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

By Blake Schmidt  /  Bloomberg

Fri, Oct 13, 2017 - Page 9

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.

As Beijing has spent more in Cambodia, Hun Sen’s government has become a reliable advocate for China’s foreign-policy goals. This has been most evident in meetings of the 10-member ASEAN, in which Cambodia has repeatedly watered down efforts to criticize China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“Hun Sen is Beijing’s wunderkind,” said Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales who also provides political analysis for companies doing business in Southeast Asia. “Chinese investments and businesses are in safe hands.”

China’s ambassador in Cambodia didn’t respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

China’s money also comes without any requirements to boost democratic institutions that are normally tied to aid money to Cambodia.

The two countries agreed last month to form a research group that would investigate the causes of “color revolutions,” referring to movements that used disputed elections to topple governments in the former Soviet Union and Middle East.

Hun Sen has spent more than 32 years in power, putting him alongside the world’s longest serving non-royal leaders including Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

Studies show that more Cambodians now get their news from Facebook and other Internet sites than television or radio, making it harder for the government to control information heading into the elections in July next year.

Hun Sen accelerated a campaign against the opposition last month with the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha, who was accused of conspiring with the US to seize power.

TENSIONS WITH US

US Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt said the allegations lacked “a shred of serious or credible evidence” and joined the EU in calling for Kem Sokha’s release.

Tensions have gotten worse, with Hun Sen calling off a search for the bodies of US soldiers from the Vietnam War era.

In an Oct. 3 statement, US senators John McCain and Dick Durban denounced Hun Sen’s “brutal crackdown” and urged US President Donald Trump’s administration to put abusive Cambodian officials on a list that could bar them from entering the US.

Hun Sen’s government has been unapologetic, comparing its battle with the opposition to a boxing match or a cockfight — two popular forms of entertainment in Cambodia.

A spokesman previously likened Hun Sen’s crackdown on the media with Trump’s disdain for so-called “fake news.”

“If this were cockfighting, the loser would have already been killed and cooked for soup,” CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said with a grin.

For Mu Sochua, the risk of heading back to a Cambodian prison was enough to make her flee.

She spent seven days in jail in 2014 for her role in protests, and this time opted to follow dozens of her colleagues into exile.

“Must go on,” she said via Whatsapp when asked about her plans. “I’m using my voice from outside.”