Invoking Trump, Cambodian leader dismantles the country’s democracy

For both Trump and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, "politics is a means to an end."

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen prepares to deliver a speech during a factory visit outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 30, 2017. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen prepares to deliver a speech during a factory visit outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 30, 2017. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — In the past few months, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and the party he has led for 32 years have overseen an unprecedented attack on the country’s democracy — including the shutdown of newspapers and radio stations and the arrest of an opposition leader — all while invoking President Donald Trump to defend such actions. 

Meanwhile, the State Department issued a statement Monday on the rapid efforts of the current government to dissolve the opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), stating that it is “deeply concerned” with the development. The department also renewed calls for the release of CNRP leader Kem Sokha, who was charged with treason last month after the Cambodian government accused him of conspiring to overthrow they country’s leaders. Following Sokha’s arrest, senior CNRP officials fled the country.

Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen — Lord Prime Minister and Supreme Military Commander, as he likes to be called — and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have launched a concerted and wide-ranging effort to remain in power following large gains by CNRP in the June local elections. In September, Hun Sen vowed to stay in power for 10 more years, and subsequent efforts to dissolve the CNRP before next year’s national elections will likely make his promise a reality.

Hun Sen’s quest for power has led to multiple crackdowns on the country’s democracy. Last month, the government ordered the closure of the English-language Cambodia Daily, after claims that the paper had not paid millions of dollars in taxes. In August, the courts charged two of the paper’s journalists with “incitement” and shut down 15 radio stations, including the U.S.-supported Radio Free Asia. It also closed the offices of the non-profit National Democratic Institute (NDI), which works to support democratic institutions throughout the world.

In response to the local media’s critical reporting on Cambodia’s notorious human rights record in February, Hun Sen said of journalists that “Donald Trump understands that they are an anarchic group.” His comments were later posted to his active Facebook page, from where he live streams TV shows, makes decrees on political topics, and posts selfies from the golf course.

In October, Hun Sen promoted his 35-year-old son Hun Manith to lieutenant general in the Royal Cambodian Armed forces. Many of the prime minister’s other children hold positions of power, including Lieutenant General Hun Manet, the first Cambodian to graduate from West Point; Hun Many, a politician; and his daughter Hun Mana, who owns numerous influential businesses and media outlets.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan deflected questions about the promotion with classic whataboutism.

“When Donald Trump became president, did he ask all his children to resign from all their businesses and not promote them to have any roles?” he asked the Phnom Penh Post.

“It’s use whatever argument suits you when the spirit moves you,” Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, told ThinkProgress in an email. “It’s naked opportunism, which is also Trump’s mantra. They have teams of evil geniuses working day and night on figuring out some twisted logic.”

While citing Trump, the Cambodian government has simultaneously been increasingly critical of the United States and its perceived meddling in Cambodian affairs. The CPP’s animosity toward the United States stretches back decades, when the United States and other countries insisted that the Khmer Rouge (defeated in 1979 following an invasion by Vietnam and former Khmer Rouge soldiers) should represent Cambodia at the United Nations, rather than the Hanoi-backed government in Phnom Penh. This changed after the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, but U.S. assistance to Cambodia has often come with demands for democratic change, transparency, and accountability.

The lingering issue of U.S. demands for Cambodia to repay its $500 million war debt, accrued in the fight in the early 1970s against the Khmer Rouge, has again been raised as proof of U.S. interference.

“[T]he US likes to be provocative; it provoked war, killed, and now is demanding debt from me,” the Phnom Penh Post reported Hun Sen saying in March.

“I have not sent an official letter to Trump asking him to cancel the debt … They brought bombs and dropped them on Cambodia and [now] demand Cambodian people to pay,” Hun Sen said.

Such comments have been repeated in recent weeks, as officials announced the discovery of unexploded chemical bombs from that era.

While there are similarities between Trump and Hun Sen, Ear said the government’s crackdown on media, opposition groups, and critics was inspired by China.

“China is clearly the model and media freedom is severely restricted there along with the internet,” Ear said. “[Cambodian authorities] will continue to haul whomever into court for saying this or that on Facebook. And the courts will oblige as they know who’s the boss and what’s good for them.”

As Cambodia moves closer towards China as an ally and benefactor, Hun Sen’s criticism of the United States has increased. In April, the government ended the long-running U.S Naval Seabees program, a few months after joint military drills were axed. China has since filled the void, as the two nations strengthen their military ties and hold joint military drills of their own.

“I think Trump is learning from Hun Sen,” Ear said, conceding that it may be “subconsciously, because I still doubt he knows where Cambodia is or who Hun Sen is.”

“The whole bit about taking away NBC’s broadcast license is classic Hun Sen channeled by Trump,” Ear added. “Except in Cambodia, the license would and has been taken away, willy-nilly, over and over again: NDI, Cambodia Daily, etc.”

The most recent actions against the CNRP, while sudden, were predicted by some.

According to Lee Morgenbesser, lecturer in comparative politics at Griffith University’s School of Government and International Relations, Hun Sen’s comments about Trump, while at the same time criticizing the United States, are not accidental.

“The basic distinction being made is between President Trump (who has authoritarian tendencies) and the democracy promotion community operating from the United States (traditionally led by the State Department),” Morgenbesser told ThinkProgress in an email. “On any given day, Hun Sen can show an affinity for the former and berate the latter. This is a calculated manoeuvre designed to both shield himself from international criticism and ferment nationalism using the idea of a foreign power meddling in Cambodian politics. Despite being a calculated strategy, this is fairly standard play for dictators everywhere.”

Morgenbesser added that there are two authoritarian similarities between Trump and Hun Sen.

The first is that “they are both driven by the accumulation of money, albeit via different routes. Hun Sen sits a top a vast patron-client system designed to plunder the Cambodian state, which is manifest in more cars, mansions and offshore bank accounts for his family and friends. President Trump sits a top a business ’empire’ enabled by a series of bankruptcies, shady practices and dubious deals with foreign governments. For both men, politics is means to an end.”

The second is that both men “employ a zero-sum view of politics, whereby another individual or group must lose in order for them to win,” Morgenbesser said. “This helps explain why Hun Sen has ruthlessly suppressed a long list of opposition parties and civil society over the last three decades, while Trump openly calls for Hillary Clinton (and many others) to be jailed.”

With press freedom shattered, democratic efforts ended and civil society under threat, the goal of Hun Sen to stay in power for 10 more years is almost certainly guaranteed. For Morgenbesser, the recent crackdowns have likely achieved the desired results.

“Remarkably, Hun Sen’s government has managed to crush the independent press, civil society groups and a host of non-government organizations without any tangible protest from citizens and any significant blowback from the international community,” he said.

“It stands as one of the most successful crackdowns committed by an authoritarian regime in recent memory.”