Champa Patel
Head of Asia Programme
In the short term, the country looks unlikely to escape one-party rule. But internal and external pressures on the leadership will continue to build.
A man paints over the logo of the Cambodia National Rescue Party at its headquarters in Phnom Penh. Photo: Getty Images.A man paints over the logo of the Cambodia National Rescue Party at its headquarters in Phnom Penh. Photo: Getty Images.

On 16 November, Cambodia’s Supreme Court struck a crippling blow to democratic rights in the country when it ordered the dissolution of the main political opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Cambodia is now essentially a one-party state. CNRP will lose all its seats in the National Assembly ensuring there is effectively no organized political opposition to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party. This blow to democracy will deeply affect both Cambodia’s people and the country’s external relations.

Inside Cambodia

While this may seem a shocking outcome, in some respects it is entirely unsurprising given the intense crackdown on the political opposition during the last few years. Several political leaders from CNRP had fled into self-imposed exile, such as former leader Sam Rainsy and, more recently, deputy leader Mu Sochua. Kem Sokha, the current leader of CNRP, was charged with treason in September, based on a speech he gave in 2013, and is still awaiting trial. This repression extends beyond the political opposition – in the last few years, Hun Sen’s government has unleashed a range of legal actions and restrictions against civil society, journalists and others seen to be critical of his leadership and actions.

For example, the government has targeted the media, shutting down several radio stations such a Radio Free Asia and Voice of America and presenting a $6.3 million tax bill to the Cambodia Daily – an outspoken critic of Hun Sen and the leader’s party – which forced its closure. This is in a context of ongoing restrictions on civil society; in August, the government even announced that it would install surveillance equipment directly into the country’s internet service providers.

Less known, however, is the inadvertent role played by international organizations whose actions could limit access to a range of information. Cambodia is one of six countries chosen by Facebook for an experiment in which posts by news publishers, among other groups, are separated into a different feed called ‘Explore’. The idea is that organizations can pay to promote their content or it will be housed separately. Given Cambodia’s crackdown on media outlets, such initiatives inadvertently further shrink the access ordinary Cambodians have to a range of information.

The response of the West

The dissolution of the opposition has been met with criticism from the US and the EU, from whom Cambodia receives foreign development assistance and enjoys preferential trade terms. The EU expressed its concerns about the undermining of democratic rights and warned of economic consequences. The US withdrew all funding for the National Election Committee, arguing the 2018 elections could not be free and fair.

The US and EU have some leverage as their combined markets import about 65 per cent of Cambodian goods. The impact of US and EU withdrawing financial support could be detrimental to livelihoods in Cambodia. The EU alone planned to spend about €410 million in the country between 2014 and 2020. But Hun Sen remains defiant and challenged to US this week to cut all aid.

Relationship with China

In part, this is clearly because of the deepening relationship with China, which sees Cambodia as an important ally in southeast Asia. In the last few years, Chinese investment has started to outstrip US investment in the country – nearly $5 billion in loans and investments between 2011 and 2015 with the yearly amount ballooning to $200 million in 2016 alone, making it the single largest investor in the country. China has repeatedly expressed its support for Cambodia, making no criticism of the Hun Sen’s government, and its ‘no strings attached’ approach suits Hun Sen’s autocratic tendencies.

But Hun Sen may want to exercise some caution in allying with such a strong neighbour. Like Myanmar under the old military junta, there may come a point where it needs to diversify its investments, and cutting off ties so brutishly with Western countries that have supported Cambodia previously may not be a viable long-term strategy.

What happens next

It is difficult to see a way out of the current political impasse. If the EU and the US were to suspend imports, it could impact ordinary Cambodians by squeezing their livelihoods, rather than create any meaningful pressure on Hun Sen. Likewise, sanctions would most likely affect ordinary Cambodians more than the leaders they are targeted at. It is not clear how these measures would enable a move towards more democratic processes anyway. With ongoing Chinese support, Hun Sen is likely to continue to antagonize the West.

But even if the Cambodian economy can work through the current political situation, civil society, youth, journalists and others will not necessarily fade away. People will still continue, even in difficult environments, to press for a say in how their country should work. By dissolving the opposition, Hun Sen may inadvertently have also increased the pressure on himself to meet the needs of the population or face further, maybe differing forms, of resistance in the future.

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