Southeast Asia from Scott Circle: Hun Sen Distances Cambodia from Washington in Run-up to Elections
May 18, 2017
Hun Sen Distances Cambodia from Washington in Run-up to Elections
In the months leading up to local elections in June 2017 and national elections in July 2018, Prime Minister Hun Sen has moved to shrink ties with Washington and deepen relations with China. He has stepped up controls over the opposition in an attempt to ensure that he does not face a repeat of 2013, when his ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) came close to losing. His actions to distance himself from the United States appear intended to give Washington less leverage to voice criticism of his moves in the wake of the elections.
Not so long ago, Hun Sen, who has served as prime minister for 32 years, had been one of Donald Trump’s biggest fans in Southeast Asia. He openly predicted Trump’s election last November and then praised the new U.S. president for excluding certain news organizations from one of his early press conferences. Despite that, Phnom Penh announced a few days before Trump was sworn in that Cambodia, a country of 15 million wedged between Thailand and Vietnam, would not participate in its annual joint military exercise with the United States, Angkor Sentinel, until at least 2019.
A military spokesman said the joint exercise was suspended because the armed forces were busy implementing an anti-drug campaign and tens of thousands of troops would be needed to maintain order during local elections on June 4. The announcement came in December 2016, only a month after Cambodia had taken part in its first Golden Dragon military exercise with China. Last year the Chinese and Cambodian navies also conducted their first naval training exercise.
In April, Cambodia abruptly asked the United States to end nearly a decade of assistance by a Navy construction unit, known as the Seabees, that was building schools and maternity wards around the country.
Soon after Trump was elected, Hun Sen made a series of appeals for Washington to forgive Cambodia’s debt dating back to the 1970s, when the United States gave the Lon Nol government fighting the Khmer Rouge some $278 million in loans for food and agricultural supplies. That debt has now nearly doubled to over $500 million due to accumulated interest. In February, Hun Sen harked back to the U.S. bombing of Cambodia during the war when, according to reports in the Phnom Penh media, he rhetorically asked Trump, “How can this be?…You attacked us and demand we give you money.”
Hun Sen insists the loan is invalid because Lon Nol toppled the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk in a 1970 coup, but Washington argues the international financial framework would collapse if governments are not responsible for debts incurred by their predecessors. No one knows what suddenly set Hun Sen off on an issue that has mostly lain dormant for decades.
Hun Sen made his moves against Washington despite the fact that Trump has made clear that pressing for democracy and human rights is not as high a priority for his administration as it was for his predecessor. They also come not long after Chinese president Xi Jinping made his first visit to Cambodia in October 2016, offering a new aid package worth nearly $240 million and pledging to forgive nearly $90 million in Cambodian debt.
In recent years, Beijing has become Cambodia’s most important foreign aid donor, its largest foreign investor, and one of its largest trading partners without imposing any political conditions like the United States and the European Union have long done. Beijing has become Cambodia’s top arms supplier, is helping Phnom Penh “reform” the judicial system, and is providing aid worth nearly $12 million for the election commission as the country prepares for the upcoming elections.
China’s largesse has paid off handsomely for Beijing. In 2012 and again last year, Phnom Penh blocked efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to reach consensus protesting China’s assertive moves in the disputed South China Sea.
Hun Sen has long been frustrated by U.S. protests about human rights abuses and moves to limit opposition and democratic voices in Cambodia. In February, U.S.-Cambodia relations were further strained when the National Assembly passed amendments to the Law on Political Parties, which will make it easier for courts to suspend the activities or dissolve opposition parties. The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh warned that steps to ban or limit parties would call into question the legitimacy of the upcoming elections. With increasing support from China, Hun Sen appears to be less susceptible to pressure from the West.
Most analysts saw the new law as aimed at the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which nearly topped the ruling CPP in 2013 elections and gave Hun Sen political heartburn. Then-CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who was living in exile under threat of arrest on defamation charges, resigned when it became clear the new law, which allows parties to be disbanded if one of its leaders is convicted of a crime, would be passed. The mantle passed to Rainsy’s deputy, Kem Sokha, but his efforts in the upcoming elections could be hurt because the new law bans foreign donations, including from Cambodians overseas who have long provided the opposition party with important support.
In the run-up to the local elections, which many analysts view as a bellwether for next year’s national elections, Hun Sen has repeatedly threatened that the country will again descend into civil war if the opposition wins. The prime minister has also called on the military to put down any protests that might erupt if the opposition loses. In the weeks before the elections, opposition politicians have been charged with defamation, democracy campaigners have been arrested, and rights activists say close to 30 people are now being held awaiting trial.
Cambodian rights activists are concerned that as the Trump administration downplays democracy and human rights as a foreign policy priority they will lose one of their strongest champions at time when their country is heading toward a critical period. Many fear that the new priorities of the U.S. government will embolden Hun Sen and his ruling party ahead of the upcoming elections.
