Thu, Dec 07, 2017 - Page 9 News List

The Trumping of Cambodia’s shaky attempts at democracy

The US president’s attitude toward human rights fosters impunity for autocratic leaders like Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who are reveling in it

By Joshua Kurlantzick

Over the past year, Cambodia’s ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has dramatically increased its pressure on its political opponents and civil society. Democracy in Cambodia has always been fraught, and elections are not completely free and fair. However, the current crackdown is much greater in scope, and far more concerning, in part because it is being enabled by apathy from the US.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, East Asia’s longest-serving non-royal ruler, has used his power to silence critics and close outspoken media outlets, including one independent newspaper, the Cambodia Daily.

The CPP has also expelled the National Democratic Institute, a US-based non-profit that focuses on rights and democracy, and detained political challengers.

Kem Sokha, who co-headed the main opposition group, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was arrested in September on dubious treason charges. The other main opposition figure, Sam Rainsy, remains in exile in France.

In recent weeks, Hun Sen has increased the pressure, essentially ending Cambodia’s shaky attempts at democracy.

Earlier this month, a court dominated by CPP allies dissolved the CNRP. As a result, the party will most likely be unable to contest national elections next year, all but ensuring that Hun Sen will win another term as prime minister.

The ruling could also help enable Hun Sen to eventually hand power to another family member.

Fearing for their lives, about half of the CNRP members have left Cambodia.

Hun Sen has hardly been shy about his slide toward what the Cambodia Daily, on its last day of publishing, termed a “descent into outright dictatorship.” In fact, Hun Sen, like other Southeast Asian autocrats, now seems to believe that he has political carte blanche, given the low priority that US President Donald Trump has placed on human rights.

In the past, Western pressure had managed to keep Hun Sen in check. Foreign aid, including from the US, accounts for as much as 40 percent of Cambodia’s national budget. While former US president Barack Obama’s administration did expand cooperation with Cambodia, it also repeatedly raised the issue of human-rights abuses with Hun Sen, including during a tense visit by Obama to Phnom Penh in 2012.

The Trump administration has rolled back this pressure, and then some, by downplaying human rights and democracy promotion. In an address to the UN General Assembly in September, Trump made clear that his priority would be sovereignty rather than rights.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has even reportedly considered removing democracy promotion from the US Department of State’s mission.

Hun Sen recognized this shift almost immediately. In February, he compared his disdain for Cambodia’s media with Trump’s distrust of the mainstream media in the US.

While lower-ranking US officials, including National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs Matthew Pottinger, have met with their Cambodian counterparts to press them on rights issues, Trump has said nothing negative about Hun Sen’s actions.

In a speech in early last month, Hun Sen essentially praised Trump for his indifference and non-interventionism.

Other Southeast Asian autocrats, or elected leaders with autocratic tendencies, have also celebrated the arrival of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.

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