Cambodia’s pivot to China heralds a new era of authoritarianism

Cambodia’s pivot to China heralds a new era of authoritarianism

Increasing Chinese influence is casting a shadow over Cambodia’s political freedoms. On the backdrop of the elections, Nathan Paul explores how the result is a great deal of leeway for Prime Minister Hun Sen to suffocate dissent and criticism, and to strengthen his own power.

The month of May saw the last remaining bastion of press freedom in Cambodia wither and all but die. The Phnom Penh Post, the only fully independent newspaper left in Cambodia, saw a mass exodus of its editorial staff following a controversial takeover. Resignations included the managing editor, the web editor and a number of senior journalists following the dismissal of editor-in-chief Kay Kimsong.

This is just the latest in a series of attempts to undermine free press in Cambodia, part of a wider effort by Prime Minister Hun Sen to dismantle democratic processes in the country. There are, in fact, three overlapping targets in this campaign: the press, political opposition, and any NGOs that champion human rights in ways that are critical of, or run counter to, government policy and ambitions.

Historically, Hun Sen reluctantly tolerated these factions as a condition of Western donations and investment. However, as Phnom Penh increasingly aligns itself with China – it accounts for 70% of total industrial investment in the country – and moves away from the EU and US, the Prime Minister has become increasingly brazen in his attacks, stating openly that Chinese money does not come with the same demands and obligations.

Radio Silence

Attacks on press freedom and on media companies with Western ownership, affiliations or funding in particular, have intensified over the past twelve months, as Cambodia began preparations for its general election in July.

English-language publication The Cambodia Daily, which frequently wrote stories critical of the Cambodian government, was shut down in September 2017 over a controversial tax bill. The previous month, the Cambodian government closed 15 independent radio stations, including the Phnom Penh-based Moha Nokor. This station hosted shows produced by Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and the (now non-existent) Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), Hun Sen’s only genuine opposition at the time.

In May 2018, Bill Clough, the Australian owner of the Phnom Penh Post, sold the paper to Malaysian businessman Sivakumar S. Ganapathy for an undisclosed fee, in a move that some former staff members believe was coerced by the government in return for settling a similarly exorbitant tax bill. Both Clough and Ganapathy emphasised that the Post would retain editorial independence, but days later, editor Kimsong was fired for refusing to take down an article detailing the new owner’s ties to both the Malaysian government and Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen.

Ganapathy is the managing director of the Malaysia-based Asia PR, which lists “Cambodia and Hun Sen’s entry into the Government seat” as a former “project”. Ganapathy’s personal biography also states that he currently “leads the Asia PR team in managing ‘covert operations’ for our clients.”

Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, referred to the deal as a “staggering blow to press freedom”.

The end of opposition

Hun Sen not only shut down his opposition’s mouthpieces; he effectively shut down opposition itself.

Former leader of the CNRP, Sam Rainsy, who claimed that China enables human rights abuses in Cambodia by providing no-strings attached loans to the Kingdom, has been in political exile since 2015 – and is now barred from re-entering the country at all. The same month as the the Cambodia Daily shut down, Rainsy’s successor Kem Sokha was arrested on allegations of treason.

Tellingly, Hun Sen framed this crackdown on opposition not only as a domestic political issue, but also as a necessary step to protect Cambodia against an existential threat. It resembles an attempt to resuscitate Khmer Rouge-era paranoia about Western infiltrators seeking to undermine the country’s identity and prosperity from within. Leading media outlet Fresh News, which he owns, accused Sokha of conspiring with the United States via a combination of Western freelance journalists (labelled as foreign spies) and NGOs with Western affiliations (such as the Cambodian Center for Human Rights) in order to bring down his regime. Sokha is still under arrest.

Then, in November 2017, the Supreme Court of Cambodia dissolved the CNRP altogether,. accusing it of trying to topple the government. This has, in effect, left Cambodia with no serious political opposition in the upcoming July elections. Hun Sen is now all but guaranteed to continue his 33 year rule unchallenged.

Biting the hand that (used to) feed you

Hun Sen also directs attacks against NGOs that oppose his actions. Last year, for the first time since 2001, the Cambodian government expelled an NGO and its foreign staff from the country. The National Democratic Institute, which receives funds by the National Endowment for Democracy, USAid and the US State Department, and works to strengthen democratic institutions around the world was targeted. Hun Sen also threatened the closure of the Cambodian Center For Human Rights (CCHR), but held back after a public outcry.

The Cambodian PM has responded to international condemnation of his actions by challenging the United States and other western countries to withdraw their aid from Cambodia. He has done this while citing confidence in continued support from China. The US responded, as did the EU, by cutting their funding for the upcoming 2018 elections. It has since imposed sanctions and visa bans on Cambodian government officials while also reducing its foreign aid assistance.

This represents a stark shift in loyalties and perspective by the Prime Minister, who in the 1980s decried China as “the root of all evil”, but by 2016 was confident enough in his new, powerful ally to warn Western donors who threatened to reduce aid that “China has never made a threat to Cambodia, and has never ordered Cambodia to do something.” His tone has become no more conciliatory since, even despite US Senator Lindsey Graham pushing for further sanctions on the grounds that “democracy is dead in Cambodia,” and that China is trying to “colonize” the nation.

Hun Sen’s arrogance was well-founded. following the withdrawal of financial support for the upcoming elections by the EU and US, China stepped up, with Beijing pledging to donate more than 30 kinds of equipment for the July election, including 60,000 polling booths and 15,000 ballot boxes. Historically, Chinese assistance has focused on developing infrastructure in Cambodia, while the US has funded support for the democratic process – respective foci that make sense given the two nations’ stated international priorities. China’s assumption of responsibility for electoral aid represents a troubling development.

A notch on the belt

“Basically what you are now seeing is the end of a western-dominated era in Cambodian nation building and politics,” says political analyst Ou Virak, who maintains that the US’s “diminishing voice on human rights and democratic freedoms” combined with “China’s largesse and influence” is precisely what ultimately emboldened the CPP to clamp down on political and press freedom and destroy their opposition.

While there’s no doubt that Western influence in Cambodia has been supplanted by China’s, it’s less clear what China will ultimately demand in return. Cambodia is key to China’s ambitious belt and road initiative and already acts as a mouthpiece within ASEAN for Chinese interests, such as those related to the highly contentious South China Sea. For now, these strings have proved far more acceptable than the West’s to a leader primarily concerned with consolidating power and silencing dissent. It seems likely that this trend will only strengthen into the future.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Nathan Paul Southern

Nathan Paul Southern is a Scottish security analyst and investigative reporter. He holds a BA in Criminology from Caledonian University, a law degree from the University of Strathclyde and and MSc in Global Security from the University of Glasgow. His main research areas focus on non-state actors, geopolitical and maritime security in Asia, and Chinese expansionism.