The challenge now for Western governments that have backed Cambodia’s experiment in liberal multiparty democracy over the past quarter-century is to figure out how best to respond without completely alienating the country, punishing its poorest or pushing it toward a ready ally — its largest trade partner, China.
The White House in a statement said Cambodia’s elections “were neither free nor fair and failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people,” and it warned that it could expand visa restrictions against those who have undermined democracy and their family members, in some cases. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would impose sanctions on members of Hun Sen’s inner circle and others responsible for human rights abuses.
The European Union also said the election did not represent the will of the Cambodian electorate and concluded that its “outcome lacks credibility.” The E.U. is reviewing a preferential trade agreement under which Cambodian goods have tariff-free access to the European market.
Hun Sen “has stripped away the facade of democracy,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of a book on Hun Sen and his decades-long rule in Cambodia. “Western governments no longer have a door to walk through that they can say there has been democratic progress.”
“If [the West] doesn’t follow through on their threats, they would be admitting that [a liberal democracy] in Cambodia is not possible,” he added. Western governments donated billions to support a United Nations-led democratic effort following the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.
Ahead of Sunday’s vote, a court in Cambodia dissolved the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, and jailed its leader, Kem Sokha, on trumped-up charges of attempting to unseat the government with the backing of the United States. When opposition leaders called for a boycott of the vote, the government cracked down on that, too, slapping fines on former CNRP leaders who held up their clean fingers in a pre-election gathering, a reference to the indelible ink used to stain voters’ index fingers. The government has also muzzled independent news media and banned access to a number of websites in the days leading up to the vote, including the U.S.-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
“The ban of the opposition and the imprisonment of its leader, the shutdown of independent media and civil society and threats on activists had made this election unacceptable before it even began,” said a statement from the now-dissolved CNRP. “History will mark 29 July as the day Hun Sen’s regime invited sanctions and ultimately [will] bring down the Cambodian economy with it.”
The election commission and the ruling CPP have remained defiant. They have rejected allegations of voter intimidation and vote buying and claimed that over 80 percent of eligible voters showed up, a number that cannot be accurately verified because no credible election monitors participated for fear of validating the election.
The government has relied instead on less-than-credible international monitors to sign off on the vote, including those affiliated with right-wing European parties and the Chinese Communist Party.
Even so, the election commission has recorded half a million spoiled votes so far, in line with widely shared photos of opposition supporters crossing out all parties listed on the ballot or turning in blank votes as a form of protest.
Hun Sen’s CPP continues to say that the CNRP was dissolved for legal reasons, insisting that it was plotting a “color revolution,” a foreign-backed effort to unseat the government.
“We cannot forgive those who want to overthrow the government,” said Sok Eysan, the spokesman. “It was based on credible evidence. You cannot blame the CPP.”
This view of the events leading up to Sunday’s vote diverges drastically with that of Western governments, human rights groups and indeed many Cambodians. But foreign governments may be limited in their ability to respond. Analysts say that removing Cambodia’s tariff-free access to the E.U. could hurt tens of thousands of Cambodian garment workers. Cambodia exports about $4.3 billion worth of textile and textile-related goods to the E.U.
The U.S. threat of visa bans and asset freezes do not worry the CPP, Sok Eysan said. “I’ve been to the U.S. several times, I don’t need to go there anymore,” he said. “As for assets, [CPP leaders] don’t hold assets in the United States. So it doesn’t bother us.”
Cambodia, he said, is open to investments from anyone, especially those “who do not want to interfere in our political affairs or give us any conditions” — a thinly veiled reference to China. In support of Hun Sen, Beijing has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure projects in Cambodia.
The Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh did not respond to requests for comment.
Though Cambodia’s ruling elites are happy to turn to China amid threats from the West, their views are not shared by all here. Sihanoukville, a port city on Cambodia’s coast, has become an emblem in the minds of many Cambodians as a lesson of what happens when a city invites unbridled investment from China: Large Chinese companies move in and launch big projects, bringing in their own workers rather than hiring locals.
“It is a worry for us that China can ask anything from Cambodia, and we will give it to them, like we are under a remote control,” said Meas Sokhen, a 29-year old air-conditioner service worker. “Of course it is good for development and job opportunities, but maybe there are side effects that we cannot see yet.”
San Sel contributed to this report.