Hun Sen has been in power for over two decades. In that time, he has consolidated power, built a cult of personality and promoted close allies and family members into positions of leadership.
Ostensibly, Hun Sen is a democratically elected leader. But erstwhile military man is not taking any chances ahead of elections. He has taken steps in recent months to clamp down on the opposition party, arrest and detain prominent critics of his regime, and hold sham elections where his party was the only one on the cards.
As the Phnom Penh Post commented on recent senate elections:
“Absent any legitimate competition, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party swept all 58 elected seats in Sunday’s Senate elections, giving it near-absolute control in the upper house of parliament.”
The international response to Hun Sen’s actions have been swift and forceful. International rights groups universally condemned Hun Sen’s shutting down of the Cambodia Daily newspaper.
Rights groups and foreign governments also criticized the government’s decision to arrest prominent anti-government critic and opposition leader Kem Sokha.
In response to Hun Sen’s actions, the United States said it would be cutting aid to several assistance programs in Cambodia due to ‘recent setbacks to democracy.’
Some programs supporting Cambodia’s Tax Department, military and local government will be cut or reduced “to ensure that American taxpayer funds are not being used to support anti-democratic behavior”, according to a statement from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
“We urge the Cambodian government to reconsider its current course,” Sanders said in a statement as reported by the Phnom Penh Post. “Specifically, the government should release jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha, reinstate his party, the CNRP, and allow civil society and the media to continue their legitimate activities.”
According to the Council for the Development of Cambodia, aid disbursements amounted to roughly 8 percent of the country’s GDP. A significant blow should the United States – and US linked organizations – decide to spend their money elsewhere.
Despite this significant loss, and the possibility of more losses, Cambodia were bullish in their response to US actions.
In a statement, government spokesman Phay Siphan defended Cambodia’s track record as a liberal democracy and called the US decision “dishonest,” as reported by the Phnom Penh Post.
“This is a sanction on the people who love real democracy,” Siphan said, adding that the government would continue to fight “foreign interference and colonisation”.
A Chinese alternative
Perhaps the reason that Cambodia remains defiant despite repeated warnings from western aid groups and nations is that it has found a different benefactor in Beijing.
According to the World Bank, foreign direct investment accounted for over 10 per cent of Cambodia’s GDP with Chinese capital making up a sizable portion of that percentage.
According to the Asian Development Bank, China has been Cambodia’s largest benefactor since 2010 and that figure does not include loans and investments made by the Beijing controlled Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Hun Sen has courted China on infrastructure projects, trade deals and military cooperation, in return Beijing gets a ready ally in ASEAN – the Association of Southeast Asian Nation.
Cambodian cooperation has helped China postpone ASEAN consensus on numerous issues where Beijing has vested interest including the South China Sea dispute.