The threat posed by Cambodia’s new strongman
15 Apr 2024|

Although 2024 is being heralded as a banner year for elections, with dozens of countries, representing more than half the global population, holding polls, for some it marks the nadir of democracy. Cambodia is one such case.  

Last July, after nearly 40 years in power, then-Prime Minister Hun Sen said he would transfer power to his eldest son, Hun Manet. The hereditary succession was preceded by national elections that Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claimed to have won by a landslide. The United States said the vote was ‘neither free nor fair’, while European Union officials said it was ‘conducted in a restricted political and civic space.’ Since then, however, the international community has more or less accepted Cambodia’s dynastic autocracy.  

Like his father before him, Hun Manet has sought to assert control over Cambodians by interfering in their daily lives. In March, for example, the new prime minister banned musical vehicle horns, which, as videos on social media have shown, encourage people to dance on the streets. Authorities fear that such public displays of joy could cause civil unrest.  

Cambodians have suffered under iron-fisted rule for decades, a trajectory that began with Hun Sen’s ascent to power in 1985. After serving as a middle-ranking officer in the Khmer Rouge, he defected to Vietnam, which installed a new government after invading Cambodia in 1979. First as foreign minister and then as prime minister, Hun Sen worked to strengthen his grip on a country exhausted by war and decimated by the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal rule, which murdered up to two million people (including my parents).  

When the first democratic elections were held in May 1993, under the watch of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, Hun Sen refused to cede power, even though the CPP finished second, and he became one of two prime ministers under a power-sharing agreement. In a violent coup in 1997, Hun Sen deposed his co-prime minister and eliminated others who posed a threat to his rule. He went on to reintegrate hundreds of Khmer Rouge soldiers into Cambodian society, with many swapping their guerrilla garb for military uniforms as part of what he called a win-win strategy. 

Under the pretext of maintaining stability, Hun Sen’s government jailed and killed opposition activists, journalists, and trade unionists while aligning with China to extend its hold on power. Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping personally congratulated Hun Sen on ‘winning’ the rigged elections. Moreover, Cambodia’s constitutional monarch, Norodom Sihamoni, refused to defy Hun Sen. The king often strategically absents himself from the country to avoid signing controversial legislation, allowing the president of the Senate to sign on his behalf.  

The family dynasty and its supporters left nothing to chance ahead of Hun Manet’s accession in August 2023. In addition to selecting Hun family loyalists as parliamentary candidates, the regime barred the opposition Candlelight Party from contesting last year’s elections and viciously attacked its members. The government thus continued its systematic repression of the political opposition: those who stay in the country are routinely jailed, often on trumped-up technicalities and accusations of fraud, while those living abroad have been sentenced in absentia to decades of imprisonment.  

Since taking office, Hun Manet has strengthened the stranglehold on independent media that his father initiated by surveilling journalists and threatening to close outlets that criticize the regime. Most worryingly, he has continued to court China, meeting with Xi in September. This suggests that his government, with the support of a powerful ally, will clamp down harder on democratic rights. The deployment of mass surveillance in major cities, including Phnom Penh, and internet shutdowns further underscore Hun Manet’s determination to maintain control.  

The large influx of Chinese money and manpower into Cambodia also threatens to stoke tensions with Vietnam. Hun Manet’s government dances to all tunes. He congratulated Putin on his ‘landslide’ re-election, and he has finalized plans for the controversial, China-financed Funan Techo canal, which would allow Cambodia to bypass Vietnam for its international trade and thus reduce its reliance on its neighbor. The project, together with the recent Chinese-funded upgrade of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, highlights China’s growing military and economic influence.  

Meanwhile, Hun Manet has attempted to curry favor with the international community. In a speech at the most recent UN General Assembly, he claimed that Cambodia’s ‘democratic building process has steadily advanced.’ So far, the West has given Hun Manet the benefit of the doubt. But US and European policymakers must wake up. For all their talk of countering a rising China, their passive acceptance of the Cambodian prime minister has given his government carte blanche to bulldoze what remains of the country’s fledgling democracy while allowing China to expand its reach in Southeast Asia. 

The US government, in particular, has numerous tools—including the Cambodia Democracy Act, the Global Magnitsky Act, and, if it passes, the proposed Transnational Repression Policy Act—that it could use to apply pressure on Hun Manet’s regime and hold it accountable for its abuses. These targeted sanctions should be coordinated with countries with similar legislation. American officials can and should bring the Hun family dynasty to heel by imposing sanctions on those who are undermining democracy and engaging in corruption. Stability in the region depends on it.