|Photo: ijiwaru jimbo (cc)|
One of the foreign policy dilemmas facing many Southeast Asian nations is how to deal with the competing interests of two superpowers in the region: China and the United States. The United States has had a vested interest in the region since the Vietnam War, but China’s influence stretches back as far as the Qin dynasty. Southeast Asian nations often side with one or the other in order to attract foreign aid or investment. Over the past decade, however, Cambodia has managed to play both sides, drawing huge capital inflows from both countries to fuel its economy.
Cambodia’s game is one of appeasement and pretense. Prime Minster Hun Sen has been masquerading as a democratically elected official since 1998. Despite a surfeit of electoral fraud allegations, he still claims to represent a free and fair democratic system.
In 1988 Hun Sen called China “the root of everything evil.” During the infamous Khmer Rouge era, China was the regime’s main ally, receiving cash and material aid until 1990. Now, Hun Sen, a Khmer Rouge defector and one of the principle instigators of its downfall, relies on billions of dollars in soft loans from China. Despite his insistence that “Cambodia cannot be bought,” China has virtually transformed Cambodia into a puppet state.
July’s general elections in Cambodia mark a significant a milestone in the nation’s modern history. In past elections the opposition parties have struggled to gain momentum in a political arena dominated by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Until now Cambodia’s relatively free civil society has done little to change this. At each past election Hun Sen and the CPP have been able to improve the electoral process without fear of losing power, and in doing so have attracted more Western aid. But as the power of the opposition grows, thanks in large part to the increased participation of young people and better means of sharing information, Hun Sen has been forced to abandon the pretense of democracy in order to maintain his power. His support from China is secure as long as he continues to be willing to sell his allegiance for billions in Chinese loans and investment.
Without appealing to the West, Hun Sen has gone to extreme and sometimes laughable lengths to suppress political opposition. In the months before the elections, he tried to pass a bill that would ban political invectives. “I fully support having a code of ethics for political party leaders to use,” he stated, “but [a simple code of ethics] is not strong enough to bind the insulter.”
“Therefore,” he concluded, “there must be a proposed law on how long the insulter’s jail term will be if insults such as ‘traitor’ are used.”
Many observers have decried the bill as nothing more than a tool to muzzle political opposition. Some point out that Hun Sen himself used to use a litany of invectives to describe his rivals, including “dog,” “cat,” and “no-brains.” Hun Sen has already been using a vague but draconian defamation law to ensnare opposition leaders in expensive and protracted law suits.
China last year committed another five billion dollars to Cambodia over the next few years, on top of the eight billion in aid it has already committed. By not tying aid to meaningful political reform, China has passively encouraged corruption and crony capitalism in Cambodia.
It is important to note that China has been calling for peace in the face of post-election violence. But China is also calling for an improbable coalition between the government and the opposition, even as it hails the election as a “victory” for the ruling party. While China’s efforts to strengthen connections with ASEAN countries have been successful, they have sometimes come at the cost of freedoms and long-term stability in those countries. A broken and dysfunctional Cambodian government will be more troublesome for China than one in which the opposition has been given the chance to gain legitimate ground. For this reason, China needs to rethink its policy of giving blank-checks to questionable regimes if it wants to build on its solid connections in Asia.
Akshan De Alwis is a senior at Noble and Greenough School and teaches democracy and good governance practices to groups of young people in Burma.