Totalitarian push a threat to region

Following the result of the recent Senate election last Sunday, Cambodia is an inch closer to becoming the absolute authoritarian state. When it holds a general election in July, that status will almost certainly be achieved since the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen has already done everything it can to bury its rival party in a political killing field.

While the United States’ aid cut and the European Union’s sanction threats may not help reverse the tide for now, they can serve as reminders to the Hun Sen regime that further harsher economic actions can follow.

Meanwhile, the US, the EU and other foreign governments with influence in the country, including Japan and Australia, should also try to engage more through dialogue with the regime.

On Tuesday, the White House announced that it would suspend aid that supports Cambodia’s military, taxation department and local authorities in its effort to persuade the Hun Sen government to release jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha and restore his opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

The United States’ threat to selectively cut aid to Cambodia might be seen as a symbolic move which may not stop Thailand’s neighbour from descending into a dark age of totalitarian rule. But it does send a strong message to the Hun Sen government that harsher economic consequences could come if his administration refuses to change course. It also reminds the international community that more needs to be done to restore democracy in the country.

Following the US’s announcement of its aid cut, Cambodian’s government representatives remained defiant.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan unashamedly called it a sanction on “the people who love democracy”. On the contrary, the Hun Sun government has made every effort to bury democracy in its own country.

The worst came last year with the dissolution of the CNRP by the Supreme Court at a request of the government. It was made possible by a legislative attack in which CPP MPs last year passed contentious amendments of the law on political parties, making it possible for parties to be dissolved if their leaders are criminally convicted. Then, the CNRP’s leader, Khem Sokha, was arrested and jailed merely over a remark at an event.

After the dissolution, all the MP seats of the CNRP have been redistributed to small parties who are the allies of the CPP. Without the opposition party, whose popularity had grown in recent years, the ruling party of Hun Sen will likely secure victory in the election this July.

The CPP’s latest winning in the Senate election is a result of the CNRP dissolution. Cambodian senators are elected indirectly by local councillors. But the CNRP’s councillors were stripped of their seats following the disbanding of their party. And the seats were distributed to the CPP and the small parties.

As if that is not bad enough, Hun Sen has tried to consolidate his grip on power through appointments of his family members to senior posts.

On Friday, his eldest son was appointed to joint chief of staff of Cambodia’s armed forces. In January, his son-in-law became deputy national police chief, while his youngest son was promoted to the rank of colonel in his father’s bodyguard unit a month earlier.

Hun Sen’s crackdown on his political rivals, with support from the judicial branch, has put his country on the verge of becoming a one-party state like China or its neighbours, Laos and Vietnam.

As Cambodia has developed closer relations with China, one of its largest economic partners, the Cambodian prime minister may believe that Western aid is no longer necessary for his country. But he should not be too complacent over the country’s dependence on military assistance and investment from China.

True, trade between Cambodia and China has increased significantly over the past several years, with direct foreign investment from China reaching US$ 5.1 billion in 2016.

While China is the largest donor in the country, 60% of Cambodia exports go the West. If both the US and the EU impose trade sanctions on the Southeast Asian nation, other countries are likely to follow suit and Cambodia will get hurt.

Before going down that road, the US, the EU and other foreign governments need to explore possibilities to enter into dialogue with the Hun Sen regime.

A series of onslaughts on the opposition party has paved the way for Hun Sen to achieve his vow to rule for another decade. Cambodia’s transition to a one-party state will not only be the final nail in the coffin of the country’s democracy, it will also pose a threat to the development of, or return to, democracy in the region, which has been waning, particularly since the coup in Thailand.