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[Analytics] Is Cambodia’s exclusive dependence on China inevitable?

Prime Minister Hun Sen, the ruling party's chairman, presides over the ceremony to mark 68th birthday of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party at Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich Island, Cambodia, June 28, 2019. (Aun Chhengpor/VOA Khmer). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Earlier this month, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen asked an international conference on the future of Asia who he can rely on if he doesn’t turn to China. Sam Rainsy specially for The Diplomat.

It’s a question that he needs to be able to answer for the sake of Cambodia’s future. Trying to hide behind China is a recipe for isolation, which a small, poor country like Cambodia can ill afford.

History shows us that China’s support will not always be available to Cambodia. Why should it be? Beijing has its own changing interests and agendas. China supported the Pol Pot regime which Hun Sen helped to take power and implement genocide as a military commander in the 1970s.

After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the Chinese Communist leadership became less ideological and seemed to lose interest in the extremist regime in Cambodia. This was deeply worrying to Pol Pot, who traveled to China in October 1976 to try to solidify Beijing’s support for his regime.

But China did nothing to protect Cambodia when Vietnam invaded in 1979. In the end, the extremism and instability of the Khmer Rouge meant that the regime was not worth defending. Hun Sen’s plan for a personal dynasty in Cambodia would likewise cost China too much as it seeks to define a stable and more rational relationship with the free world.

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Hun Sen points to the financial support that he gets from China. There are growing signs that the international community is determined not to turn a blind eye to Beijing’s systematic human rights abuses. The European Union in March adopted targeted sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In May, the European Parliament adopted a resolution suspending the trade deal between China and the EU.

In such an unstable context, the only practical course for a small country like Cambodia, which has always been surrounded by more powerful neighbors, is to cultivate as many alliances as possible. Neutrality is stipulated in our constitution for good reason. But Hun Sen’s consistently dreadful long-term record on human rights has brought international condemnation from which China is the main exception. It has already cost Cambodia part of its duty-free access to European Union markets.

These are export markets that China will not step in to replace. Buying more goods from Cambodia would simply cost Chinese jobs.

Today, Southeast Asian regimes which disregard the will of their peoples to steal and retain power by force are being isolated internationally. Japan said on May 21 it will consider cutting off all development assistance to Myanmar, even for projects already under way, if the current situation continues. This would be a major about-turn: Tokyo has been providing development assistance to Myanmar continuously since 1954.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has proved its feebleness by failing to do anything meaningful to stop the slaughter in Myanmar. The military regime there will take comfort from the fact that Cambodia will take over the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2022. There are strong parallels between the political situations in the two countries. In both cases, the popular democratic party representing the choice of the people has been pushed aside by force. In both, an illegitimate regime plans to try to validate its existence in international terms by holding new elections while seeking to eliminate the opponents who cannot be peacefully be defeated: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy in Myanmar, Kem Sokha and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in Cambodia.

It should be easier to readmit Cambodia to international acceptance than Myanmar. The steps which must be taken are simple. The CNRP, which garnered the support of 44 percent of the population in the elections of 2013 and 2017 in spite of serious irregularities favoring Hun Sen’s ruling party, must be able to resume its activities. Its leader Kem Sokha must be exonerated of the groundless accusations which hang over him and which served as the pretext for the dissolution of the CNRP in late 2017.

Hun Sen’s rhetoric of a plot fomented by Kem Sokha with the support of the United States to overthrow his regime is wholly imaginary and will never convince anyone. If Hun Sen only returns to reality the whole world – including the West – will come to Cambodia’s aid. The country will no longer be isolated and bankrolled only by China, with all the risks which that entails for the future of the Cambodian people.

If Hun Sen can’t or won’t make that mental and political leap, others within the ruling Cambodia People’s Party with the support of the frustrated Cambodian population are likely to make it for him rather than watch the country drift into Myanmar-style isolation.

Sam Rainsy is co-founder and acting leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

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