Crackdown in Cambodia: What Options for the United States?
January 9, 2014
After months of peaceful antigovernment protests led by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Cambodian government authorities decided to crack down on January 3–4 following escalating demonstrations in recent weeks. Security forces in Phnom Penh first opened fire on striking garment workers, tens of thousands of whom have taken to the streets and joined CNRP calls to oust Prime Minister Hun Sen. That action left at least four people dead. The next day police and thugs in civilian garb drove opposition protesters from the capital’s Freedom Park, which has served as the heart of the protest movement. Phnom Penh’s government also indefinitely banned all assembly and summoned CNRP leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha for questioning.
The government’s harsh response seemed to signal an important shift in Hun Sen’s calculus—one that deserves attention—after several rounds of unsuccessful talks with the opposition.
There are likely several different motives behind the crackdown. The garment worker strikes that started on December 24 had a disruptive effect on Cambodia’s economy, which depends heavily on clothing exports. The sector employs around 600,000 workers and accounts for 35 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Hun Sen’s offer to raise wages from the current $80 a month to $95 did not satisfy the workers, who, with the CNRP’s backing, demanded $160. A prolonged crisis over labor rights in the garment sector would almost certainly prompt damage-control measures by international clothing brands, which might suspend their operations in Cambodia or move their factories elsewhere. The crackdown was a signal that the government’s patience had run its course and that it was swiftly reinstating order. Production at most factories has resumed following the crackdown.
In addition, Hun Sen may have wanted to clear the streets of protesters before January 7, which marked the 35th anniversary of the ouster of the Khmer Rouge by Vietnamese troops. Hun Sen would have seen the occasion as an opportunity to boost his legitimacy by reminding people inside and outside Cambodia that his ascent to power ended the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, bringing a period of stability and relative prosperity, particularly in urban areas. In late December, Hun Sen paid a visit to Hanoi, where Vietnamese leaders congratulated him and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party on their success in rebuilding their country. The economy grew at around 8 percent annually between 2004 and 2012.
The timing of the government’s crackdown, shortly after Hun Sen returned from Vietnam, suggested he may have sought to appease Hanoi and bolster bilateral trade and investment relations. Vietnamese leaders have provided Hun Sen with the much-needed outside recognition he has been seeking since the July national elections. Vietnam remains one of the top foreign investors in Cambodia, and during Hun Sen’s trip the two governments pledged to nearly double annual two-way trade to $5 billion by 2015.
In recent weeks Sam Rainsy’s nationalistic and anti-Vietnamese rhetoric quickly fed anti-Vietnam sentiment among protesters, resulting in attacks on a number of local ethnic Vietnamese businesses. Many Cambodians, who long resented Vietnam’s occupation of their country during the1980s, have been disillusioned by what they perceive as the government’s preferential treatment of businesses with close links to Hanoi.
Beijing’s lukewarm support for Hun Sen’s government in recent months may also have fed his harsh response to the protests by leaving him feeling somewhat vulnerable. While the Chinese government quickly recognized the election results last year, Beijing kept Hun Sen at arm’s length in the face of growing support within Cambodia for Sam Rainsy and the CNRP. Chinese leaders did not visit Cambodia as part of Beijing’s shuttle diplomacy through Southeast Asia last October, even though the country has been a staunch Chinese ally.
China certainly wants to avoid strategic mistakes akin to those it made in Myanmar in recent years when it threw all its weight behind the military government only to be left disoriented by the reforms undertaken since 2011. While Beijing continues to engage Phnom Penh through traditional government-to-government channels, it is likely also considering hedging its bets on what might happen in Cambodia in the long run. A week after Hun Sen declared he would not step down in the face of protests, the state-controlled Chinese media ran an article quoting Khmer analysts suggesting the government should hold a national referendum on whether to organize new elections in light of widespread charges of irregularities in July’s elections.
It remains to be seen whether Hun Sen will implement any meaningful reforms to assuage the public, although reformists in the CPP clearly seem to understand the need for deeper change. In late December, Hun Sen set up a new ministry in charge of mines and energy and initiated a minor cabinet reshuffle that moved several economic ministers who had long been viewed as benefitting personally from their positions. There is speculation that further cabinet changes are pending.
How should the U.S. government respond to the situation in Cambodia? For starters, it should continue people-to-people engagement though educational exchanges and initiatives that could have a significant impact in coming decades on the evolution of Cambodian democracy. Even if Hun Sen successfully retains power for several more election cycles, he will have to continue to deal with a young, democratic-leaning population and fast-growing workforce that will not cease demanding more transparency, better individual rights, and improved working conditions. The United States has placed great importance on people-to-people engagement with larger Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam; it should also pay more attention to investing in the youth potential of Cambodia as that country moves to reintegrate with the region and the world.
At the same time, Washington and the international community should hold Phnom Penh accountable for its human rights record, and foreign donors should help promote and provide technical support to reform initiatives that could lead to more responsible foreign investment, greater transparency, and better rule of law. The U.S. government must commit to a long-term human rights agenda that not only champions democratic values, but also works to complement its trade and economic engagement in Southeast Asia. For instance, the drive for better governance and labor standards in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations demonstrates that strategic engagement need not disregard U.S. values and ideals. Most importantly, policymakers should not let their judgment of the current government define the course of U.S. policy toward Cambodia.
Southeast Asia is evolving quickly, both politically and economically, and Cambodia could very well be part of key changes in the region over the next decade. The underlying issues at the center of the political deadlock in Cambodia—workers’ rights, land rights, rule of law, and public attitudes toward foreign investment, to name a few—are reminiscent of problems plaguing other Southeast Asian countries, particularly Indonesia, Myanmar, and Vietnam, albeit in different manifestations. These are all countries with which the United States has worked hard to engage strategically in recent years, and whose future trajectories could well be linked to U.S. national interests in the Asia Pacific.
For now, it is hard to know which way the wind will blow in Cambodia. But Washington needs to take another close look at Cambodia and its people and see potential promise, not only peril.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the January 9, 2014, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.)
Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Phuong Nguyen is a research associate with the Sumitro Chair.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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