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One-party Cambodia's grim message

China-backed authoritarianism on the rise as US retreats

| China
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 last election in 2013, when the CNRP scored significant gains. More unnerving for the 65-year-old leader, who has run Cambodia since 1985, were the mass street demonstrations that followed the election in which tens of thousands of CNRP supporters rallied in the streets to protest alleged voter fraud.

Coming on the heels of the "Arab Spring" uprisings in the Middle East, 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 broadcasters and nongovernment 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 wrestling control of these new democratic institutions. This result was a holographic rendering of democracy, what political scientist Steve Heder has referred to as an "involuted facade state," in which democratic forms concealed a regime based on force, predation and invisible flows of patronage.

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. It is only recently that he has 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 firms 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.

Cambodia may be easily the region's most China-friendly government (along with communist-run Laos), but it is far from alone. 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.

In Thailand, democracy disappeared altogether when Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power in a 2014 coup, leading to a cooling of relations between Washington and its oldest ally in Southeast Asia. In the Philippines, another close U.S. ally, President Rodrigo Duterte has embraced Beijing as his government has come under fierce international attack over its bloody "war on drugs."

Prime Minister Najib Razak's government in Malaysia has also cozied up to China in the wake of the spectacular implosion of the state development fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad. As Najib's international reputation has plunged, Chinese state companies have bought up several pieces of the doomed 1MDB fund, while Kuala Lumpur has signed a spate of Chinese infrastructure megadeals including railways, deep-sea ports and industrial parks.

Finally, there is the sad case of Myanmar, where the military launched a fierce campaign of violence and ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya minority in the west of the country, driving some 700,000 people over the border into Bangladesh since late 2016. As international condemnation has mounted, and talk has turned to the reintroduction of economic sanctions lifted after political reforms were introduced in 2011, the government has again found a willing friend in China, which has used its clout in the U.N. to safeguard Naypyitaw from international pressure.

Colonial resentments

None of this should 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, even at the apogee of its power under President Xi Jinping, clings to an aggrieved nationalism that 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.

The love affairs between these governments and China are unlikely to last forever. Fear and suspicion of China are deeply ingrained across Southeast Asia, and most countries there is a strong desire for an American presence to counterbalance the Chinese rise. In a recent conversation, Bilahari Kausikan, Singapore's outspoken ambassador-at-large, told me that Southeast Asia would always be the strategic equivalent of jelly, slipping through the hands of any outside power seeking to grasp it.

Still, recent events across the region suggest the gradual arrival of what three scholars, David P. Fidler, Sun Won Kim and Sumit Ganguly, have dubbed "Eastphalia" -- an Asian order of resurgent state sovereignty, led by the growing clout of powers like China and India. For the U.S., China's ascendance has resulted in increasing tensions between the pursuit of American interests and American values in Southeast Asia.

While defending human rights and democratic principles should be a part of any robust U.S. policy toward the region, 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. He is author of"Hun Sen's Cambodia" (Yale University Press, 2014) and is currently working on a new book about the effects of China's rise in Southeast Asia.

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