Monday’s news that Cambodia’s main opposition has demanded the release of four people imprisoned for illegal agitation against the government — agitation allegedly aimed at members of the armed forces — serves as a pointed sequel to the nation’s announced plan to suspend some military co-operation programs with the U.S. The announcement from Phnom Penh caught Washington by surprise, particularly as it looks to strengthen its ties to the region amid China’s rise. The Cambodian government clarified that the programs, which had been steadily increasing since 2006, “were postponed, not cancelled” and would be restored after the final outcome of the election is resolved.
Some observers view it as a “pre-emptive” decision, after a call in Congress to suspend $70 million in aid if the elections weren’t transparent and fair by international standards. The narrow win by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party has been officially rejected by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Hun Sen, who has been in power for 28 years, has vowed to seat a new government regardless of the CNRP’s counterclaim. The strongman leader has a history of targeted oppression against political opponents, including the alleged involvement in a grenade attack in 1997 which killed 16 and injured 150, including CNRP leader Sam Rainsy. Should Hun Sen begin a wider crackdown on the CNRP, pulling away from U.S. and Australian military contacts before he starts to do so would make sense.
But this wasn’t the usual election scenario for Hun Sen. In addition to the narrow victory — which may not be a victory at all if his opponents prevail in the current fight — the surprise could be seen also in the low returns for Hun Sen’s son, Hun Many, as well other sons of CPP’s elite. Likewise, the “Facebook” generation in Cambodian politics is proving a harder sell for Hun Sen. Its members have less patience for political corruption than previous generations that survived the Khmer Rouge-led genocide only to watch the country limp back to life. Younger Cambodians are flocking to social media gaining access to more critical news, as well as the ability to connect with one another. For that reason, any outages in Facebook access draw immediate concern. Rainsy, meanwhile, has helped galvanize younger voters in a party that is more cohesive than say, the patchwork parties that make up Malaysia’s opposition coalition in their recent disputed election.
The election took place amid increasing attention both from China and the U.S. The alignments of both major powers are fairly clear. As The Diplomat‘s Luke Hunt has noted, days before the election China’s new ambassador to Cambodia flagged expectations for Hun Sen’s continued rule in a “in a statement that smacked of diplomatic crudeness.” In the immediate aftermath of the election Hun Sen met with China’s and Germany’s ambassadors to Cambodia, while CNRP leader Sam Rainsy met with the U.S. ambassador.
In recent years, the U.S. has deepened ties with Cambodia’s military in the areas of counterterrorism, peacekeeping training, and professional military education, even as China has increasingly bankrolled the construction of roads and power plants, as well as providing some military aid. China and Cambodia recently celebrated 55 years of diplomatic relations initiated on the Cambodian side by King Norodom Sihanouk in 1958.
While Cambodia’s National Election Committee will publish official final election results on September 8, neither Hun Sen’s CPP nor the CNRP is backing down. Rainsy has decried the build up of army troops and personnel on the streets on Phnom Penh as an attempt to intimidate Cambodians from protesting the election.
With the situation fluid, the world is following the results. The U.S. has called for calm and the State Department has been circumspect in the face of the suspension of the military ties. The U.N. released a report describing Cambodia’s democracy as “limited” while the E.U. sent a letter congratulating Rainsy on the CNRP’s strong showing and urging a swift and peaceful resolution to the impasse.
If Cambodia is not the central battleground where the U.S. and China vie for influence, it’s certainly a testing ground both for the strength of China’s soft power and the U.S.’s much-vaunted strategic pivot to the region.
As the final outcome of the election hangs in the balance, the crucial question is whether Cambodia will be brought closer into China’s orbit with a page taken from China’s management of its political economy — or if it will show, as the U.S. claims it can, that countries can have closer economic ties with Beijing while still developing their civil society and democratic institutions.