Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Electioneering in Cambodia: War debt and China’s favour

Tough talk with the US on war debt and the budding new relationship with China are indicative of an unpopular leader steeling for elections.

Photo: Getty Images/Bloomberg
Photo: Getty Images/Bloomberg
Published 12 Apr 2017   Follow @elliotbrennan

Cambodia's long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen made headlines earlier this month when he admonished the US over suggestions Cambodia should pay back its $500 million in war debt – much of which likely fed the bloody war rather than the people. The ensuing debate worked splendidly in Hun Sen's favour, casting Cambodia as a victim, stirring nationalism and resurrected debate on a war that he used to forge his own power – all ahead of hotly contested elections.  

Over the past two months, the string of 'discoveries' of unexploded US ordinance in Cambodia have been relentless. Days before US President Donald Trump's inauguration, the Cambodian government announced two unexploded US barrel bombs containing CS gas, a component of tear gas, had been discovered at a pagoda. Despite being known to authorities since 2013, the authorities announced the area would have to be evacuated (a requirement later mothballed). Reports (mostly carried by pro-government outlets) of other bomb discoveries by authorities have followed (including, for example, reports on 2 February, 3 March, 8 March14 March, 23 March, and 27 March). To cap it off, late last month a family of elephants – photogenic baby included –  were filmed stuck in a mud-filled bomb crater (later widened by locals to store water). Most of these stories contained embellished elements, demonstrated by the actual clean-up becoming incidental to the story. Indeed, the willing politicisation of the issue has served a larger purpose for the Hun Sen government.

In February, US Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt told reporters that 'from time to time, for reasons I don't think that we really fully understand, the Cambodian government feels the need to publicly criticise the United States…I think that reflects some kind of political dynamic inside of Cambodia'.

The rebukes from Phnom Penh have coincided with warming Cambodia-China relations. In the latest setback for the US, last week the US Embassy announced that Cambodia had requested that its specialist US Navy Mobile Construction Battalion, which is conducting humanitarian work, leave the country. It follows the suspension in January of the annual Angkor Sentinel US-Cambodia military exercise – only a month after the joint China-Cambodia military exercise Golden Dragon 2016 (somewhat ominously, one of the reasons given for scrapping the exercises by Defence Minister Chhum Socheat was that Cambodia needed 'forces to maintain security during the local elections in 2017').

From strength to strength

Perhaps what the furore demonstrates is just how comfortable Hun Sen appears to be in his increasingly devoted relationship with China. The debt dispute between Cambodia and the US certainly plays to Beijing's favour. Last year, China wrote off Cambodia's $89 million debt – it forgave a far smaller Khmer Rouge-era $4 million debt in 2010. As Hun Sen tests the new Trump administration, Cambodia-China relations are booming.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, where Xi Jinping was the keynote speaker and the first Chinese president to address the meeting, Hun Sen lauded Belt and Road projects and Chinese investments in Cambodia. His warmth followed the first official visit of Xi to Phnom Penh in October, where the two leaders signed a host of bilateral deals.

Last year, when European aid donors criticised Cambodia's worsening human rights situation, Hun Sen lashed out at the 'threats', saying that 'China has never made a threat to Cambodia and has never ordered Cambodia to do something'.

For China, success in Cambodia may help it sell its ambitious Belt and Road projects to other ASEAN states – at a minimum it guarantees a loyal voice to filibuster debate and a break in consensus on issues such as the South China Sea disputes in ASEAN. For its part Cambodia will soon find that having only one friend makes getting a good deal much tougher.

Electioneering with the military in hand

All this posturing has at its root the upcoming elections. Rallying the country for common nationalist causes (such as unexploded ordinance and war debt) should support Hun Sen's campaigns in the communal elections in June and the general election in 2018.

The political landscape has changed since Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party won elections in 2013. Barred from running, Minority leader Sam Rainsy resigned from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in February. Kem Sokha, previously deputy leader, will now head up the opposition.

Some analysts suggest that Kem Sokha's elevation to lead the CNRP could pose a more robust threat to Hun Sen's rule in the long run. As respected analyst Ou Virak noted, Cambodians deserved better than the opposition led by Sam Rainsy; a 'changing of the guard' at the helm of both parties was needed.

Regardless of the change, the same tactics of intimidation are likely to continue (if not increase in frequency) as the election nears. In 2015, Hun Sen reminded government critics on Facebook of his ability to trace online dissent: 'if I want to get to you, I need less than seven hours'. Hun Sen's government has also urged foreign news outlets in Cambodia to 'reconsider' how they report, citing the Trump Administration's criticisms of the media. Last year's political assassination of Kem Ley, a vocal critic of Hun Sen, as well as the imprisonment of other political campaigners (27 others, according to the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights) will quieten many who would otherwise vocally support the opposition.

In the rural communities, issues such as increasing inequality, land grabs and corruption should favour the opposition in the communal elections, as will the murder of Kem Ley. For others, increasing lawlessness (described by the Cambodia Daily as a choice between mob justice or corrupt courts) will have some looking for change. Of biggest concern for Hun Sen is how to appease the third of Cambodian voters who are under 30 – a lasting consequence of the deadly reign of the Khmer Rouge. Nationalism may prove the path of least resistance.

As Milton Osborne noted last year, the exile of Sam Rainsy was an indication that 'Hun Sen and his party are ready to take all actions that they see as necessary to stay in office'. In February this year, Hun Sen suggested military action if he loses the election: 'some individuals… predicted that in 2018 they could win, and if we don't hand over power to them, they will crush us. How can this happen if the troops are in my hand?'

Tough talk with the US on war debt and the budding new relationship with China are indicative of an unpopular leader steeling for elections – and preparing for the worst.

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