Spotlight - Cambodia: November 9, 2022

Timing does not appear to be one of Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen’s strengths.
In recent weeks, he has harshly criticized the opposition Candlelight Party (CP), accusing the CP’s leaders of having ties to former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) co-founder Sam Rainsy—whose party the Cambodian Supreme Court dissolved in 2017. Hun Sen promised that if any CP members were discovered to have ties to Rainsy, who he accused of insulting King Norodom Sihamoni after a video emerged of Rainsy criticizing the King’s decision to sign a border deal with Vietnam, the “party will be dissolved by the court.” Hun Sen then told CP officials to leave the party “as soon as possible.” Local CP officials now say that commune chiefs from Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have pushed them to thumbprint letters denouncing Rainsy.
While pressure campaigns against the opposition are nothing new in Hun Sen’s Cambodia, the timing is curious—and potentially disruptive—given U.S. president Joe Biden’s plans to visit Cambodia from November 12-13 for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-hosted East Asia Summit.
The Biden administration is not thrilled that the president must visit Cambodia, given the strained state of U.S.-Cambodia relations and Cambodia’s poor governance record. But U.S. officials do not consider skipping the ASEAN meeting in Phnom Penh to be a serious option. Failing to attend the meeting at the presidential level would only augment negative perceptions of the United States as a partner that demands the region visit us, as in May, but is not willing to travel to the region itself. The White House must already contend with that narrative of U.S. inattention, given Biden’s planned non-attendance at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting in Thailand on November 17-18—ceding that stage to Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin.
But Hun Sen’s rhetoric on the CP is almost surely worrying the same U.S. officials that pushed Biden to visit Cambodia. This rhetoric is worrying many Cambodians as well, reminding them of the CNRP's 2017 dissolution, along with the mass trials and flight of political dissidents that followed. There is real concern that the Cambodian government could take harsh action against the CP.
Some measures seem likely in the medium-term, given Hun Sen’s unwillingness to tolerate any organized political opposition for too long. But it would be a catastrophic mistake for Hun Sen to actually dissolve the CP before Biden’s visit.
Such a step would produce negative headlines in the U.S. media. Those headlines would prompt policymakers in Congress—where just about anyone who cares about Cambodia already wants more sanctions imposed on the country—to call for stronger U.S. action against Hun Sen’s government. And with the White House having essentially outsourced Cambodia policy to Congress for the better part of two decades, the Biden administration would find itself under strong pressure to take such action, and to not meet with Hun Sen.
Ultimately, then, the result of any near-term action against the CP would almost surely be harsh U.S. recriminations and possibly even additional economic restrictions from the United States, not to mention the disruption of Biden’s Cambodia visit. The president’s team likely wants to raise key sensitive issues, like those surrounding the Ream Naval Base, with Hun Sen; but any progress on that issue will be essentially impossible if Hun Sen dissolves the CP before then and Washington responds by imposing sanctions on Phnom Penh.
Self-interest should lead Hun Sen to hold off from doing so before Biden touches down in Cambodia. But the prime minister is unpredictable, and could very well make a “shoot from the hip”-type decision against the CP that torpedoes his upcoming moment in the international spotlight. Policymakers in Washington will be holding their breath until then, hoping that Hun Sen exhibits some short-term restraint. Members of the Cambodian opposition—who know that the hammer will drop eventually—should be forgiven for lacking the same limited optimism.
Charles Dunst is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Charles Dunst
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program