Friday, September 8, 2017

Cambodia’s Descent into Dictatorship

Background Briefing:
Cambodia’s Descent into
Dictatorship: Response by the
International Community
Carlyle A. Thayer
September 6, 2017
We are preparing a report on the international community factor in Cambodia's
current descent into dictatorship. We request your assessment of the following issue:
Q1. What is your read on the statement by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng
Shuang that China “has always supported Cambodia in following the development
part suited to its national conditions and the Cambodian government's effort to
uphold national security and stability.” How would Hun Sen interpret this?
ANSWER: Hun Sen would interpret this statement as a sign of China’s support for
Cambodia and non-interference in its internal affairs. After the 2013 national elections
Hun Sen made the Chinese Embassy his first port of call. My interpretation of what
transpired is as follows. Hun Sen sought reassurances of continued Chinese support at
a time of domestic unrest. He got this reassurance but China made it clear they didn’t
want their economic and commercial interests to be affected by the unrest. The
message was subtle but clear. China will support Hun Sen under these conditions but
if Hun Sen cannot protect Chinese interests China will support a CPP [Cambodian
People’s Party] leader who can. Hun Sen got the message loud and clear.
Q2. In what ways does the umbrella of China's support protect Cambodia from fallout
from the government’s decision to arrest the opposition leader for treason and
implicating the US in the "plot"?
ANSWER: China will pick up the pieces if the U.S. or other donor countries resort to
sanctions or punitive actions against Cambodia. In the past when the U.S. has
suspended the supply of military vehicles, China has stepped in and provided its own
vehicles. Hun Sen can rest assured that China will provide material and financial
support in the event punitive action is taken.
China opportunistically will restate its adherence to the principle of non-interference
in Cambodia’s internal affairs. Hun Sen and the CPP regime will be insulated to a
certain extent from external pressures.
At the worst period in U.S.-Cambodia relations, following the 1997 coup, the U.S.
channeled its aid through NGOs so as not to hurt the Cambodian people. It is doubtful
the U.S. under the Trump Administration would invest much in pushing back against
Hun Sen. The call will be made by Secretary Rex Tillerson and his hands appear full at
Thayer Consultancy
ABN # 65 648 097 123
the moment, besides the State Department is woefully understaffed and aid cuts are
forecast. This gives the U.S. less leverage.
Q3. Though many Western countries have lost significant influence in Cambodia,
correlating with a drop in their political will to engage, Japan retains the second largest
development fund footprint and the second largest FDI [foreign direct investment] in
Cambodia. It has invested time and resources in Cambodia’s elections. It, however,
has stayed silent only offering a statement saying it was “watching the situation with
great interest.”
ANSWER: Japan, as a liberal democracy, joined with other likeminded states to
support the UNTAC [United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia] process and
the new Constitution that decreed Cambodia was a liberal democracy. Japan will likely
take its lead from other likeminded countries such Australia, the United States and
other democratic donor countries.
Japan has long been motivated to counter China’s rising influence in Cambodia and
Japanese investment and overseas development assistance was meant to reinforce
the activities of its partners. Japan also takes a long-range view and will wait and see
how current developments will impact on free and fair national elections next year.
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Cambodia’s Descent into Dictatorship:
Response by the International Community,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief,
September 6, 2017. All background briefs are posted on (search for
Thayer). To remove yourself from the mailing list type, UNSUBSCRIBE in the Subject
heading and hit the Reply key.
Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

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