With China on the rise and the world trending towards authoritarianism, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the façade of democracy in Cambodia is crumbling. What may raise eyebrows to many stateside is the accusation that America — and Ted Cruz specifically — attempted to organize a revolution to oust 33-year incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Sen. Cruz may wear the fantastical allegations as a badge of honor, and Texans can feel proud that their senator’s condemnations of an increasingly authoritarian regime have not gone unnoticed. However, U.S. action has so far had little effect other than to ruffle feathers. American officials promise more measures are coming, but some experts warn Cambodians will have work domestically to achieve true change.
The insidious pro-government media outlet Fresh News turned its sights on Cruz and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., accusing them in an open letter and rudimentary memes of attempting to initiate revolution. “You are trying to harm our present peace and development, citing human rights and democracy,” the letter states, adding, “the love you are showing us is vicious.”
The slide to authoritarianism in Cambodia began, as it often does, with rhetoric. Government officials including Hun Sen lobbed criticisms at the U.S. about domestic issues ranging from racial tensions to gun violence. Hun Sen demanded that then president-elect Donald Trump forgive a $506 million debt to the U.S. accrued by Cambodia during the Vietnam War era. Trump never responded, possibly completely unaware of the request. At the time, analysts believed Hun Sen was trying to undermine America’s credibility as a champion of human rights and democracy in anticipation of criticism about the fairness of upcoming Cambodian elections.
Then, in January 2017, Cambodia canceled its annual joint military exercises with the U.S., ending a seven-year tradition. Shortly after, the government minted a shiny, new military event with China — the Golden Dragon. For this too, observers had a plausible explanation. Western aid often came with cumbersome human rights requirements, requirements that Hun Sen was loath to satisfy. China, on the other hand, was happy to welcome Cambodia with open arms, democracy or no.
But the rhetoric continued, going far beyond what was necessary for a political realignment. Puzzled onlookers wondered what Hun Sen stood to gain from his increasing antagonism toward the West, and America in particular.
The local June 2017 elections came and went without any significant controversy. The polls were dubbed mostly free and fair, with Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party maintaining power while the opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, made significant gains, winning 43.8 percent of the popular vote. This raised serious doubts about the ruling party’s ability to stave off defeat in the July 2018 national elections, when Hun Sen’s own future will be on the line.
From this point on, Cambodia hurtled towards authoritarianism, and anti-American criticism became conspiracy. Pro-government media outlet Fresh News began circulating fantastical allegations of a plot between the U.S. government and the opposition party to lead a revolution.
The media conspiracies were treated as state endorsed fact on September 4 when CNRP president Kem Sokha was arrested at his Phnom Penh home for “treason.” In a dystopic twist, Fresh News livestreamed the raid. That same day, Cambodia Daily, one of two major independent newspapers, was shut down. Mu Sochua, party vice-president at the time of Sokha’s arrest, said the allegations of U.S.-backed revolution are “completely made up” and were presented with “no evidence whatsoever.”
“It’s a malicious, baseless accusation from the Cambodian government, who for decades never genuinely accepts the idea of democracy,” added CNRP President Sokha’s daughter, Kem Monovithya, in a recent message.
After her father’s arrest, Monovithya began a campaign of her own, appealing to the international community to take action against Hun Sen’s increasingly authoritarian regime. Both Sochua and Monovithya were forced to flee the country entirely.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng helped draft a slew of controversial amendments, including one that would ban individuals from harming the “interests” of Cambodia. He openly admitted that the opposition party president’s daughter, Monovithya, was the inspiration for the law.
“Like my father, I don’t take any of this personally,” she said. “This is just what dictators do to their opponents. We knew what we were getting ourselves into, as a family, standing up to this authoritarianism.”
Friendship on its own terms
International condemnation reached a crescendo following opposition president Sokha’s arrest. And Sen. Cruz proved himself to be one of the more vocal critics of Prime Minister Hun Sen. In October, Cruz wrote a letter to the Cambodian ambassador to the U.S., calling the treason charge “political in nature” and demanding Sokha’s release by November 9. If not, Cruz pledged to fight for visa bans against top officials.
The November 9 deadline came and went with Sokha still in jail, and what’s more, the entire CNRP was forcibly dissolved for its involvement in the alleged U.S.-backed revolution. Meetings between CNRP figures and Cruz were presented as evidence at the trial.
