Cambodia: China is buying its only true friend in the region

The new global superpower’s adoption of its smaller Southeast Asian neighbour is compromising diplomacy and human rights in the region.

Joel Brinkley Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cambodia’s elected dictator, Hun Sen, is demanding that the national assembly pass a new law when its next session begins in April. The proposed law would jail politicians for using nasty language. Everyone knows that it is aimed only at his opponents. No one in government or the courts would dare attack Hun Sen for his language or anything else.

This comes on top of a long-standing defamation law that already allows politicians to go after anyone who says something ‘defamatory’ – a term that has no precise definition, which is why such laws are under question all over the world.

All of this is relatively new for Cambodia. Certainly, it has been a repressive state for all of time. But Hun Sen and his acolytes have held back in many respects to give the multiple Western nations who donate billions of dollars in foreign aid each year the false notion that Cambodia is a democracy of sorts.

Year after year, smiling Cambodian leaders attend the pledge conferences put on by these Western donors, including the United Kingdom, the United States and many others. The Cambodians hold out their hands. But first they have to listen as Western ambassadors and aid officers stand at the podium, look them in the eye and lambast them for rampant corruption and jaw-dropping human rights abuses. Last autumn, about 100 NGOs met in Phnom Penh and decided they would make additional aid conditional on human rights reforms.

Each year, Hun Sen and his aides promise to reform. But little ever changes. Still, the government managed to maintain a democratic facade – a moderately free English-language press and a variety of civil-society institutions including several human rights groups – so the donors could find reason to continue giving the money anyway.

‘There’s a free press,’ Peter Jipp, a senior specialist with the World Bank, once told me with a cheery grin. ‘You don’t find that in other states – Laos, Vietnam. There’s a developing civil-society network. So, in the parlance of the donor community, these are the champions!’

Those journalists and civil-society groups wrote primarily in English, which meant that hardly any Cambodians could read what they were writing. Illiteracy is widespread in the state, so even Khmer versions were inaccessible to most.

Enter China, exit democratic freedoms

But now the government, always unhappy with criticism, seems unwilling to accept it in any language at any time. The reason: China is pouring more money into Cambodia than all the other nations combined – $8bn in the last few years. After meeting with Chinese officials last year, Hun Sen won a commitment for another $5bn over the next few years. And, most important, all of that money comes with no strings attached – no demands to end corruption, home seizures, dissident repression or any of Cambodia’s many other social ills – problems endemic in China, too.

In October 2012, for example, Mam Sonando, a 71-year-old radio station owner, was sentenced to 20 years in jail for criticising the government on air. He’d been broadcasting and offering similar viewpoints for decades.

At about the same time, newspaper journalist Hang Serei Odom was found dead in the trunk of his car, hacked to death with an axe. He had been writing about illegal logging, a longstanding problem in Cambodia. The reporter was the first journalist killed there in four years; Irina Bokova, director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), denounced the killing.

Meanwhile, the accused killer of Chutt Wutty, an environmental activist who was shot dead last spring while visiting an illegal logging site, was tried recently – and set free, even though two reporters for the Cambodian Daily, an esteemed English-language newspaper, were there with him, watching as he was shot and killed.
Is it any coincidence that these, and several other repressive acts, came a short time after Hun Sen visited Beijing and came away with those promises of $5bn more in loans and grants over the next few years – no strings attached?

China adopts Cambodia with favours in return

For several years now, China has been working to curry favour with whichever Southeast Asian states it can – trying to counter US influence, particularly Washington’s ‘pivot’ to the region – now that Beijing is fighting the bitter diplomatic war with several nearby nations over the South China Sea. Today, China has essentially bought Cambodia, now a staunch ally – and the only one in the neighborhood. Laos is an ambivalent friend. North Korea is a resentful dependent state. Everyone else in the region is angry over China’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea and adjacent waters.

Not long ago, Hun Sen commented: ‘China respects the political decisions of Cambodia. They build bridges and roads, and there are no complicated conditions,’ adding that ‘China talks less but does a lot’. No hectoring about human rights. But that’s a 180-degree turn for him. Years ago, Hun Sen called China ‘the root of everything that is evil’ in Cambodia because of Beijing’s longtime support of the Khmer Rouge that continued for a decade after they fell from power in 1979.

China is pouring more money into Cambodia than all the other nations combined – $8bn in the last few years

Hun Sen’s new and unstinting loyalty to China was on full display during the November conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

President Barack Obama attended – the first American president to visit Cambodia – and, as he drove from the airport into town, the streets were virtually deserted. All he could see from his window were Chinese flags and billboard portraits of the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who was also visiting. Street-side crowds had cheered Wen as he drove into town days earlier. At the end of the ASEAN meeting, with Obama and Wen there, Hun Sen read a statement asserting that the group had reached consensus: the South China Sea controversy would not be ‘internationalized’ – meaning that each ASEAN nation would have to negotiate with China on its own.

That’s what China wanted – private debates with small, individual states rather than arguments with a large, unified block of countries. However, nearly all of the other ASEAN members angrily complained that they’d never agreed to any such thing; but it was too late.  

Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times