Cristina Maza is a freelance journalist based in Cambodia.
Prime Minister Hun Sen says Cambodia is a democracy because the country holds regular votes — such as the local elections taking place this weekend. But is a country truly democratic when the opposition lives in fear of imprisonment and the prime minister uses the threat of violence to maintain power?
A former Khmer Rouge cadre who later defected from the murderous regime, Hun Sen has been Cambodia’s ultimate arbiter since he rose to power on the back of the Vietnamese invasion that freed the country from the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Now he’s determined to ensure that his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) doesn’t come close to losing power, as it did in the disputed elections of 2013, when the party received the lowest number of votes in its history.
The ruling party’s deepening relationship with China, Cambodia’s biggest patron, is shaping how it is consolidating power (and brazenly perpetrating human rights violations along the way).
As Cambodia grows less dependent on Western aid thanks to billions of dollars of Chinese investment in big infrastructure projects, Hun Sen has moved away from traditional allies such as the United States and embraced Beijing’s brand of authoritarian democracy. Last month, Hun Sen traveled to Beijing to participate in the Belt and Road Forum, a meeting on China’s ambitious international trade and development strategy.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s shortsighted goal of cutting all development aid to countries such as Cambodia has shown Hun Sen that thwarting democratic norms won’t make an important dent in the country’s coffers, allowing him to brush off Western criticism with ease. (This year, Cambodian officials cited President Trump’s decision to bar several news outlets from access to the White House to justify their own crackdown on foreign news broadcasters operating in the country.)
Cambodia canceled annual joint military exercises with the United States just months after launching new military exercises with China, and shortly after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Phnom Penh.
During his visit to Cambodia in October, the Chinese leader promised the kingdom hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, including advanced telecommunications equipment for its military, and canceled about $90 million worth of debt. Hun Sen has railed against Washington for demanding that Phnom Penh repay its war-era debt. “They brought bombs and dropped them on Cambodia and [now] demand that the Cambodian people should pay,” Hun Sen said in March.
Now, with elections around the corner, Hun Sen is taking a page from China’s playbook by invoking the threat of color revolutions, a reference to the social movements that led to regime change in parts of the former Soviet Union.
China has jailed citizens for allegedly colluding with foreign governments to implement regime change. Hun Sen has used campaign season to announce that the government is prepared to use force to prevent any such attempts.
“Any act that leads to overthrow must be absolutely cracked down on and there will be no pardon,” he told an audience in Phnom Penh, according to the Cambodia Daily. “To ensure the lives of millions of people, we are willing to eliminate 100 or 200 people because we have seen bitter past experiences.”
Those comments weren’t isolated. Over the past year, Hun Sen undermined the neutrality of the military by calling on it to crush color revolutions and keep him in power. “All armed forces are obliged to ensure that Cambodia is free from any color revolutions,” he wrote in a Facebook post in November. “The armed forces shall protect the legitimate government.”
Last month, he amplified the point to a gathering of soldiers. “The Cambodian People’s Party must win elections, every election,” he said, according to local media. “War will happen if the CPP does not control the country anymore.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the comments constitute a threat: “They’re saying they will instigate civil war to hold on to power.”
During a March ceremony for a new infrastructure project, the prime minister warned reporters that they would go to jail if their work upset the peace. Reporters have been beaten and harassed. The government recently threatened to shutter any news outlet that didn’t follow its strict guidelines on how to cover the June elections.
In May 2016, four human rights workers with the organization Adhoc and an election official were arrested for allegedly bribing a witness. Hun Sen intervened in the judicial process by publicly stating that they should all go to jail.
The activists’ defenders say they merely reimbursed the food and travel costs of a woman seeking legal advice, a young hairdresser accused of being the mistress of then-deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha. The affair, which both parties denied, was likely invented for political purposes.
The prime minister often uses the country’s conservative social mores to undermine the moral authority of his opponents. Smearing his foes with stories of illicit love affairs is one of his preferred tactics. Today, the activists from Adhoc are still in pretrial detention, jailed along with Cambodia’s 20 other political prisoners.
The prime minister has also used his power over judges and lawmakers to undermine the main opposition group, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). In February, Hun Sen used controversial amendments to the country’s Law on Political Parties to force the resignation of former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, a man who previously told me Chinese aid enables rights abuses. The CNRP now has a new leader whom Hun Sen has declared amenable – and the government can assure foreign observers that it is holding free elections against an opposition that is technically intact.
But with general elections scheduled for next year and the country moving closer to China and away from the West, the threats to the prime minister’s opponents will almost certainly become more severe.