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Cambodia’s latest crackdown

Posted By on October 16, 2017 @ 11:00

Crackdowns, like protests, gain momentum fast. But the things that set them in motion often have a slow, heavy build-up. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s new move to hang onto power gained force quickly, shocking people after Kem Sokha, the head of the opposition, was arrested on treason charges. And then, at the beginning of this month, the famed Cambodia Daily newspaper shuttered its doors.

Its last headline was: ‘Descent into outright dictatorship’.

The latest news is that another opponent of Hun Sen, Mu Sochua, quickly left Cambodia after threats of arrest. Sochua, a deputy president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), says that half the party’s parliamentarians have fled the country. She’s now calling for sanctions against her country, including visa restrictions on top officials (but not constraints on the exports of garments to markets in the US and EU, on which the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Cambodian workers depend).

There have also been many arrests, ongoing worries by Hun Sen over ‘colour revolutions’, and some truly weird stuff, like accusations levelled at one former Cambodia-based reporter that he is a CIA spy responsible for the fall of Korean president Park Joon-hye.

None of this is exactly new for Cambodia, not least the spook accusations (though Park’s destruction was a creative touch by the pro-government Fresh News Asia). But it suddenly seems like the one-party democracy is taking a further authoritarian turn, brought on by fears about next year’s election.

The 2013 vote delivered the first serious slap to the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in a long time, with the CNRP losing by just 300,000 votes. The by-election in June this year failed to fully deliver on those gains—the CNRP won 44% of the vote rather than the expected 60%, and the CPP won 51%—but it hasn’t assuaged an apparently panicked Hun Sun.

The shooting of critic and political analyst Kem Ley last year and the dozens of arrests of critics were initial signs that things were getting worse. Other activists were tied up in legal or tax cases.

Kem Sokha was arrested in September and faces decades in jail on treason charges for apparently conspiring with Americans to overthrow the government. However, one observer, historian and writer Alphonsus Pettit, has noted that:
[Sokha’s] speech was not dissimilar to the types of things opposition politicians would say anywhere else in the democratic world. The fact that it was said before the elections in 2013, and had gone unnoticed since then, made Hun Sen's reaction all the more unfathomable.

But revolution in general, and colour revolutions in particular, have been much on Hun Sen’s mind. He has Chinese money for a proposed think tank to study them. Analysts concur that the latest crackdown rather misses the point: if the aim is to keep the party in power, more repression probably won't do that. The days are gone when an illiterate populace was happy to see the cyclops strongman in a village handing out rice; they’re younger and understand social media now.

Like in neighbouring Vietnam, social media has significantly changed the playing field in China and Laos. The Cambodian government’s and citizenry’s grasp of the power of social media is neither as sophisticated as Vietnam’s and China’s, nor as basic as Laos’. However, all three communist neighbours are on hand to give tips and, with China’s growing influence (remember ASEAN in 2012?), repression is more likely to be welcomed than condemned.

China certainly doesn’t care about a crackdown unless it threatens to create protests that could target Chinese business or citizens. In fact, it has suggested support for Hun Sen, who’s more used to being attacked by opponents like former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy as Hanoi’s lackey than as Beijing’s latest strongman stooge.

Geng Shuang, a foreign ministry spokesperson, said that China ‘supports the Cambodian government’s efforts to protect national security and stability’.

Should the West ‘do something’? President Trump likely doesn’t care much, and international intervention has varied effect. The West has been ‘doing things’ in Cambodia for decades, and yet the mess remains. International official protests over crackdowns haven’t worked in Vietnam, China or the Philippines.

Sochua’s suggested targeted sanctions offer a better solution than rhetoric or an embargo on a very poor nation. Such a move has been backed by US senators John McCain and Dick Durbin, who recently introduced a Senate resolution that asked the Treasury and State Departments to place senior Cambodian officials on the ‘Specially Designated Nationals’ list, which would prevent them from entering the US.

Will it work? No—at least not in the sense of fixing the situation in one fell swoop. Will it help? Maybe. But then again, Sokha is charged with conspiring with the US to overthrow the Cambodian government, so who is listening to Washington?

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[1] calling for sanctions against her country: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cambodia-politics-exclusive/exclusive-cambodian-opposition-leader-calls-for-sanctions-on-leadership-idUSKCN1C9120

[2] over ‘colour revolutions’: http://www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/cambodias-hun-sen-calls-11032016135231.html

[3] accusations levelled at one former Cambodia-based reporter that he is a CIA spy: http://phsarpp.com/threads/government-aligned-fresh-news-seemingly-a-bludgeon-for-ruling-party.23561/

[4] Fresh News Asia: http://koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2017/09/113_235813.html

[5] shooting of critic and political analyst Kem Ley last year: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-36757370

[6] has noted that: https://international.la-croix.com/news/cambodias-poor-and-youth-bite-back-upsetting-the-political-elite/5855

[7] Analysts concur: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/governments-preoccupation-colour-revolution-reveals-misunderstandings?utm_source=Phnompenh+Post+Main+List&utm_campaign=fad616331b-20170915&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_690109a91f-fad616331b-62151917

[8] cyclops strongman : https://twitter.com/HunSensEye?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

[9] said that: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cambodia-politics/cambodian-leader-gets-chinas-backing-as-west-condemns-crackdown-idUSKCN1BF0A8

[10] resolution: https://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/c4af8f6b-5a50-4d96-a1e1-a88209688a18/mccain-durbin-resolution-re-cambodia-10-3-17.pdf