The recent closure of some local media and the arrest of the head of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Kem Sokha, have stirred the dynamics of domestic politics as well as geopolitics.
Cambodian issues have become internationalised. Without a proper strategy and smart diplomacy, Cambodia will again become the victim of superpower politics.
Political reconciliation and national unity are the only way for Cambodia to navigate through such turbulent times.
Overseas Cambodians in Australia, the US and Europe have organised and also plan to organise waves of protests across the continents to put pressure on the Cambodian government. There is no sign of any protest being planned in the country yet.
The CNRP is in disarray without its core leadership. Its supporters are not sure what to do next. Some have expressed their views online in protest against the arrest of their leader.
Looking from a geopolitical dimension, it seems, at least on the surface for now, that a new type of Cold War is happening in the kingdom reminiscent to what happened in the late 1960s when Cambodian political groups were divided by major powers.
The US and China are vying for influence in the kingdom by lending support to different or opposing political groups.
The US and its allies have condemned the Cambodian government and called for the release of Kem Sokha, who was charged by the government over suspected treason with a foreign power.
US Ambassador William Heidt rejected US involvement in Kem Sokha’s case, saying: “I was surprised by the allegations against the United States in connection with Mr Sohka’s arrest, made without a shred of serious or credible evidence. These are extraordinary allegations.”
The European Union issued a statement calling the arrest “in breach of his parliamentary immunity”, and saying it “marks a dangerous political escalation”.
“In view of his parliamentary immunity, we expect the authorities to release Kem Sokha immediately,” the statement reads.
The US State Department issued a statement expressing grave concern over the arrest, calling it “politically motivated”. It also raises the question of “democratic legitimacy” of the 2018 general election, the US said.
In response, Prime Minister Hun Sen accused the US of defending its “puppet”. “They are just defending their puppet from charges,” he said.
“We’re not a slave, but like them, an independent country. We want to stand on our own feet. We don’t need someone to tell us to do this or do that,” Cambodian government spokesperson Phay Siphan told Channel News Asia.
To show political support to its most reliable friend in Southeast Asia, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said during a press briefing in Beijing that China supported “the Cambodian government’s efforts to protect national security and stability”.
During his visit to Cambodia last week, Wang Jiarui, the vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, reportedly told Cambodian leaders:
“China will help Cambodia in every circumstance. Cambodia has the full backing of China. Cambodia’s success is China’s success. Challenges for Cambodia are challenges for China.”
The public discourses and media analysts share the views that Cambodia’s political outlook may appear bleak. Some argue that democracy in Cambodia is dead. Others argue that Cambodia is falling in an “authoritarian regime” or even “dictatorship”.
The key questions raised by local and international observers are whether the CNRP will be dissolved – in accordance with the newly amended law on political parties, the party will be dissolved if the head is convicted – and whether the general election in 2018 is acceptably free and fair without the participation the main opposition party.
Regardless of international pressures and political uncertainties, the Cambodian government seems to be confident it can control the situation and continue to develop the country.
Prime Minister Hun Sen is quite resilient to international pressures as he himself experienced international sanctions in 1980s after toppling the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.
For him, peace and security are above all else. He is willing to pay a high political and economic cost for peace and stability.
The Cambodian government is paranoid about the wave of colour revolutions that have destroyed many countries in the Middle East and Africa.
The mass protests in the aftermath of the 2013 election did teach the ruling elites an important lesson. They now remain alert and even take preemptive measures against any threat to the regime.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has long been suspicious of the US’s involvement in supporting the opposition party. However, the anti-US rhetoric did not surface until recently.
Now the CPP has China on its side to embolden its stand against the alleged US interventionism in Cambodian domestic affairs. Cambodia has recently become confident in resisting the US’s interference.
China is perceived as the most important economic and strategic partner of the CPP. The survival of Mr Hun Sen’s regime depends very much on the support of China amidst mounting pressures from the US and its allies.
The highest form of pressure that the US and its allies would use against Cambodia, in a worst-case scenario, would be specifically targeted sanctions that the US and its allies exerted against Russia. The sanctions mainly target the elites.
The sanctions, if it happens, would have little effect on the decision making or change the course of the Phnom Penh government as long as China offers its full support.
China stands to strategically benefit from Cambodia being distant from the US. Reducing the influence and engagement of the US in the region serves China’s strategic interest, particularly in the South China Sea, which is regarded as China’s core national interest.
Taking advantage of the declining power and weak leadership of the US, particularly under Donald Trump’s administration, China is going to accelerate implementing its regional agenda.
Will the US return to reclaim its regional hegemonic power? It depends on the US leadership and resources. In the Asia Pacific region, the US has more allies and friends than China.
It is crystal clear now that Cambodian political groups are divided over their foreign policy orientation. The CPP is embracing China, while the CNRP is leaning towards the US. Cambodia is vulnerable to falling into the trap of superpower politics.
Chheang Vannarith is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.