How Hun Sen’s Crackdown in Cambodia Is Straining Ties With the West

Cambodia's Prime Minister and President of Cambodian People's Party Hun Sen delivers a speech to his supporters, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, June 2, 2017 (AP photo by Heng Sinith).
Cambodia's Prime Minister and President of Cambodian People's Party Hun Sen delivers a speech to his supporters, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, June 2, 2017 (AP photo by Heng Sinith).

Prime Minister Hun Sen dissolved Cambodia’s opposition party ahead of 2018 elections to prevent it from repeating its 2013 success. Find out more when you subscribe to World Politics Review (WPR).

Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party now utterly dominate Cambodia, after the CPP won control of the entire lower house of parliament in elections in July 2018. The regime had, of course, ensured in advance that the CPP would sweep the vote, the culmination of Hun Sen’s increasingly brazen repression.

With political regression all but complete, what is left for the remnants of the Cambodian opposition party? How will key international donors and foreign countries respond, and what’s next for Hun Sen himself?

The Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP, which was officially dissolved by the country’s top court in November 2017, and other opposition forces can expect more efforts to throttle them. Although Cambodia still maintains a more vibrant civil society and media than, say, Laos, Hun Sen will likely keep up his crackdown, while adapting his party for an eventual shift at the top, a hard task in a country he has ruled for three decades.

The opposition has few good options. Before the election, it seemed there was some possibility that Hun Sen, as he has in the past, might try and cool tensions after the vote, perhaps by co-opting some opposition figures, such as one of the CNRP leaders, Sam Rainsy. But that seems unlikely now.

Is it too late for Cambodia’s opposition party to overcome an increasingly repressive prime minister? To learn more, read Cambodia’s Crooked Election and the Tragedy of Its Postwar Period for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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How Hun Sen Responded to the CNRP’s 2013 Success

Cambodia’s 2013 parliamentary elections were a pivotal moment for Prime Minister Hun Sen, confirming his worst fears of losing support among Cambodian voters: The public delivered a resounding sign that their confidence in his government was waning—and that faith in the opposition was on the rise. The CPP finished on top, but it lost considerable ground to the CNRP. As a result, the CPP’s share of seats in the National Assembly fell from 90 to 68, while the CNRP secured 55. Grappling with the results that September, Hun Sen gathered his ministers and, with a dictator’s disregard for brevity, spoke for six-and-a-half hours, criticizing the party’s performance and distance from the populace. He adopted a conciliatory posture toward the opposition throughout 2014 and early 2015, when the CCP and CNRP agreed to a “culture of dialogue”—ostensibly an effort to move away from inflammatory rhetoric and foster genuine consensus across the political establishment. By the end of 2015, however, hopes for dialogue had dissolved, with the crackdown on the political opposition and the press beginning soon thereafter.

The outcome of Cambodia’s 2013 elections prompted Hun Sen to resort first to dialogue, then to repression to ensure victory in the future. Learn more, in How Much Longer Can Hun Sen Keep Cambodia’s Opposition Down? for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Why Trade With The EU May Be The Best Hope For A Path To Democracy In Cambodia

Cambodia’s sharp democratic decline in the lead-up to the July 2018 elections did not come without consequences in its external relations. In October 2018, the European Union announced that it was formally looking into removing Cambodia’s special trade status under the “Everything But Arms” initiative, which gives developing nations duty-free access to export into Europe. With nongovernmental organizations constrained, social media channels monitored and China on standby to support Hun Sen, the international community’s usual gambit of stoking civil society movements and withdrawing aid were ineffective instruments. By contrast, the EU’s move puts some 40 percent of Cambodian exports to the EU, worth almost $700 million per year, at risk due to the removal of the country’s duty-free trade status, making the formal declaration a credible tool. Now the clock is ticking, both for the EU and Cambodia’s workforce, which has benefitted from the program.

The livelihoods of millions of Cambodians are at stake in a trade standoff between Cambodia and the EU. To find out more, read The EU Steels for a Trade Fight With Cambodia Over Its Human Rights Record for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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The Impact of Hun Sen’s Crackdown on U.S. Ties With Cambodia

Ties with the U.S. have soured, too. Hun Sen has accused the U.S. of planning to overthrow his regime and last year called the American ambassador a “liar” over U.S. aid cuts. With stronger backing from Beijing, Hun Sen has appeared more comfortable pursuing an openly autocratic agenda. Growing Chinese political and economic support has largely insulated his regime from Western pressure. The Trump administration’s response has been to downgrade ties with Cambodia and ratchet up its criticisms of Hun Sen. Last year, the White House cut aid to Cambodia, specifically to certain Hun Sen-controlled governmental sectors, including the military and police, citing “deep concerns” over “recent setbacks in democracy.” Yet the U.S. continues to fund programs in the country for health, agriculture and the clearance of land mines, all of which can bolster existing pro-U.S. sentiment among Cambodians. The approach can be summarized as trying to engage with Cambodians directly and cautiously encouraging them to oppose Hun Sen. But Cambodia’s browbeaten opposition will need much more than rhetorical support from Washington.

Hun Sen’s crackdown in Cambodia has also affected ties with the U.S. To find out more, read Trump, Normally Cozy With Despots, Takes a Hard Line With Cambodia’s Hun Sen for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Learn more about how Prime Minister Hun Sen dismantled the most powerful opposition party and limited the free press to ensure victory in Cambodia’s 2018 “elections,” and so much more in the searchable library of World Politics Review (WPR):

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Editor’s Note: This article was first published in January 2019 and is regularly updated.

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