President Maduro launched his Petro crypto coin in late 2017 with the aim of circumventing US trade sanctions and easing the pressure on the ever-sliding bolivar. Photo: Reuters / Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has welcomed Beijing's support of his country. Photo: Reuters / Carlos Garcia Rawlins

With some countries declaring support for Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaido, as the legitimate leader against incumbent President Nicolas Maduro, this could provide a precedent for Cambodia’s banned opposition party.

A relevant question for the international community is: When will Hun Sen’s dictatorship be declared illegitimate? In other words, will the 45 nations that issued a joint statement in March last year declaring, “For Cambodia to retain its legitimacy, any elections must be free, fair and credible,” act consistently?

With Hun Sen having already held an election last July contrary to the joint statement, it seems logical to infer there is no legitimate government in the eyes of the international community. And if those 45 countries were not prepared to uphold their bold statement against Hun Sen, why issue it in the first place?

Status quo undisturbed

The recent declaration by major Western countries to support the Venezuelan opposition shows that outside forces can, with a mere verbal declaration as opposed to using gunboat diplomacy, influence the fate of a regime.

For Cambodia, the absence of a definitive declaration by these countries reveals a hidden political and economic agenda that is reminiscent of the Cold War era.

As Western powers rush to support the Venezuelan opposition while failing to act on last year’s joint statement on Cambodia, it raises serious questions on whether they are really interested in helping the Cambodian people, or are more concerned about upsetting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Cambodia is a member.

The reality is, Cambodia is being ruled by a rogue leadership where human aspirations are reduced to mere rhetoric, sounding similar to international conventions but which do not allow genuine prosperity.

In the face of copious crimes committed by the Hun Sen regime stretching back as far as 1979, rights groups have called for targeted sanctions against Cambodia’s dirty dozen generals, and thus one would have thought that Western nations would distance themselves from Hun Sen in the same way they have shunned the Maduro government. Since 2014 Australia’s former foreign minister, Gareth Evans, has said that Hun Sen “has now moved beyond the civilized pale,” and yet Australia has remained silent other than issuing statements of “deep concern.”

Japan has also adopted a curious strategy, standing behind Hun Sen, as democracy crumbles, which is “winning Tokyo neither influence nor friends.” Of particular interest is the fact that Japan continues to build and repair bridges for Cambodia, while Hun Sen gets the opportunity to officiate at pompous fanfare openings, as he glorifies his “bridge-building legacy” – thanks to ceaseless efforts by Japan.

Dictatorships of different stripes

There is no known dictatorship where the entire country’s apparatus is controlled by one man, as Hun Sen does. Even Maduro is often compared to Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, who has used a referendum to expand the powers of his presidency, as well as imprisoning political opponents.

To a certain extent, authoritarian rule in these two countries takes a different form than in Cambodia. At least the procedure of a referendum, by acknowledging the voice of the people, is relevant to Turkey and Venezuela, whereas in Cambodia it is a one-man show, all up to Hun Sen, his parliament and the so-called king. Of course, Vietnam is ready to be behind Hun Sen at all times. This kind of “neighborhood interference” does not occur in Turkey or Venezuela.

Another factor is that Hun Sen also uses Cambodia’s armed forces and courts to feed his own power and that of the tycoons serving him. Likewise the building of monuments to honor an invading force is a distinctly Cambodian phenomenon, unseen in Venezuela or Turkey –  they owe no allegiance to foreign powers.

The crimes committed by the rulers of Venezuela and Turkey against their people are at the lowest end compared with those committed by Hun Sen and his regime – after 30 years and counting

The crimes committed by the rulers of Venezuela and Turkey against their people are at the lowest end compared with those committed by Hun Sen and his regime – after 30 years and counting.

Another factor is the absence of monarchy in Turkey and Venezuela. Cambodia’s dictatorship is bolstered by the country’s king, Norodom Sihamoni, a willing participant who is keen to serve Hun Sen.

Despite their dictatorial styles, neither Erdogan nor Maduro could completely dictate over members of their respective judiciaries. Transparency and accountability are necessary components to running a proper government. None exists in Cambodia. Nor have the leaders of Venezuela or Turkey embarked on political radicalization of their overseas diaspora, as has been orchestrated by Hun Sen and his son Hun Manet.

With all this evidence against Hun Sen’s leadership, it is very irresponsible that the Australian government neglects Cambodia, while declaring Juan Guaido a legitimate leader even though no election took place and the opposition was legally banned by the Maduro government – similar to Hun Sen dissolving his regime’s main rival party in November 2017.

One point worth mentioning is that the judges in Venezuela deserve to be commended for their strong sense of justice and courage in standing up to the Maduro government.

Cambodia’s so-called “judiciary” and the armed forces under Hun Sen see their role as nothing more than implementing Hun Sen’s allegiance and legacy – which is often involved in serving foreign interests. Deservingly, Cambodia, when compared with Venezuela, is a nation without nationalism.

Indeed, members of the Supreme Court of Venezuela would rather flee the country to set up a court-in-exile, calling for Maduro to be tried on corruption charges.

A Venezuelan judge, Ediluh Guedez Ochoa, courageously denounced the Maduro government for jailing young protesters, and telling fellow judges, “When I wanted to give them their freedom, [the government] didn’t let me. My family and I received death threats. I call my fellow judges to lose their fear.”

Some judges tended their resignations, or chose to be under house arrest or flee the country instead of serving the Maduro regime.

The worse that Maduro could do was to attack Venezuela’s judicial branch, but for Hun Sen, he uses the judiciary, openly and publicly. Sadly for Cambodian judges, despite their Western education and training, the choice of staying in Cambodia and serving Hun Sen outweighs all other considerations, for the international community is ready to legitimize Hun Sen’s egregious abuse of human rights.

Whether it be a king or a member of the armed forces and the so-called judiciary, whoever fails Hun Sen, he names and shames them. And his weapons are not confined to arrests and beatings, but extend to blackmail – including the latest threat against the European Union, if it dares to proceed with the revocation of the special tax preferences granted to Cambodia.

If Western nations can declare the sitting president of Venezuela illegitimate, in the absence of any crimes that compare to those committed by Hun Sen, there is no reason they cannot do the same to target the Cambodian regime. All that is needed is a mere verbal declaration, as in the case of Venezuela.

Freeing Cambodia from dictatorship by declaring the Hun Sen regime illegal and illegitimate is the responsibility of the 45 signatory nations of the March 2018 joint statement – which is now overdue.


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Sawathey Ek

Sawathey Ek is a lawyer based in Sydney.

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