In a surprisingly candid interview with Voice of America at the end of November, America’s exasperated ambassador said Cambodia is simply “not interested in a positive relation with the U.S.”
“Since I came, let’s be honest, the Khmer government has taken a lot of steps against the U.S.,” said Ambassador William Heidt.
In an interview, veteran Southeast Asia journalist Sebastian Strangio said the government truly wants good relations with the U.S., but it wants those relations “on its own terms.” Strangio said rather than a diplomatic or politically savvy move, the anti-American rhetoric stems from a “deep sense of personal resentment” from the prime minister.
“Hun Sen has a deep need for legitimacy and acceptance from the international community, which he never received from the U.S.,” said Strangio, who also the author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia. For example, Hun Sen has never been invited to visit the White House, a courtesy that has been extended the head of Vietnam’s communist party and the controversial Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Rather, America continues to treat Hun Sen like a “Saddam Hussein type figure,” he said.
It is this perceived double standard that rankles the prime minister, especially because he views himself as Cambodia’s savior for his role in ending the Khmer Rouge genocide. In place of the hero’s welcome he felt he deserved, the international community and especially America greeted Hun Sen with suspicion and outright hostility.
Recognition and legitimacy have instead come from another source, one with no qualms about supporting authoritarian regimes: China.
“The CPP rejects democracy as a matter of principle,” he said, noting that senators like Cruz have frequently advocated for outright regime change.
However, a desire for regime change does not a revolution make.
“It’s not totally fictitious of course, but they’re exaggerated to the point of distortion,” Strangio said.
Rigged elections have consequences
After the CNRP’s dissolution, its elected positions were redistributed among minor parties and the CPP itself, leaving the ruling party in total control of every level of government. Sochua, vice president of the opposition party, said it is evident from the political maneuverings the government undertook prior to the accusation of U.S. interference that there was a concerted effort to close democratic space.
“They amended the laws and craft laws to fit this scenario,” she said.
And indeed, the Law on Political Parties was first amended in February to allow the dissolution of political parties, months before Sokha’s arrest. As a result, today the CPP has 11,051 commune council positions out of 11,572.
While many were quick to declare the CNRP’s dissolution the “death of democracy,” Lee Morgenbesser, author of Behind the Façade: Elections Under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia, said it would be a misconception to believe that Cambodia was ever a democracy anyhow. In 1993, Hun Sen refused to accept the results of the very first election, administered by the U.N. Rather, Morgenbesser describes Cambodia’s transition from “one-party rule” to “competitive authoritarianism” in 1993, and back to one-party rule in 2017 with the dissolution of the CNRP.
After losing the 1993 election, Hun Sen declared himself “co-prime minister,” fully consolidating power four years later. He has been in undisputed control of the country since.
“The fundamental error committed by the United Nationals is that it failed to put in place a transition plan for the period immediately following the 1993 election,” Morgenbesser explained. Given that the CPP already controlled every institution and every level of government, there was no mechanism for transferring authority. Rather than a bloody coup, in 2017 Hun Sen wielded the law, as written by the CPP.
The U.S. should do more
“The US has withdrawn from [National Election Committee] support, placed a visa ban on Cambodian officials, and cut aid that directly would go to central Cambodian government,” said CNRP President Sokha’s daughter, Monovithya.
But CNRP Vice President Sochua, grateful for the U.S. support so far, said the CNRP “would like to see more.”
More could be forthcoming via legislation co-sponsored by Cruz. In February, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced a bill that would impose a slew of punishments on Cambodia, including possible asset freezes against top officials.
But regime change is rarely successfully initiated from abroad. Morgenbesser, the author, pointed out that dictators are usually removed via assassination or popular protest.
Opposition party vice president Sochua frequently reiterates her party’s commitment to nonviolence and has hesitated to initiate protests out of fear of the government’s response. In 2014, police opened fire on protestors, killing at least four. Hun Sen has repeatedly said he is willing to kill 100 to 200 people to maintain stability.
“I continue to have hope for the CNRP, you can’t shut down 3 million voices, but I worry very, very much,” she said, noting that if the opposition calls for protests or sanctions, it is not Hun Sen who will suffer, but the people.
Source: Andrew Nachemson is an American writer in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.