Fri, Oct 13, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Hun Sen’s hardline government shows power of China’s cash

By Blake Schmidt  /  Bloomberg

Sitting last month in the Phnom Penh villa that houses Cambodia’s main opposition party, Mu Sochua searched for a way to fight back against one of the world’s longest-serving leaders.

Her boss in the Cambodia National Rescue Party, whose face adorns a banner hanging in front of the building, was in jail over accusations that he plotted with the US to seize power.

Independent media outlets closed down due to government pressure, and a pro-democracy non-profit group chaired by former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright was expelled from the country.

Less than two weeks later, Mu Sochua fled Cambodia over fears of being arrested. Now her party faces dissolution, a move that would all but ensure Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen wins an election set for next year to extend his more than three-decade rule in the Southeast Asian nation.

A few decades ago, the US and its allies could use financial leverage over aid-dependent Cambodia to nurture a democracy forged after Pol Pot’s genocide wiped out about a fifth of the population.

These days the biggest spender is China, which has focused more on securing Cambodia’s backing in regional affairs than its embrace of free and fair elections.

NO REPERCUSSIONS

Hun Sen’s ability to clamp down on his political opponents with little fear of repercussions shows the consequences of China’s rising clout in the region coupled with US President Donald Trump’s moves to de-emphasize the importance of human rights in US foreign policy.

Still, Cambodia’s opposition is hopeful that Western nations will take punitive action against Hun Sen.

“China can give Hun Sen money, but not legitimacy,” Mu Sochua, a human rights activist who studied social work at University of California, Berkeley, said in a Whatsapp message while en route to Morocco. “Hun Sen will run a high risk of economic sanctions.”

For Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which controls about 55 percent of 123 seats in the Cambodian National Assembly, all this cash from China is helping to boost growth in a nation where per capita income is among the lowest in Asia.

The IMF projects that Cambodia’s economy will grow 6.9 percent this year.

“If we waited around for the US or Canada, we’d be without lights,” CPP lawmaker and spokesman Sok Eysan said in an interview. “We went from 4 million people under Pol Pot to 15 million now, so we have a lot of needs, and we welcome China’s help.”

China has risen to become Cambodia’s single biggest donor and foreign investor, and eclipsed the US as its top trading partner in 2014. It sends more tourists to see Cambodia’s famed temples than any other country.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has canceled about US$90 million of debt — in contrast to the US, which is still demanding that Cambodia pay about US$500 million in loans from the Vietnam War era.

‘STRONG MOMENTUM’

China’s ambassador recently hailed the “strong momentum” in relations with Cambodia, saying his nation’s companies have built a third of Cambodia’s highways and more than a dozen major bridges and hydropower stations.

China funded an elaborate office building for Cambodia’s Cabinet, and has started work on a new national stadium.

More is coming. A Chinese private equity firm recently cut a US$1.5 billion deal to build a “Cambodia-Chinese Friendship City.” Cambodia’s biggest conglomerate, The Royal Group of Cambodia, recently partnered with state-run China Huaneng Group to build hydropower plants.

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