Tuesday saw Cambodia’s government reject a Monday call from leading opposition figure Sam Rainsy for an impartial committee be formed to investigate the results of a weekend parliamentary election. Rainsy alleged major irregularities and said up to 1.3 million people could not vote.
This does not, however, change the fact that the nation’s opposition parties made a strong showing against long-time leader Hun Sen’s party in the contest. The vote has also breathed some life into a country under the rule of the same government for 28 years — and created into the bargain a timely measure of the U.S. and China’s relative influence in one of the more contested regions of the world, Southeast Asia.
Long criticized for cronyism, Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party lost 22 seats in parliament, while the newly formed Cambodian National Rescue Party now holds 55 seats, up from 29. The outcome is remarkable not only because of the short time Rainsy was back in the country from his long self-exile: he was also barred from running. But other forces are at play here: while former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen has, in his 28-year-reign, stabilized the economy in the aftermath of Cambodia’s violent past, he faces the same cocktail of factors roiling the long-term leadership of other Southeast Asian nations these days. Like Malaysia, Cambodia has a young electorate with a growing distrust of government-friendly media, and a growing frustration with an insider elite’s hand in running day-to-day affairs, particularly around land ownership. And even without an investigation or recount in Cambodia, the opposition’s stronger showing will give it more weight in government and in the public’s eye. “If the results stand as the ruling party projected, it would be a huge boost for the much beleaguered opposition, giving it a strong platform for future growth,” according to the AP.
The result also carries shades of China and the U.S.’s struggle for influence not just in Cambodia but more broadly for Southeast Asia where the “diplomatic chess match is more real,” as Max Fisher writes. Earlier in July, sensing the reluctance of Hun Sen to assure a fair election, U.S. lawmakers urged President Obama to cut off $70 million in aid. Cambodia pardoned Rainsy for his political crimes, paving the way for his return in time for the election — but he was not, as noted, actually a part of the race. Hun Sen’s growing confidence in flouting international pressure on matters of election transparency and human rights reflects how far the nation has moved into China’s camp. Since 1994, Cambodia has received $9 billion in aid from China, and in return (among other things) has deported 20 dissident Uighurs back to Beijing and toed China’s line on preventing discussion of sea disputes at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in 2012. Other countries in the region, like Vietnam and the Philippines, have turned more towards the U.S. amid China fears.
Coloring this game are two realities. China, despite its wobbles, is still on track to become the largest economy in the world. At the same time, improving technology, communication and standards of living help drive more interest in transparent government, reform and finally, democracy. The D-word in certain corners of Asia is code for U.S. influence. And while it’s not a Cold War redux between the U.S., China and Cambodia, the soft power game is definitely on. Beijing and Washington are watching events unfold in Cambodia and wondering what the dynamics say about the influence they have on Phnom Penh and the region as a whole.