Last week, the Cambodian government issued two policy papers to defend the acts against the opposition party, explain the democratic evolution in the country and accuse major power’s involvement in orchestrating the so-called “colour revolution” in Cambodia.
The US and the EU have taken a gradual approach to put pressure on Cambodia. They have threatened to impose economic sanctions if the political development is not reversed and democracy is not restored.
Last week, US Senators Lindsey Graham, Dick Durbin, Ted Cruz, Ben Cardin and Patrick Leahy introduced the Cambodia Accountability and Return on Investment (CARI) Act to restrict assistance to Cambodia.
Cambodia’s ruling elites seem to be not afraid of potential sanctions. In November last year, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen even encouraged the West to impose sanctions, as a response to the threats to freeze the assets of the Cambodian ruling elites.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Cambodia published the second version of “To Tell the Truth” with an emphasis on “peace”, ‘stability”, “development” and “sovereignty”, while defending the “Cambodian way” of democracy, which refers to a “democracy-in-progress”.
The paper also calls for other countries to study Cambodia’s contemporary history and national context before making any assessment and applying sanctions on Cambodia.
“Cambodia deems it unfair and unjust [shall] the West insists on imposing sanctions on the government,” the paper claims.
Meanwhile, the Council of Ministers of Cambodia issued a 132-page White Paper explaining the government’s actions against the main opposition party, attempting to convince the general public that a multi-party political system prevails in Cambodia.
“Democracy works only if peace and stability prevail in the country and the rule of law is effectively enforced,” the White Paper notes.
The ongoing contradictions between Cambodia and the West over democratic values and principles are reminiscent of the debates on Asian values in the early 1990s.
What has made Cambodia become more bold and upfront with the West? Why now? What are the strategic calculations and options for the ruling elites?
First, domestic power competition and potential power shifts have caused political stress along with high political risks and uncertainties. Foreign interference has further stimulated the use of extreme form of power.
The ruling elites strongly believe that foreign interference, especially from the US, is a core threat to the regime’s survival. The so-called “colour revolution”, whether it is real or not depending on different assessment criteria, has been the main cause of concern for the ruling elites.
Second, the ruling elites seem to be confident that the political situation is under control after dissolving the main opposition party, which was accused of politically colluding with the US.
Maintaining peace, political stability and power at all costs has been the political mantra of the ruling elites. Hence they seem to be prepared to pay the costs of maintaining this state of affairs.
Third, the ruling elites have become more confident, apparently so in resisting external pressures and sanctions to be imposed by the West. It is not sure how long they can resist the external pressures.
High economic performance over the past two decades has made them believe that the country’s economic structure is more resilient and diversified. Cambodia has become less reliant on traditional donors such as the US and the EU.
Economic performance has been and will be the core foundation of the legitimacy of the regime. No one knows exactly how much Cambodia will suffer economically from the potential economic sanctions from the West.
Fourth, China is the main political and economic buttress for Cambodia.
In the eyes of the ruling elites, the West is relatively declining and the post-Western global order is emerging, going along the downturn of the Western liberal democracy and human rights.
China on the other hand is emerging to be a major global power. China’s model of governance has become more attractive to Cambodia. Hence by aligning with China, Cambodia can realise its core national interest, which is socio-economic development.
Cambodia will politically and economically tie the knot with China should the West decide to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions. It will be a strategic window of opportunity for China to project its power in Cambodia and the region.
Time will tell whether Cambodia is resilient enough to the international pressures and be able to survive and thrive within the context of rising domestic political complexity and major power rivalry.
Cambodia is becoming a playground for power contestation between the US and China.
Chheang Vannarith is a Southeast Asia analyst based on Singapore and Phnom Penh.