrifices will have to be made if democracy and the eradication of authoritarianism are going to be part of the conversation, particularly after 30 years of Hun Sen rule.

But such modest sacrifices are worthwhile because complacency and inertia will ensure that authoritarianism continues forever – even after strongmen die.

We have seen the effects of a dictatorial regime gripping Cambodia for decades; however, we have not yet seen the impact of the proposed sanctions on ordinary Cambodians.

Ordinary Cambodians are already being affected by Hun Sen’s rule. Their current plight could not get any worse. Under Pol Pot, the genocide lasted for four years. After Hun Sen’s land grabs and the destruction of the country’s democracy, Cambodia’s plight could only get better with sanctions.

Evidently, the country’s economic prosperity has benefited only those who have been loyal to – or politically allied with – Hun Sen.

Money laundering

With wealth accumulated and stashed after over 30 years of rule, Hun Sen’s tycoons needed to find a place to launder it. The US, Australia and other Western countries have always been desirable destinations.

In that regard, if Australia were to impose targeted sanctions, the ruling elite would bear the brunt of it, not ordinary Cambodians.

Garment laborers receive reportedly earn about $170 per month, but the cost of gasoline in Cambodia is comparable to developed nations,  which means the majority of Cambodians just work to survive.

Hun Sen would justify this situation by saying it is “better than living under the Khmer Rouge.” After all, Cambodians have been indoctrinated by Hun Sen – he is the reincarnated “lord and savior” for bringing “peace” to Cambodia – except one must remember that he once served under the genocidal regime of Pol Pot.

Hun Sen’s regime, which has been growing stronger and stronger over the past two decades, is nothing short of minacious.

And if sanctions are an experimental weapon against this dictatorship, so be it. Should ordinary Cambodians suffer as a result of such measures, the international community is certain to reverse course.

Once authoritarianism becomes firmly established, democracy will be gone forever.

Sawathey Ek is a lawyer based in Sydney.

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