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Sanctions will not resolve the Hun Sen problem

China gives Cambodia's strongman the option to ignore Western pressure

| Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos
The West should engage Cambodia with more realistic expectations and look to a future beyond Prime Minister Hun Sen.   © Reuters

What should the world do about Hun Sen? For the past year Cambodia's bellicose leader has presided over a fierce political crackdown. His government has sharply curtailed democratic freedoms, dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, and arrested its leader on politically inflated charges of treason.

The clampdown not only ensures victory for Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party at national elections on July 29; it also closes the parenthesis, at least for now, on the country's 27-year experiment in multiparty democracy.

As the crackdown has unfolded, opposition leaders, human rights groups and foreign officials have issued calls for international sanctions to reverse authoritarian Cambodia's slide. At a conference in Canberra in March, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, a key player in the Cambodian peace process of the 1980s, condemned the global reaction to Hun Sen's belligerence as "impossibly limp," repeating an earlier call for the prime minister and his cronies "to be named, shamed, investigated and sanctioned by the international community."

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has announced visa bans on senior officials, and Congress has suspended aid pending the release of political prisoners and the reinstatement of the CNRP. The pressure on Hun Sen is likely to increase if, as seems likely, his government fails to give ground before the election. This week the European Union announced that it will review Cambodia's tariff-free access to the European market, which takes more than 40% of the country's apparel exports. There have been reports that additional "targeted restrictive measures" may be considered following the election.

Superficially, international pressure seems richly deserved. Hun Sen's crackdown has set a fearful pall over Cambodian civic life. It has effectively disenfranchised the 3 million Cambodians who voted for the CNRP in local elections last June. All the while, Cambodian state media has spewed out reports of U.S.-directed "plots" that border on hysteria.

But harsher sanctions are unlikely to advance democracy, and may be counter-productive. To start with, the potentially most damaging sanctions, such as a withdrawal of preferential access to U.S. and EU markets, would likely affect ordinary workers more than the cashed-up Cambodian leadership. Even if this were not the case, they would deepen the spiral of mutual mistrust that has existed between Hun Sen and his foreign critics since the international settlement that established Cambodia's democratic system 27 years ago, which has gradually pushed the country into China's embrace.

The Paris Peace Agreements, signed in October 1991, aimed to end Cambodia's civil war and put the country on a democratic path via elections administered by the United Nations. Signed in the final months of the Cold War, the treaty turned Cambodia into a banner project for the emerging liberal world order and fostered democratic expectations that were wildly out of line with the country's social and political realities. When U.N. peacekeepers arrived in Cambodia in 1992, the country was impoverished, war-scarred, and had virtually no history of democratic politics. Perhaps more importantly, it was ruled by an entrenched quasi-communist party -- today's CPP -- which viewed the West's democratic proclamations with skepticism.

The previous decade had been a squalid one for Western policy in Cambodia. After Vietnam's overthrow of the communist Khmer Rouge in 1979, the U.S. and its Western allies joined China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in embargoing the Cambodian government installed by Hanoi. Instead, they backed a coalition of three armed factions based along the Thai border. These included what was left of the Khmer Rouge which, despite causing the death of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians during its 1975-1979 rule, was pressed back into the fray as part of a joint Chinese-American attempt to bleed Soviet-backed Vietnam and its client in Phnom Penh.

Unsurprisingly, after 12 years on the receiving end of this sordid pact, Hun Sen, a one-time Khmer Rouge commander appointed prime minister in 1985, was inclined to see the coming of democracy not as a new dawn, but simply as a more sophisticated means of removing the CPP from power. He set out to subvert the new democratic system and bend it to his will, while continuing to harbor resentment against Western governments' insistence on holding his government to higher standards than those it accepted or promoted elsewhere.

As self-serving as this argument is, it is hard to deny that Western threats of sanctions against Cambodia jar with the West's engagement with dictatorships and one-party systems in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Brunei, to say nothing of the human rights-abusing governments of Myanmar and the Philippines.

These sins are no alibi for Hun Sen's recent actions. Nevertheless, singling Cambodia out for harsh treatment will deepen Cambodian resentment and harden Hun Sen's desire to free himself from outside "interference," real or imagined. In this respect, his government is not alone. To varying extents, Cambodia's neighbors share its distaste for unsolicited foreign advice on what they view as "internal affairs." This is manifested in the core ASEAN doctrine of "non-interference" which suggests that the bloc would be highly unlikely to support a campaign of Western sanctions against Cambodia.

Even if isolation were possible, sanctions would be a blunt instrument. Take the case of Myanmar. A few years ago, one could have argued that Western sanctions helped to spur economic and political reforms that began under President Thein Sein in 2011, culminating in the sweeping electoral victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy four years later. It is much harder to view the sanctions as a success from the perspective of 2018. By design, the reforms left the Myanmar military's power mostly intact, and did nothing to resolve the root cause of the country's dysfunctional politics -- its troubled ethnic relations, which exploded with a vengeance in the post-reform era.

Myanmar's experience suggests that that while outside pressure can sometimes alter behavior it can never compel belief. Sanctions might force Cambodia's strongman to make superficial reforms, but they can never transform him into a democrat.

It is hard for Western governments to stay silent about recent events in Cambodia. Yet, there are serious questions about the strategic wisdom of continuing to view Cambodia as a special case. Unlike in 1991, the Cambodian government has an alternative superpower patron whose political values align with its own.

Over the past decade, China has grown to become Cambodia's closest foreign friend and ally, displacing the democratic governments that bankrolled Cambodia's reconstruction after Paris Agreements. Between 2011 and 2015 Chinese firms funneled nearly $5 billion in loans and investment to Cambodia, mostly for major infrastructure projects, while making no demands on how Hun Sen runs the country.

Just as important, Beijing has given something Hun Sen something he feels he has never received from the West: legitimacy. As the Cambodian leader said in a speech in February, "The Chinese leaders respect me highly and treat me as an equal."

In some ways, Cambodia's parenthesis is also the world's. A country that was once a symbol of the post-Cold War liberal order has now come to symbolize a world of resurgent sovereignty, in which the liberal consensus is under increasing challenge. In this context, the most prudent Western policy is to remain engaged in Cambodia, with an eye to a future beyond Hun Sen. This means adopting more realistic expectations and recognizing the limits of outside governments' powers to compel the complex and unpredictable process of democratic change.

As the Cold War drew to an end in 1991, democratic governments could afford the luxury of treating Cambodia as a special case. In 2018, doing so will bear an increasing strategic cost.

Sebastian Strangio is a journalist focusing on Southeast Asia. He is author of "Hun Sen's Cambodia" (Yale University Press, 2014) and is working on a new book about the impact of China's rising power in Southeast Asia.

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