Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his press conference on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka on June 29, 2019. Photo: AFP / Yuri Kadobnov

Cambodia’s economy and democracy might have been off the agenda at last week’s Group of Twenty annual summit in Osaka, Japan, but not authoritarianism. The unsettling tit-for-tat trade dispute between China and the US was supposed to dominate the agenda, until Russian President Vladimir Putin magnified the issues of liberalism versus authoritarianism, helping to internationalize a common cause currently faced by Cambodia and Hong Kong.

Speaking before the G20 meeting to Japanese media, Putin reportedly said the ideology that has underpinned Western democracies for decades had “outlived its purpose.”

In praising the rise of populism in Europe and America, the Russian president commented that ideas like multiculturalism were “no longer tenable.”

One could not help but link these assertions to Cambodian dictator Hun Sen when Putin said: “This liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done. That migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected.”

But is Putin the right man to lecture about impunity when state-sponsored actors have committed heinous acts, including the 2014 downing of a Malaysian airliner, killing 283 passengers and 15 crew, or in the case of Cambodia, authorities using armed forces and police as commercial contractors serving its kleptocratic regime?

Human rights and a rule-based society go hand in hand. Isolating one from the other will result in a regime dictated by one personality – such as Cambodia’s Hun Sen.

The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, was right to lash out with the words, “Whoever claims that liberal democracy is obsolete also claims that freedoms are obsolete, that the rule of law is obsolete and that human rights are obsolete.”

Tusk further said: “What I find really obsolete are authoritarianism, personality cults, the rule of oligarchs, even if sometimes they may seem effective.”

Boris Johnson, a contender for leadership of the British Conservative Party, strongly rebuked Putin, declaring, “All this stuff Putin comes up with about ‘liberalism is over’ is wrong. He is totally wrong. Our values – freedom, democracy, free speech – those things are imperishable and they will succeed.”

But is authoritarianism obsolete in Cambodia? How did it start? And are declaratory statements sufficient to bring an end to Cambodia’s authoritarianism?

Anecdotal evidence has shown that Australia, New Zealand, the US and Europe continue to be used as breeding grounds to radicalize members of the Cambodian diaspora into supporting authoritarianism and the Hun Sen personality cult. There is a basis for claiming that authoritarianism is thriving, and not obsolete, on the soil of those countries that cherish liberal democracy.

So long as such governments fail to declare authoritarianism illegitimate, ravaged communities that have suffered from civil wars will tend to be drawn into supporting extremism or authoritarianism when such a regime is endorsed by liberal democratic governments.

Authoritarianism is not obsolete when legitimized

Cambodia’s authoritarianism has its base soon after the 1991 Paris Peace Accords were signed and implemented. Successive failures and election losses by the current regime, including the first UN-sponsored election in 1992, the deadly coup d’état in 1997, the election defeat in 2013, and finally the forced dissolution of the only legitimate opposition party in 2017, sowed the seeds of the authoritarianism ingrained in the present regime. Cambodia’s authoritarianism has thrived ever since, not by choice, but by force under the claimed justification of economic peace and social stability.

Cambodia’s authoritarianism has successfully taken advantage of countries such as Australia, as when Hun Manet, the son of Cambodia’s leader, declared in 2016, “We have created a force” in that country.

More important, Cambodia’s authoritarianism has been reinvigorated by the regime’s self-serving young educated tycoons and elite students, who were supposed to be “leaders for tomorrow,” opting for the easy way out by submitting themselves to patronage and allegiance and serving dictators-in-waiting.

Had Brussels and the international community taken steps back in 1998, perhaps authoritarianism such as that formed by Cambodia could be declared obsolete.

With the creation of the UN-sponsored Khmer Rouge Tribunal, dictated by Hun Sen, a progenitor of the very regime whose members were supposed to be on trial, further exacerbates not only Cambodian injustices but the country’s authoritarianism.

In that regard, Tusk’s declaration that world politics must not “become an arena where the stronger will dictate their conditions to the weaker” can only be a dream for Cambodians. The reality is Hun Sen dictates to the United Nations how to do business in Cambodia.

When will authoritarianism be obsolete?

Authoritarianism should be declared by Brussels and the broader Western world to be illegal and illegitimate. Until then, it is merely an ideal vision and not obsolete.

After almost a year since the European Union declared Cambodia a state under authoritarian rule, Hun Sen and his men are still trotting around the global arena and declaring “war” on innocent Cambodians. At the same time world leaders have bowed to Cambodia’s authoritarians.

This is how authoritarianism grows and continues, as opposed to being obsolete.

Authoritarianism is on the rise, conspicuously endorsed by those unwilling to disturb the status quo for economic interests, as opposed to concerns for geopolitical instability. For most beneficiaries of authoritarianism, the application of the rule of law matters only on paper so long they are not directly affected by its leadership.

In a report by the Southeast Asia Globe, “Cambodia for Sale,” a fund manager stated: “Nobody can agree what impact the foreign land sales will have on the Cambodian economy because so little information is made public. Everything comes down to how much money you have in your pocket. In investment circles, nobody knows anything about this place. It’s off the radar. In our pitch I talk up the new economic figures. I talk up stability.”

Personality cult of authoritarian leaders

Unlike Hun Sen, the Russian president cares little about how he is addressed, whereas Hun Sen dictates, not just to fearful domestic citizens but to world leaders subject to his demands, how his titles should be addressed: “Supreme-lord-savior-doctor-commander-prime-minister.”

Dogged by the collapse of past glory, Hun Sen continually reinvents and reasserts his achievements under a new era that only the West can give a proper name – authoritarianism. It is a new form of communism mixed and blurred with spurious propaganda for some quasi-democratic engagement and cooperation to appease defenders of liberal democracy for aid, and legal recognition.

Despite having royal honorific titles and a license to kill Cambodians, and outlaw the opposition, his personality cult has been recognized by the United Nations, the European Union and the international community. Hun Sen dictates all – or else “Cambodia will face civil war.”

Unless there is a double standard as to how human life is treated and authoritarianism is defined, then surely authoritarianism is not obsolete – as the United Nations continues to lend authority to Hun Sen’s regime thereby terrorizing Cambodians, while lawbreakers are endorsed by the West as legitimate lawmakers.

As Cambodia’s liberal democracy is crushed, authoritarianism is enforced – not by choice, but by the denial of human rights and the use of force. One authoritarian regime is created as one “democratic” government is obliterated.

Cambodia’s authoritarianism is unconstitutional and in breach of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords. So long as Brussels and the international community continue to be dictated to by authoritarians such as Hun Sen, and endorse their status, authoritarianism is on the rise – not obsolete.

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