After relentless protests, the Hong Kong administration was forced to cave in, shelving a contentious extradition bill that would have seen people transferred out of the city to any jurisdiction, including mainland China. The result might be only short-term relief for local people, but the outcome delivered a historic triumph for defenders of democracy and human rights, reverberating beyond Hong Kong itself.
Hong Kong’s protests enlivened Cambodians, those still inside the country and the overseas diaspora, as most lament their rights being barred by the country’s ruler, Hun Sen.
The relevant question is not whether Cambodians can emulate the Hong Kong protests, but rather why the international community continues to legitimize Hun Sen’s regime.
To Cambodians, the Hong Kong protests were a symbolic struggle by a tiny territory once seen only as a self-focused financial hub with few other interests, but now seen to be strong enough to stand up to China.
The scene of Hong Kong’s protests delivered positive ripple effects, as it was a case of “pour encourager les autres.” Cambodia’s fearful victims will look to Hong Kong’s courage in the fight against their own tyrannical leadership for their rights under the country’s constitution.
Cambodian protesters ignored
Hong Kong’s protests could not have come at a better time for Cambodia’s outlawed opposition party, reportedly intent on returning home from exile later in the year.
Hun Sen’s unflinching and impudent disregard to resolutions passed by the European Union to reinstate the Cambodia National Rescue Party, and holding a national election in July 2018, defying the joint statement of 45 nations, led by New Zealand, in March 2018, coupled with the killing of protesters in 2014, casts this regime as one that cares little about Cambodian lives or its standing on the international stage.
The international community continues to stand with Hun Sen’s charlatan regime, which is on a pernicious path toward destroying the country. As one British Broadcasting Corporation commentator wrote:
“The country has had regular and rowdily contested elections ever since, although through a skillful blend of populism and intimidation Hun Sen has managed to remain in power since 1985. Now [Hun Sen] has engineered the dissolution of … the opposition party. The democracy Cambodians were promised in 1991, which has survived a rough and corrupt political culture since then, has been dealt a terminal blow.”
Fighting to protect democratic values
Having been victims of repressive regimes, Cambodians across the world share common concerns with Hong Kong and urge its people to defend their rights.
Faced with the likelihood of having their rights and values stripped away much as Hun Sen has ripped apart the legacy of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, the people of Hong Kong have a common goal with Cambodians – to rise up against their own totalitarian state.
Facing a murky future after the “one country, two systems” policy ends in 2047, the only things left for Hong Kong people, like Cambodians, are courage and hope.
For Hongkongers, fundamental democratic rights have been the fabric of their thriving lifestyle, values and traditions that have been the envy of many nations, including Cambodia.
However, when Cambodians under the present regime defend their values and human rights, unlike Hongkongers, their efforts are often met with lethal force.
Unlike Hongkongers, when Cambodians protest, their aspirations and bravery have limits, especially when Hun Sen raucously and menacingly warned, “Without me, civil war is unavoidable.”
Cambodians’ democratic rights were “given” to them – either by Vietnam after the invasion of 1979 or in the aftermath of the creation of a sovereign nation through international multilateral peace agreements in 1991. But when the people of Hong Kong safeguard their rights, they do so free of allegiance of patronage to either domestic kingpins or other sovereign nations.
Despite protesters’ defiance, and although Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam holds that post with the approval of Beijing, her administration has not sold out its people in the manner in which Hun Sen treats Cambodian protesters.
By 2047, when Hong Kong is officially incorporated as an inalienable sovereign possession of China, Cambodians will still be struggling to come to terms with being citizens of a nation that is caught in a debt trap, one labeled by former Australian former foreign minister Gareth Evans, together with Laos, as “effectively wholly owned subsidiaries of Beijing.”
Since the Umbrella Movement in 2014, and with China’s increasing interference in the interpretation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law as a “capitalist system and way of life” and granting it “a high degree of autonomy,” China’s past actions speak to the future.
The tragedy for Cambodians, unlike Hongkongers, where there are no external actors involved in the crackdown on the democracy movement, with the exception of China, Hun Sen owes allegiance to Vietnam.
Shielding behind Hun Sen’s brutal force and ruthless leadership, Cambodian protesters in the past encountered lethal force, while Hongkongers enjoyed peaceful protests.
The recent evidence of Hun Sen’s calling out Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for reminding the world of Vietnam’s invasion in Cambodia in 1979 supports the claim that Hun Sen serves Cambodia to protect Vietnam’s legacy as opposed to sustaining his own country’s prosperity and peace.
The evidence of Hun Sen embarking on building 24 monuments across the country devoted to Vietnam further supports that claim.
Faced with ruthless and merciless leaders, Cambodian protesters forge ahead with their struggle, even if there no international support. Their efforts have been reported and made into a documentary titled A Cambodian Spring. A review of the documentary highlights, “The injustice galvanizes them into action, but protesters of all ages are met with brutality; manhandled, targeted by water cannon and beaten to a pulp by the police.”
The future for Cambodia and Hong Kong
For Hongkongers, unlike Cambodians, it is unlikely that in the immediate future China’s leadership will use their overseas ambassadors to radicalize students into honoring the Chinese regime on foreign soil, as in the case of Hun Sen’s network that has sprung up across the Western world, including Australia.
Australia continues to turn a blind eye to those activities while treating members of the Cambodian diaspora with contempt as their effort to flee from the Hun Sen regime only to see that his tentacles have now reached the shores that are supposed to protect them.
Between Hongkongers and Cambodians, it is unlikely the rights of the former will be severely restricted and ruthlessly cracked down on by their authoritarian state.
Insofar as international support is concerned, neither Hong Kong nor Cambodia is likely to receive any meaningful action. This does not mean, in the case of Cambodia, the international community is right to abrogate its responsibility by recognizing Hun Sen and his regime as a legitimate government.
Australia has been criticized for turning a blind eye to Hong Kong’s protests, or as Sydney Morning Herald commentator Chris Uhlmann wrote, “What is it that terrifies the people of Hong Kong about the Chinese Communist Party that eludes so many pliant Australian academics, business leaders and ex-politicians?”
Uhlmann went on to say, “The people must also know that no one will come to their aid. Countries like Australia will watch mute, so as not to uproot the money tree. Expect no parades of courage here. Australia’s problem with China isn’t that it is too assertive, it is that we are weak.”
Hongkongers and Cambodians share common values and aspirations. The more their leaders deny them their basic democratic rights, the more daring and courageous they become. For both know that it is better to sacrifice now than to remain silent.