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US sanctions on Cambodia undermine regional peace


The US House of Representatives passed the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2018 (H.R. 5754) on Wednesday, with a strategic intention to undermine hard-earned peace and democracy in Cambodia and the region. It will further damage the bilateral relationship between the two peoples and countries – that has been built and nurtured for decades.

The US Senate and White House should take a comprehensive and realistic look at Cambodia’s political situation before making any decision. Truly, the bill does not reflect the big picture of Cambodia’s political landscape. There are certain positive developments that explain why Cambodia remains on the democratic path.

The people of Cambodia have suffered from foreign intervention since the collapse of the Khmer Empire. Over the past 600 years, Cambodia has been on the path of struggle for its independence and sovereignty. It has been a painful and brutal uphill battle. Now it is becoming even more challenging for Cambodia to maintain its independence and autonomy due to rising geopolitical rivalry and US interventions. Cambodia will need to brace itself further to protect the country’s independence and sovereignty.

It is crystal clear by now that Cambodian leaders do not tolerate foreign intervention or kowtow to foreign powers. Nothing is more valuable than independence and self-determination.

How does the US bill affect the general election and bilateral relations?

With the belief in electoral democracy, many Cambodians have actively participated or followed the election campaign. The hive of activity by all 20 political parties has attracted the attention of both local and international media that have so far reported freely on the election campaign and voting behavior, which has been peaceful.

We now have to question the timing of this bill. Is it meant to throw the spanner in the works, derail Cambodia’s democracy and scuttle Sunday’s general election? What is the real intention of the United States?

Sad to say, bilateral relations between the US and Cambodia will be jeopardized by the sanctions. It will lead to an irreversible escalation of bilateral diplomatic tensions that might lead to a cut in diplomatic ties. Let us hope we do not go down this path. But as the saying goes, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions gone astray.

The US needs to be present in Cambodia and the region in order to realize its core interests in Southeast Asia. Without Cambodia’s support, the US’s role in Southeast Asia will be affected.

The future of the bilateral relationship now depends on the decision of the Senate and White House. Washington must decide whether it wants to see a complete cut in bilateral ties or build trust by maintaining a stable relationship.

The next moves by US policy makers are essential and consequential. The US must remember that the world order is becoming multipolar and the United States is just one of the global powers. There are alternatives for small states like Cambodia to consider.

What will be the regional implications of US sanctions?

First, great power politics will rear its ugly head again to dominate international relations. Geopolitical competition in Cambodia and Southeast Asia will further intensify, and this will plunge the whole region into a climate of instability.

Second, the sanctions will hurt Asean-US relations as well. As a member of Asean, Cambodia has been promoting the norms of non-interference and consensus-based decision making as the basis of promoting good international relations among member states. The US, as an important dialogue partner of Asean, violates the regional grouping’s norms by interfering in Cambodia’s domestic affairs. It creates a bad precedent for the future of US engagement with Southeast Asia.

Third, the sanctions will provide a strategic window for China to increase its presence and influence in Cambodia and the region. Ironically, the US is helping China to be the dominant power in Southeast Asia and also opening the gates to Russia.

Fourth, the US-proposed Indo-Pacific strategy will fail without support from small states in Southeast Asia. Asean will stand up against hegemonic power and protect the interests and sovereignty of its member states, while working toward the enhancement of its central role in shaping the course of events in the region.

Structurally, the US sanctions on Cambodia will not only undermine peace and stability in Cambodia but also the whole Southeast Asian region.

It will be a serious mistake if Washington decides to impose sanctions on Cambodia, as it will seriously incur strategic and economic costs for the US in the region and cause irreparable damage geopolitically.

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