As Hun Sen, who has been Cambodia’s prime minister for the past 33 years, takes steps to ensure he’s returned to office in the July 29 election, he has been looking for an external threat to rally support against. And he found the perfect bad guy in the United States.
“The U.S. has become the boogeyman here,” says Naly Pilorge, head of the Phnom Penh-based human rights organization Licadho.
A former Khmer Rouge leader who later helped overthrow Pol Pot, Hun Sen got a shock in national elections in 2013, when the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party did surprisingly well. It was buoyed by support from young voters who had not experienced the brutal genocide of the Khmer Rouge era and therefore did not feel a special gratitude to Hun Sen for leading them out of that awful period.
During local elections in June last year, opposition parties won 44 percent of the vote despite concerted efforts to suppress them. That was too close for the government’s comfort, Western diplomats in Phnom Penh say.
Since then, Hun Sen’s efforts to suppress opposition and criticism have intensified — and much of it has a strong anti-American streak.
The CNRP’s leader, Kem Sokha, was arrested on charges of treason last September, accused of conspiring with the United States to overthrow Hun Sen’s government. He has been held in a remote prison on the border with Vietnam and will remain there until after the vote.
Shortly after he was arrested, the party was formally dissolved for plotting a “coup,” essentially wiping out the prime minister’s competition.
“That body is dead and was taken to be cremated and buried. We don’t know where the bones are, so there will be no resurrection,” Hun Sen said during a speech to students May 1.
The outside criticism has been pointed.
Rhona Smith, the United Nations’ special rapporteur for Cambodia, said last week that the election could not be “genuine” if the main opposition party was barred from taking part.
There is no sign, though, that the authorities will have a change of heart.
The United States and the European Union this year cut off funding to the National Election Committee, which is supposed to be an independent election supervisor but is widely considered to be doing Hun Sen’s bidding.
Both China and Russia, by contrast, have offered to send election monitors instead, as well as ballot boxes and voting booths.
The United States in March joined 44 other countries in a joint call through the U.N. Human Rights Council for the Cambodian authorities to ensure that the election will be free and fair, starting by reinstating the CNRP and releasing Kem Sokha.
“The international community has not exhausted all the options yet,” said Monovithya Kem, a CNRP spokeswoman and the daughter of the party’s jailed leader. She is in exile in Washington, and the Hun Sen government has accused her and her sister of being CIA agents.
“We have not seen democratic countries working together having a unified message and a unified response to this Cambodian crisis,” she said.
More international pressure could have a big impact, said Lao Mong Hay, one of Cambodia’s leading public intellectuals, especially if sanctions were imposed on Cambodia’s leaders.
“Without any pressure from the outside or within the country, Cambodia is becoming a dictatorship,” he said. “There is no democracy or human rights or rule of law.”
While banning his rivals, Hun Sen’s government has been cracking down on independent media.
The local branches of Radio Free Asia and Voice of America — both independent broadcasters that receive funds from the U.S. government — were shut down last year. Two RFA reporters were arrested on suspicion of continuing to contribute stories to the Washington-based media outlet, accused of espionage.
Local radio stations that carry RFA and VOA broadcasts have had their licenses revoked.
“I think they are trying to stifle criticism and expression by anyone campaigning against them,” said Nop Vy, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media. “The government wants to close the mouths of these people so they can’t criticize the government before the election.”
The independent Cambodia Daily, an influential English-language newspaper, was shut down in September, ostensibly for tax breaches.
“They decided to steal the election and they needed to take out the opposition and the independent media,” said Doug Steele, general manager of the Cambodia Daily. “We were basically the witnesses to what was happening.”
Then, the last remaining English-language paper, the Phnom Penh Post, was sold recently to a Malaysian investor and executive at a public relations firm that had previously done work for Hun Sen’s government.
Shortly after the paper reported on those links, the editor in chief, Kay Kimsong, was fired, multiple journalists wrote on Twitter. The chief executive and at least four reporters, all foreigners, resigned in protest.
In contrast to other strongmen in the region such as Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Prayuth Chan-o-cha of Thailand, Hun Sen has not been invited to President Trump’s White House — and in return he has been attacking the United States while demonstrating his allegiance to China.
The prime minister has told immigration authorities to root out American spies, suggested the Peace Corps pull out and forced the nongovernmental National Democratic Institute to shut down.
He called William Heidt, the Khmer-speaking U.S. ambassador, a “liar” and accused the United States of being behind the 2016 assassination of prominent political analyst Kem Ley.
But this anti-American sentiment is not a reaction to Trump, Western observers in Phnom Penh say, as it dates back to before the U.S. election.
China has in the meantime been stepping up its role here.
The Chinese military held joint exercises in central Cambodia, with Beijing reportedly donating the tanks and armored personnel carriers that it brought here.
Beijing also helped establish Fresh News, a media outlet that publishes articles favorable to Hun Sen’s government and that recently put out a 700-page book of anti-American sentiment.
Hun Sen has stated that he plans to be in power for another decade, and that, according to Pilorge of Licadho, means that the repression will only intensify in the months ahead.
“Right now, the international community still has leverage over the country,” she said. But “it’s only going to get worse because after the election, there will be no constraints on them at all.”