With China providing Hun Sen with plenty of diplomatic and economic cover to reshape the political landscape and the United States distracted at home, Cambodia’s efforts at clinging to some semblance of democracy appear to be hanging by a thread. Despite Hun Sen’s current standoffishness toward the United States, it is important that Washington stays engaged with Cambodia. At 64, Hun Sen needs to step down eventually and it will be important for the United States to have strong links to the next generation of leaders.
Murray Hiebert is senior adviser and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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Indonesia moves to ban hardline Islamic group
Indonesian coordinating minister for political, legal, and security affairs Wiranto on May 8 announced that the Indonesian government will begin the legal process to ban hardline Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI). Wiranto said the ban on HTI—the local arm of an international Islamist group that calls for the establishment of a caliphate—follows an evaluation by a government panel that deemed the group’s views inconsistent with Indonesia’s pluralistic constitution and national unity. An HTI spokesperson urged the government not to disband the group, which she said is being unfairly targeted.
Duterte names new foreign, interior secretaries
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte on May 10 appointed Senator Alan Peter Cayetano as secretary of foreign affairs and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff General Eduardo Año as secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government. Cayetano—who replaces Acting Secretary Enrique Manalo—was Duterte’s vice presidential running mate in last year’s election and is a close ally who has defended Duterte’s drug war. General Año will complete service in the armed forces before retiring in October and assuming his new post in the cabinet, along with fellow former AFP chief of staff and new secretary of the environment Roy Cimatu.
Philippine drug war criticized by UN human rights council
The United Nations Human Rights Council on May 8 urged the Philippine government to investigate and ensure accountability for alleged extrajudicial killings in its ongoing drug war. Philippine senator Alan Peter Cayetano, who was appointed secretary of foreign affairs two days later, dismissed claims of a spike in extrajudicial killings as “alternative facts,” and told the UN council that the claims were politically motivated and intended to discredit the Duterte administration. The UN session followed a May 5 visit to the Philippines by the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, a visit condemned by the Philippine government.
Vietnam, Philippines hold South China Sea talks with China
Vietnam and China agreed in a May 15 joint communiqué to manage and control their maritime disputes in the South China Sea and to not take any actions to complicate or expand those disputes. The communiqué followed positive talks on the South China Sea between Vietnamese president Tran Dai Quang and Chinese president Xi Jinping during Quang’s May 11-15 state visit to China. The Philippine ambassador to China on May 14 said that Manila and Beijing will hold their own bilateral talks on the South China Sea beginning on May 19.
Thailand signs agreement to purchase Chinese submarines
Thailand’s naval chief of staff on May 5 signed a contract in Beijing for the first of three Chinese-built Yuan-class diesel-electric submarines. The contract begins a planned 11-year, $1 billion submarine procurement deal between the Thai navy and the state-owned China Shipbuilding and Offshore International Co., with delivery of the first submarine expected within six years.
Myanmar rejects UN investigation into abuse of Rohingya
Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on May 2 criticized the UN human rights council plans to investigate alleged abuses of Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar’s security forces. Aung San Suu Kyi said her government did not agree with the council’s March decision to dispatch a fact-finding mission to Myanmar, which she said could deepen divisions in Rakhine State. She added that Myanmar would be “happy to accept” any recommendations that align with the real needs of the region and would follow the recommendations of the special commission on Rakhine led by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. However, she rejected suggestions that her administration deliberately overlooked any atrocities.
Myanmar arrests Buddhist nationalists after confrontation with Muslims in Yangon
Myanmar police arrested two Buddhist monks and seven Buddhist nationalists on May 11 and 15 for their involvement in a violent confrontation on May 9 between dozens of nationalists and Muslims in Yangon that left two people injured. Police are still looking for three suspects involved in the confrontation, which was sparked by Buddhist monks leading nationalists into a Muslim neighborhood hunting for “illegal” Rohingya Muslims and led to a melee that was broken up by police warning shots. Under Myanmar law, incitement to commit violence carries a sentence of up to two years in prison.
Thailand seeks suspects after car bombing in Pattani injures more than 60
A May 9 car bombing outside a supermarket in Pattani in southern Thailand injured more than 60 people and left authorities hunting for at least 10 Muslim insurgents suspected of being responsible for the attack. Police on May 11 issued an arrest warrant for one suspect, but the military has not yet detained anyone. The car bombing was the first since August in Pattani, where Muslim separatist insurgents have long been active.
Malaysian government cancels joint real estate project with China
The Malaysian government on May 3 announced the cancellation of a deal with a joint Malaysia-China consortium to develop the country’s biggest real estate project in Kuala Lumpur. The 2015 deal, which gave Malaysia’s Iskandar Waterfront Holdings and state-owned China Railway Engineering Corporation a 60 percent ownership stake and the rights to develop the Bandar Malaysia project, was canceled due to a failure to meet payment obligations. The 2015 sale by Bandar Malaysia—a subsidiary of state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB)—had been promoted as a way to restructure 1MDB’s large debt burden.
On the Hill
On May 17, Dr. Amy Searight, senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific on "Revitalizing U.S.-ASEAN Relations"...Watch here>>>