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Politics

Sebastian Strangio: Cambodia's troubling return to de facto one-party rule

China-backed authoritarianism is on the rise in Asia as the US retreats

Police officers stand guard at the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh on Nov. 16 during a hearing prior to the ruling to dissolve the main opposition party.   © Reuters

With the stroke of a judge's pen, political opposition to Cambodia's long-ruling prime minister, Hun Sen, has effectively ceased to exist. On Nov. 16, the country's Supreme Court did what most observers expected and ordered the dissolution of the popular Cambodia National Rescue Party, two months after the arrest of its leader, Kem Sokha, on treason charges. The court also handed out five-year political bans to 118 leading CNRP members.

The ruling, which will see the CNRP stripped of its seats in the National Assembly, was the culmination of a fluctuating crackdown that escalated sharply with Sokha's arrest in the early hours of Sept. 3. He has since been accused of conspiring with the U.S. government to overthrow Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party, which has ruled Cambodia since 1979.

The elimination of the CNRP is just the latest setback for democracy in Southeast Asia and ensures that the CPP will run virtually unopposed in national elections scheduled for July 2018. Hun Sen clearly fears a repeat of the 2013 election, when the CNRP scored significant gains.

More unnerving for the 65-year-old leader were the demonstrations that followed the election, in which tens of thousands of CNRP supporters rallied in the streets to protest alleged voter fraud.The sight of crowds of opposition supporters made the CPP highly paranoid of a possible "color revolution" aimed at ousting it from power. And indeed, the recent crackdown has been justified as a preemptive strike against a "plot" that includes the CNRP, civil society groups, labor leaders and various U.S.-funded organizations.

In a broader historical context, the elimination of the CNRP marks the final blow in Hun Sen's 25-year-long campaign to repudiate the international settlement that created Cambodia's democratic institutions in 1991. Among other aims, the Paris Peace Agreements were intended to end the country's civil war, which had been raging since Vietnam's overthrow of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, and introduce free elections. Followed by a United Nations peacekeeping mission in 1992-1993, the treaty made Cambodia an effective ward of the international community, a real-world laboratory for the transplanting of democratic institutions into the damaged tissue of a nation then emerging from decades of war and political violence.

While the U.N. intervention came wrapped in the liberal triumphalism of the early post-Cold War years, Hun Sen's party never accepted it as legitimate. Pushed to sign the treaty by their Soviet and Vietnamese patrons, CPP leaders resented having to accept former wartime enemies as legitimate democratic opponents. They also bristled at the perceived hypocrisy of Western powers, including the U.S., which had indirectly backed the ousted remnants of the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnam-backed CPP government throughout the 1980s, and then turned around to lecture it about the importance of democracy and accountability.

The CPP saw no reason to give up power and immediately set about wresting control of these new democratic institutions.

CREEPING DICTATORSHIP For years, Hun Sen was forced to work within the system, using force and threats to maintain control, while loosening things periodically to ensure a continued flow of Western development aid. Only recently has he had the power to fully repudiate the system, and the main reason for this has been the increasing support of China.

Over the past 15 years, Beijing has risen to become Cambodia's chief international friend and ally. Between 2011 and 2015, Chinese companies funneled nearly $5 billion in loans and investment to Cambodia, much of which has gone toward the construction of roads, bridges, hydropower dams and electrical transmission infrastructure. At the same time China has become Cambodia's leading trade partner. Bilateral trade topped $5 billion in 2016, made up mostly of Chinese exports to Cambodia, while Chinese loans and grants accounted for more than a third of the $732 million that Cambodia received in bilateral aid last year. Strong backing from China, in tandem with increased domestic tax receipts, has made Hun Sen less dependent on Western support, and hence more able to finally settle his accounts with democratic forces that he has always viewed as illegitimate.

In many ways, the collapse of the international democratic experiment in Cambodia encapsulates the changing regional order in Southeast Asia, offering a clue to the puzzling question of why, despite China's overbearing attitude and bullying assertion of claims in the South China Sea, so many Southeast Asian governments seem to be embracing it.

In the past few years, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Myanmar have all tilted in the direction of Beijing. The common theme in each case is that the swing has been preceded or furthered by Western, especially American, criticism about these countries' deteriorating human rights situations.

This should not come as a surprise. From the vantage point of 2017, it is easy to forget how profoundly Southeast Asian political cultures have been shaped by the legacies of anti-colonial nationalism, something that is true of even Thailand, which was never colonized by Western powers. Rightly or wrongly, this makes these governments highly sensitive to being told what to do by Western democracies that are themselves often inconsistent in their adherence to human rights norms.

A similar sentiment also exists among the Chinese leadership, which seeks to expunge China's "century of humiliation" at the hands of Western imperial powers.

Southeast Asian nations harbor many fears and suspicions of their giant northern neighbor, but one place where their respective ruling elites find common ground, however self-interestedly, is in their desire to defend their nations' sovereignty from perceived outside "interference." And as these cases show, relief from Western diplomatic pressure is fast becoming one of China's most popular service exports.

While defending human rights and democratic principles should be a part of any robust U.S. policy, it is becoming increasingly tricky to achieve this while also building solid relationships with prickly governments in the region.

This is a reality worth bearing in mind as American policymakers decide how to respond to Cambodia's reversion to de facto one-party rule. With Washington now threatening to introduce visa bans and other economic sanctions on the Cambodian leadership, the U.S. would do well to heed the most likely consequence: the cementing of Hun Sen's Chinese embrace.

Sebastian Strangio is a journalist focusing on Southeast Asia and the author of "Hun Sen's Cambodia" (Yale University Press, 2014).

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