The United States Capitol. Photo: Wikipedia public domain

The recent passing of a much anticipated bill by the US Congress that imposes sweeping sanctions upon Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and members of his regime for undermining democracy in Cambodia, is both historic and unprecedented.

However welcome this news may be, much more international pressure is required if we are to see a positive impact on the ground, particularly if the Hun Sen regime is to be accountable to the people of Cambodia.

Sadly, the late Senator John McCain did not live to see the euphoric moment when the bill received bipartisan support in the Congress. The late Senator had been a staunch critic of Hun Sen’s regime and “America’s long-flawed policies towards Phnom Penh,” as recently highlighted in Asia Times by Sebastian Strangio.

The late senator’s colleagues, congressmen Ted Yoho and Alan Lowenthal, along with members of the Cambodian diaspora in the United States, lobbied long and hard to finally secure the passage of the Cambodia Democracy Act (HR 526).

The bill aims to impose visa restrictions upon and freeze the assets of Hun Sen’s family as well as members of the Cambodian ruling elite who have been instrumental in rendering toothless the Cambodian democracy established by the Paris Peace Accords.

The passing of such a punitive bill signifies America’s determination  to confront Cambodia’s authoritarianism. At the same time, the act offers protection to members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) that, despite being outlawed by the regime, is widely recognized as legitimate by the international community.

Opposition victory

Since Cambodia became a sovereign nation in the aftermath of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords it has suffered almost continuous violence and oppression inflicted by the regime. Now, for the first time in the nation’s recent history, political veterans outlawed by Hun Sen, including Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, were specifically identified, while Hun Sen has been severely criticized in the bill, whose passing was doubtless helped by resolutions passed last year by the European Parliament, which stated that “Cambodia can no longer be considered a democracy.”

However one looks at it, in the current political impasse, the bill is a major victory for the CNRP and offers some protection to those of its currently exiled members who have expressed their intention to return home later this year.

The bill is a direct challenge to the authority of Hun Sen, who recently declared war on CNRP member Sam Rainsy while he was in Japan in June.

Despite such actions from the EU and the US Congress, the United Nations, which is supposed to be the guardian of world peace, has catastrophically failed to issue a statement condemning Hun Sen’s public declaration of war. It seems that Cambodia’s tragedy is being played out before our eyes, with the United Nations’ silence seen by some as tacit approval for Hun Sen to continue to terrorize Cambodians.

Lawless dictatorship

A review of Cambodia Curse, a book by the late, influential journalist Joel Brinkley, identified a series of factors that justify Hun Sen being described as “chief villain.”

“Years of foreign aid, the well-meaning hectoring of diplomats and nongovernmental organizations, and several rounds of elections have done nothing to reform the lawless scramble for self-interest that permeates Cambodia’s government from top to bottom… chief villain is the dictator Hun Sen, who has fixed elections and assassinated challengers since he came to power in 1985.”

Cambodia’s rule of law, both criminal and civil, operates only so far as it does not infringe on rights and interests associated or linked to any members of the regime.

Hun Sen’s is a lawless authoritarian regime populated by money-hungry law-makers, selling out Cambodia’s natural resources while its monarch stays silent. As Cambodia is now seen as a “subsidiary” of Beijing, state sovereignty is being violated by none other than the ruling regime.

The claim that state sovereignty is being infringed is further supported in the text of the Act of Congress, which notes:

“Despite decades of international attention and assistance to promote a pluralistic, multi-party democratic system in Cambodia, the Government of Cambodia continues to be undemocratically dominated by the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), which controls every agency and security apparatus of the state.”

Magnitsky law

The US could have used its 2012 Magnitsky Act to sanction Hun Sen and members of his regime. Indeed that law was applied to Hun Sen’s top general, Hing Bun Hieng, who was blacklisted in June 2018. The passing of the new act of Congress means Cambodia’s authoritarianism and democracy continue to be a focal point of American attention. Clearly, geo-political tension in the region is at an unprecedented high, meaning that Cambodia is once again at a deadly crossroads.

The new legislation openly accuses Hun Sen and his regime of masterminding the destruction of Cambodia’s democracy, engaging in fraud, intimidation, violence and misuse of legal mechanisms to weaken the opposition party.

“Asset blocking” or the freezing of assets, is a power available under the legislation, which will allow the US government to deal with properties or assets owned by members of Hun Sen’s regime.

International inaction

Without coordinated, joint efforts by other countries, the US bill will have little practical effect, let alone make Cambodia’s authoritarianism obsolete. However it is a step in the right direction that must be celebrated if Cambodia’s younger generation are to have a chance to enjoy rights under the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.

In the meantime, the government hides behind China as it freely squanders funds without accountability or transparency, aiming to bolster its claims to peace and economic sustainability. The nation’s impoverished citizens receive little or nothing, while wealthy tycoons and law-makers use the armed forces as private contractors for their protection.

Hun Sen’s armed body guards are from the national armed forces. Human Rights Watch have repeatedly documented and called for sanctions against the generals identified as “Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen.”

During the recent meeting of defense ministers in Singapore, this author wrote to world leaders, calling for action to be taken against Cambodia’s armed forces. In Australia, I also called for a review of military engagement with Cambodia, including the granting of training to members of the Cambodian armed forces. Nations like Australia which have failed to address this issue have Cambodian blood on their hands.

On July 12, I received a letter from Australian Minister of Defense Linda Reynolds, in which she noted that, despite some “positive steps taken” to address free political debate, participation and without violence; “we are concerned about its escalating suppression on dissenting opinions.“

On defense cooperation with Cambodia, the minister assured me that Australia’s policy is to cooperate with Cambodia’s armed forces by “developing a modern military that is outward-looking and (respects) human rights … through English language training, defense policy development, and internal governance and reform cooperation.”

At the end of their training courses in Canberra, members of the Cambodian military return home and join the rank and file of Cambodia’s dictators-in-waiting and actively take orders from Hun Sen to terrorize innocent Cambodians.

The Minister’s response exhibits a superficial approach, as current levels of cooperation have resulted in nothing other than aiding Cambodia’s dictatorship. Australia has also failed to condemn Hun Sen’s declaration that he will use the army, some of them trained in Canberra, to crush Cambodian opposition.

A report published in the Sydney Morning Herald last week highlighted Australia’s concern over China’s military influence in Cambodia.

Australia should not be alarmed by the rise of China. Nor should Australia expect Hun Sen’s regime to be answerable to Canberra. Given that the federal government has adopted soft diplomatic tactics in the face of aggression and terror inflicted by Hun Sen’s regime upon ordinary Cambodians, it is almost certainly too late for Australia to expect Hun Sen to reverse plans of forging an ever-deepening relationship with China.

Further, Australia continues to be silent and has been guilty of failing to take action to clean up its own backyard. Cambodia’s ambassador in Canberra has been allowed to abuse his diplomatic mission by participating in student recruitment and community interference in Australia and New Zealand.

With the passing of this bill by the US Congress, it is time for other countries to take a serious look at themselves, to see whether their silence continues to shield Cambodian oppressors, helping to further prolong Cambodia’s tragedy.

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