Cambodia Becomes the World’s Newest One-Party State

With Chinese support, Hun Sen has effectively destroyed all opposition to his autocratic rule.

Cambodian police officials patrol during a hearing at the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh on Nov. 16. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images)
Cambodian police officials patrol during a hearing at the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh on Nov. 16. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images)

On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Cambodia ordered the dissolution of the country’s main opposition party. For most observers, the move didn’t come as much of a surprise. For one thing, the court’s president is an old aide and associate of the long-ruling prime minister, Hun Sen. For another, the pugnacious and dictatorial Hun Sen had spent the past month “predicting” the court’s ruling, offering recently (hint, hint) that the popular Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) stood a 100-to-1 chance of living to fight another election.

The decision, which will see the CNRP stripped of its parliamentary seats, is the culmination of a crackdown that intensified dramatically in September with the midnight arrest of the CNRP’s leader, Kem Sokha. The 64-year-old has since been accused of plotting with the U.S. government to overthrow Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has ruled Cambodia since 1979. Since then, media outlets have been shuttered and civil society activists harassed, especially those with perceived or actual links to the United States. The panel of nine judges also dished out five-year political bans for 118 leading CNRP officials.

The ruling effectively disenfranchises more than 3 million Cambodians who voted for the CNRP at local elections in June, and clears the way for the CPP to run virtually unopposed at the next general election in July 2018. In a televised address shortly after the ruling, Hun Sen said that the court’s decision was based solely on the law, and promised that Cambodia would continue to “strongly adhere to democracy at the national and sub-national level.”

Few outside the country are buying it. Amnesty International described the ruling as a “blatant act of political repression.” The International Commission of Jurists, another rights group, also attacked the decision, noting that Dith Munty, the supreme court’s president, also occupies a seat on the CPP’s highest decision-making body. “It makes a mockery of fair justice to have someone in a leadership position within one political party sit in judgment on the conduct of that party’s main opposition,” Kingsley Abbott, a senior international legal advisor at the organization, said in a statement. “There can be no starker example of an inherent conflict of interest.”

Indeed, since becoming prime minister in 1985, the 65-year-old Hun Sen has elevated conflicts of interest into an entire system of government. For more than half his life, he has ruled through a canny mix of swagger, guile, and old-style Cambodian patronage, heavily spiced with reminders of his country’s suffering under the communist Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s.

Even then, this latest move represents an unprecedented step, spelling an effective end to a multibillion-dollar international effort to transplant democracy in Cambodia since the early 1990s. “It is very concerning for democracy in Cambodia,” said Noan Sereiboth, a blogger who leads Politikoffee, a youth political discussion group in the country. “Cambodia looks like a one-party state.”

For months, the government has justified its crackdown with far-fetched claims that the opposition was plotting to launch a “color revolution,” a reference to a series of popular uprisings that in the early 2000s ousted authoritarian leaders in countries including Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. The fear took hold after last election in 2013, when the CNRP scored surprising gains, and then took to the streets for months to protest alleged voter fraud. (The demonstrations were eventually put down by force in early 2014.)

Since Kem Sokha’s arrest, the authorities have ramped up a propaganda campaign asserting that the CNRP lies at the center of an elaborate anti-government conspiracy. This allegedly includes civil society and union leaders, American democracy-promotion groups, U.S.-funded broadcasters, and various American Embassy officials. At the same time, the authorities have released videos warning of Syria-like chaos if Hun Sen’s government is removed from power. Fearful of public demonstrations ahead of Thursday’s ruling, security forces locked down the center of the capital, Phnom Penh; they also raided the offices of several nongovernmental organizations, checking to make sure protesters weren’t hiding out there.

With most of its senior leadership now in exile abroad, the CNRP has called for immediate Western action to reverse Cambodia’s slide into dictatorship. “Hun Sen is shifting the goal post, pushing the red line, because the international community has been reactive rather than preemptive,” Kem Monovithya, a party spokeswoman (who is also Kem Sokha’s daughter), said in an email.

This has been a perennial challenge for the Western donor governments that have backed Cambodia’s democratic transition since the peace settlement of 1991. For years, the promise of hundreds of millions in development assistance gave Hun Sen a strong incentive to maintain an outward appearance of democracy, even as his government used force, intimidation, and patronage to win elections. The outcome was a fluctuating cycle of political repression geared toward crippling the CPP’s political opponents, while keep Western donors engaged.

In recent years, however, this pattern has been altered by the rapid rise of Chinese influence in Cambodia. Long resentful of Western criticisms, Hun Sen has been an enthusiastic adherent to the “Xi Jinping doctrine” of large-scale Chinese infrastructure deals decoupled from demands for human rights or good governance. Over the past 15 years, Chinese cash has bankrolled bridges, highways, hydropower dams, and property developments, while Beijing has given Hun Sen political cover from U.S. and European pressure. In exchange, Cambodia has been happy to support China’s positions on a range of issues, from Taiwan and Xinjiang to disputes in the South China Sea. The two countries have even agreed to set up a joint think tank to study and prevent “color revolutions.”

Emboldened by Beijing’s support, Hun Sen has reasserted Cambodian sovereignty and pushed back strongly against Western criticism. In recent months, he unleashed a series of blistering attacks against the U.S. government, focusing on the American carpet-bombing of Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s, and its alleged support for Hun Sen’s opponents since 1991. The one apparent exception to Hun Sen’s anti-American turn, however, seems to be none other than President Donald Trump. “You are a great man to me,” Hun Sen told Trump in a speech at an Asian summit in Manila last week, before calling on him to “remind” local embassy staff not to “interfere” in Cambodia’s affairs.

With the CPP government now sweeping aside the last pretenses of democracy, the question now turns to the possible international ramifications. In a statement on Thursday, the European Union announced that it will reassess Cambodia’s eligibility for preferential trade access under its “everything but arms” scheme. In Washington, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution calling for targeted sanctions on senior Cambodian officials.

Until now, Western countries have shown little appetite for introducing sanctions, partly out of a fear of pushing Hun Sen fully into China’s orbit, and partly because moves to restrict garment exports from Cambodia could cripple the incomes of hundreds of thousands of workers who depend on the industry. In any case, the ultimate benefit of sanctions is uncertain. In fact, the sobering lesson of Cambodia’s troubled democratic experiment is that while foreign pressure can sometimes force concessions from authoritarian rulers, it is of limited use in forcing them to adopt democratic governing principles.

The most effective pressure may end up coming from below. As Hun Sen’s party sails toward an election that he stands no chance of losing, the aging leader may find that dissolving a party is easier than resolving the rising popular demands for better government. “Even though they have abolished the opposition,” said Sereiboth, “people in the country are still eager to see change and new leadership.” In 2013, the electorate registered a strong desire for change — but Cambodia’s strongman isn’t listening.

Sebastian Strangio is a journalist covering Southeast Asia and the author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia and In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century (forthcoming in August 2020). Twitter: @sstrangio

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