While Cambodian Democracy Withers, Washington Stands Aloof
While Obama’s “pivot” to Asia gave rights advocates cause for hope, Washington’s longstanding indifference to Cambodia ensured minimal leverage.
Since the end of August, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has imprisoned political opposition leader Kem Sokha, ordered the U.S. State Department-funded National Democratic Institute to stop its activities and expelled its foreign staff, suggested the U.S. withdraw the Peace Corps, closed a leading independent newspaper, and intimidated Radio Free Asia into suspending its Cambodian operations, among other crackdowns.
That’s the kind of behavior that might have prompted a high-level tongue-lashing or worse from previous U.S. administrations: Former President Barack Obama personally scolded Hun Sen for human rights abuses in 2012. But the Donald Trump administration has so far done little more in response to Cambodia’s increasing crackdown than to issue a few statements expressing “grave concern” about the situation there.
The political deterioration in Cambodia — and the U.S. response — matters for more than just idealistic reasons. The United States is still wrestling with China for influence throughout Southeast Asia, and Cambodia in recent years has helped advance Chinese foreign policy goals in the region, especially within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Much as the U.S.-supported political reforms in Myanmar were meant in part to wean the country away from its dependence on Beijing, U.S. support for a slightly more open and democratic Cambodia could serve to pry Phnom Penh away from China’s orbit.
Finding political support for that goal should be fairly easy: Hun Sen doesn’t have a lot of friends on Capitol Hill. “The Democrats don’t like him because of the rights abuses, the Republicans don’t like him because they think he’s a quasi-communist who likes to violate human rights,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
The downgrading of human rights in U.S. foreign policy, foreshadowed earlier this year in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first big speech to his staff, is all the more galling to rights activists because it comes on the heels of the expectations raised by the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia. For many observers, like Cambodian human rights activist Ou Virak, the pivot meant a long-term American commitment to the promotion of democracy and human rights in the region.
Understanding that strategic considerations could always trump these values when it came to crafting policy, “we were pretty confident the U.S. would do the right thing, and at least will do everything they can — given they have other priorities — to help human rights activists and civil society organizations,” Virak said.
Now, U.S. exertions come in a different guise. This month, the State Department slapped limits on U.S. visas for top officials in the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and their families — but not for any crackdown on dissidents or free speech. Rather, the visa limits are in response to Cambodia’s refusal to accept the deportation of Cambodians from the United States.
But Cambodia’s headlong retreat from democratic reforms has been met largely with silence at the top of the State Department, with Tillerson himself mum on the arrests and the attacks on the press.
The State Department did say it is working to push an international resolution this year on the “deteriorating human rights climate” in Cambodia on the United Nations Human Rights Council. (That’s the very same body that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence slammed this week in New York, saying it “doesn’t deserve its name.”)
But mostly, the local U.S. Embassy is left to soldier along and press the Cambodian government for moderation.
“We’re hitting up against the limits of a headless U.S. bureaucracy; words can only go so far,” said Sophal Ear, a professor of diplomacy at Occidental College. Characterizing the situation as “benign neglect from Foggy Bottom,” Ear added that without significant backing from the upper reaches of the State Department and the White House, there was little the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia could achieve on its own.
“You can only do so much as an outpost,” said Ear. “You can’t unilaterally impose sanctions.”
Making the task more difficult, President Trump’s own attitude toward the press and civil liberties seem to have emboldened Hun Sen, who endorsed him last November for the sake of “world peace” and who openly admires the autocratic and isolationist tendencies Trump displayed on the campaign trail. Hun Sen later noted approvingly that Trump understood the media as “anarchic”. (Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has also basked in Trump’s approval of his extrajudicial war on drugs.)
“Trump is Hun Sen’s cover,” said Virak, explaining that the Cambodian leader invoked Trump to justify his attacks on independent media outlets.
The limits of U.S. willingness or ability to influence Cambodia become clear when compared to China’s overwhelming influence there. China is Cambodia’s most important source of foreign direct investment, funding massive infrastructure projects, such as the highly controversial $800 million Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam, without pausing for human rights concerns.
Those investments pay off: Within ASEAN, Cambodia has consistently worked to protect China’s back, most notably by watering down regional efforts to halt China’s land reclamation and aggressive expansion in the South China Sea.
With Hun Sen pledging to remain in power for another 10 years, Chinese “no-strings-attached” funding can be expected to take on an even more prominent role as Cambodia’s 2018 national elections approach.
That stands in contrast to U.S. policy toward Cambodia, which observers say is driven more by ideological concerns in Congress than any overarching strategy at the State Department. Some lawmakers disliked Hun Sen because he used to be a member of the Khmer Rouge; others took a shine to one or another of Cambodia’s opposition parties.
That ideological approach backfired, said Charles A. Ray, U.S. ambassador to Cambodia from 2002 to 2005. “We basically missed the chance to influence all the parties there by being too much on one side instead of looking at the country’s development as a whole,” he said. “In my view, the Chinese were offering a much better deal to the Cambodians than we were able to.”
That left the United States little leverage with which to tip the scales in favor of democratic progress in Cambodia in the long term.
Pivoting away from Asia in general and Cambodia in particular won’t make it any easier to compete with China for influence. “The longer you stay uninvolved, the harder it is to get involved at some point,” Ray said.
That could be bad news for Washington’s long-term goals in the region — and for Cambodian civil society. Robertson of Human Rights Watch warned that continued disinterest from Washington could spell the erosion of democratic progress in Cambodia.
“The promotion of human rights will then have to wait until a new American president assumes office in January 2021, by which time Cambodia’s human rights landscape will look more like Zimbabwe,” he said.
Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images