Over the past year, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling party have gone from simply repressing civil society and opposition parties to taking steps that are creating a fully authoritarian, one-party state. These steps have included jailing co-opposition leader Kem Sokha for treason, tossing multiple NGOs out of the country, overseeing the shutdown of multiple independent radio and print outlets, and, ultimately, presiding over the dissolution of the main opposition party. There now appears little chance that Cambodia’s 2018 national elections will be free and fair. In fact, Hun Sen, who in the past had often allowed elections to proceed with some degree of openness and fairness, appears ready to win an election that would be a totally undemocratic farce.
In a piece for Project Syndicate last week, I noted that Hun Sen was cracking down not only because he feared that the opposition, which performed well in 2013 national elections, might actually win in 2018, but also simply because Hun Sen can crack down. I argued that he can crack down because, in 2017, there are few outside actors willing to take a tough stance against Hun Sen’s approach. Southeast Asia is, overall, experiencing a democratic regression, so Hun Sen’s repression is somewhat overshadowed by the drug war in the Philippines, the massive crisis in Rakhine State, and the continuing repression by the Thai junta.
But most notably, I argued, Hun Sen could crack down because the Trump administration has made human rights a low priority in U.S. foreign policy, instead focusing on sovereignty. Indeed, Hun Sen, like multiple other world leaders, has used the U.S. president’s attacks on the media as an example for his own attacks on journalists. As I noted, when Hun Sen met President Trump in Manila in November, he seemed to praise the U.S. president’s sovereignty-first, noninterventionist style of politics.
To be fair, then, earlier this week the administration, pushed by supporters of Cambodian human rights on Capitol Hill and by human rights groups and the opposition in Cambodia, has taken some important steps to demonstrate that it is willing to address Hun Sen’s severe rights violations. The administration on Wednesday announced it was placing visa restrictions on a group of Cambodian officials who have played a role in the ongoing crackdown on democracy in that country. The State Department also issued a tough statement calling on Hun Sen to release jailed co-opposition leader Kem Sokha, to allow the political opposition to function, and to stop repressing civil society.
Still, overall, I do not think these steps make up for the broader enabling effect that U.S. policy in 2017 on democracy and rights has had in Southeast Asia, and in Cambodia specifically. That said, the steps taken this week are important signals to Hun Sen, and might help slow him down as he guts the country’s institutions and prepares for an unfree national election next year. In addition, other major actors in Cambodia, such as China, probably do not really want the country to spiral into economic chaos, or for Hun Sen to force Western donors to cut off aid. So, there are still points of leverage in the Cambodian crisis.