PHENOM PENH – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, an institution at the helm of the small impoverished Southeast Asian country, faces a slow erosion of support. Opposition parties are building a stronger base ahead of general elections next year.
But the man in power since 1985 isn’t having any of that. Figures in non-ruling parties “languished behind bars” before local elections June 4, New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch says. On Sept. 3 Kem Sokha, president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, was arrested and charged with treason over a suspected role in a suspected plot to depose the PM. He was plotting with the U.S. government, Hun Sen’s people say. Sokha had nurtured relations with the United States since 1993, the Cambodian foreign ministry said in an English-language statement Sept. 6, and “confessed clearly in (a video) that the United States told him what to do from the beginning.”
But the Cambodia and the United States have diplomatic relations. The mostly agricultural Mekong Delta country is developing a $5 billion garment industry that depends largely on the U.S. market. And can Washington, with so many bigger problems in bigger countries, really care who wins Cambodian elections? The U.S. ambassador in Phnom Penh calls claims of a plot “baseless.”
Hun Sen can flame the U.S. with little risk. He’s done that since the 1970s and often with cause. Even if he accuses Washington of something baseless, he can sell the idea because of the checkered history of U.S.-Cambodian relations.
Hun Sen resents U.S. support for “non-communist” resistance in the 1970s, says Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor at The University of New South Wales in Australia. The Vietnam War had spilled across the Vietnam-Cambodia border in those years and U.S. bombing of the Cambodian countryside increased from 1970 through 1973, killing some 150,000 Cambodians, per this study. The Communist-inspired Khmer Rouge used that massacre as “recruitment propaganda” and “as an excuse for their brutal, radical policies,” the study says. That’s a reference to the deadly Pol Pot regime. U.S. troops were also supporting the south Vietnamese, not the Vietnam’s Communist Viet Cong that eventually won over there and allied with the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. Hun Sen was a Khmer Rouge’s commander.
After Hun Sen sought in 1997 to oust his first prime minister during a factional dispute, the United States suspended official aid to Cambodia and has channeled it largely through NGOs since then, further irritating the man at the top.
Fast forward to 2017 and you can see where Hun Sen is coming from. “There is a conspiracy within the ruling elites that the U.S. is behind the opposition party in planning a ‘color revolution,’” says Vannarith Chheang, a Cambodian-born Southeast Asia consultant at the Nippon Foundation charity. “The government has become more sensitive to the U.S. intervention in Cambodian domestic affairs and vocal in attacking the U.S.’s behavior.”
Finger-pointing at Washington runs little risk now because U.S. President Donald Trump doesn’t see Cambodia as a priority, Thayer says. “There is no real gamble about taking on the U.S. at this time as the Trump Administration has its hands full,” he says in a paper released to the media Sept. 4. “The U.S. Mission in Phnom Penh has been doing much of the push back, but without senior officials in office at the Department State they are undermanned.”
And then there’s China. The country that supported the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s eagerly backs Hun Sen now. It sometimes looks to his country for support when dealing with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc, which includes not-so-pro-China countries such as modern Vietnam. Cambodia in turn gets trade, investment and help with infrastructure development. Two-way trade reached $4.8 billion last year, up by about $200 million from 2015, and China has extended $4.2 billion in grants and loans, according to the Open Development Cambodia website.
“The U.S. has played an important role in promoting socio-economic development through the provision of development assistance,” Chheang says. “However, in the eyes of the Cambodian ruling elites, China is the most important economic and strategic partner. There is no condition attached to Chinese aid.”
By Ralph Jennings