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

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led a coup against an elected government three years ago, was welcomed at the White House this year. So was Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose wealth might be questioned by the US Department of Justice as part of a wide-ranging investigation into fraud at a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund.

Meanwhile, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte held a friendly telephone call with Trump in April. Trump praised the Philippine leader for his brutal, lawless “war on drugs,” in which, according to Human Rights Watch, more than 12,000 people have died.

During Trump’s visit to Manila last month, Duterte serenaded him with a song, and then Trump laughed when, in a joint appearance, his counterpart blasted the media, calling them “spies.”

The Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Trump later claimed he briefly mentioned human rights to Duterte, but a Philippine government spokesperson said the two had not discussed rights issues.

As Hun Sen, Duterte and others have shown, the new US approach fosters impunity for autocratic leaders.

Although other donor countries, such as Canada and France, have at times spoken out against Hun Sen’s abuses, the US government, as the actor wielding the most leverage, has historically led the charge.

However, the Trump administration’s see-no-evil approach hinders other countries’ ability to promote rights and democracy.

For example, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in his own bilateral meeting with Duterte last month, did raise concerns about the drug war in the Philippines. Yet, without US support, Trudeau’s pressure lacked credible measures.

Trump’s policies are placing the US’ long-term interests at risk. As in Cambodia, many of Asia’s strongest supporters of democratic change are young men and women. Opposition parties in Malaysia, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries attract a high share of young people, as do many of the media organizations and civil-society groups now under pressure.

Most importantly, from the standpoint of national interest, the US has built its strongest partnerships in Asia with other democracies.

Policies that ignore human rights and democracy will not benefit the US or the region. An “America First” approach that disregards these issues — in Cambodia or elsewhere — will only leave the US weaker in the end.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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