Cambodia’s 2018 general election for the sixth mandate of the government was both extraordinary and controversial.
It was extraordinary because Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People's Party (CPP) secured an unchallenged landslide victory – winning all 125 parliamentary seats. It was also controversial in that the country’s leading opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was court-dissolved about nine months prior to the election.
In response to the dissolution of the main opposition and the perceived deterioration of human rights and democracy in the Kingdom, the United States (US) and European Union (EU) have taken measures in an attempt to reverse Cambodia’s democratic backsliding. The US has imposed visa sanctions and asset freezes on top Cambodian government officials and withdrawn aid commitments. Further, two US lawmakers, Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California and Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, have introduced the Cambodia Trade Act (CTA) to call for the US government to review the Kingdom’s preferential trade status under the auspices of the General System of Preferences (GSP).
The introduction of the bill followed the lead of two other US senators who introduced a similar bill to the US Senate in early 2019. If approved by US President Donald Trump, the bill would lead to the limitation, suspension, or withdrawal of Cambodia’s trade privileges that have granted the Southeast Asian nation tariff reductions and exemptions on its exports to the US.
In alignment with the US sanctions and the introduction of the CTA bill, the EU has in tandem kicked off a six-month period of intensive monitoring and engagement that could result in the temporary suspension of Cambodia’s tariff-free access to the EU single market. Although the EU has noted that the withdrawal of the Kingdom’s trade privileges under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme is only done as a last resort, the current development regarding the EBA issue allows us to believe that the eventual withdrawal of Cambodia’s EBA status is a real possibility.
Despite the dilemma over the possible loss of its EBA privileges, for the time being, Cambodia, under the leadership of Hun Sen and his CPP elites, does not seem to seriously consider the EU’s human rights demands. Indeed, as reiterated by Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodia will not “exchange its independence and sovereignty for foreign aid”. The country regards the EU’s calls for improving human rights and democracy as “acts of interference” with Cambodia’s internal affairs. Both parties seem to speak a different language to each other.
As it now stands, strong actions taken by the EU to halt Cambodia’s democratic drift is less likely to produce intended results. An article entitled “Scare tactics won't work with Hun Sen” which appeared in the Bangkok Post pointed out clearly that the EU’s coercive diplomacy “may not yield results”. The article observed that the CPP “was willing to lose the EBA status in exchange for getting rid of the opposition party, so it could stay in power for more years to come”. It also noted that “the economic sanctions are nothing but hostage-taking diplomacy that will only cause ordinary Cambodians to suffer”.
While there is merit in the main arguments of the article, it is reasonable to point out that measures taken by the EU and the US do have implications for Hun Sen’s government. Although the article maintained that the EU’s “scarce tactics” may not work with Hun Sen, similar tactics have in fact exerted some influence on the policy making process and reform initiatives of the Cambodian government.
It is undeniable that pressure, sanctions, and measures taken by the international community, particularly the Western bloc, against authoritarian and less democratic governments, more often than not, inflict harm and suffering in the vulnerable group of the population.
For example, following the 2013 national election that saw the CNRP make huge gains, the CPP-led government which only won by 8 seats vowed to engage in “deep reforms” to address voters’ dissatisfaction. The then government’s strategic decision and sudden willingness to make meaningful reforms was widely seen to be motivated by pressure of domestic politics. The CPP which lost 22 parliamentary seats to the opposition in 2013 hoped for a comeback in the next general election through comprehensive reforms.
However, if analyzed critically, one may be able to see the consequences of political pressure and sanctions from the West on the Cambodian government and Cambodian politics. Although the EBA threat by the EU and sanctions by the US do not amount to significant impact on the incumbent Cambodian government, it is true that they partly contribute to policy reform trajectories and the development of politics in the Kingdom.
As a small state and an aid-dependent country, Cambodia is directly and indirectly influenced by demands and sanctions from the West and concerns expressed by other key development partners. There was a series of recent political and social moves which were believed to be responses to concerns and pressure from key external players like the EU that have important leverage over the Kingdom’s economic and political landscape.
The Cambodian government has, for instance, released former CNRP president Kem Sokha from prison, although he is now under house arrest awaiting trial on treason charges. The government has also amended the Law on Political Parties to allow the banned CNRP politicians to return to politics. Moreover, there are ongoing institutional reforms and measures taken to reduce the number of public holidays and trading costs associated with customs clearance and goods inspection fees.
These moves have no doubt been initiated to a certain degree by Western pressure, although the CPP-led government has often denied such claims.
In fact, international pressure in the form of economic or trade sanctions and other types of measures does not amount to nothing. It has value, influence, and impact, although the impact can sometimes be negative or detrimental to the lives of the ordinary people.
In the case of Cambodia, Western pressure can contribute in part to the political direction and development in the Kingdom, as indicated by the government’s recent political moves. It is therefore sensible to say that Cambodian politics is the product of the Cambodian government’s own initiatives and the international community’s socio-political demands or agendas.
To promote democratic values and norms in developing and transitional countries like Cambodia, the EU, the US and other major international actors have important roles to play and responsibilities to take. As argued in an article that addressed the issue of the imminent suspension of Cambodia’s EBA status, the international players like the EU should not “remain idle or indifferent to any form of human rights abuses or violations”.
They should instead seek ways to redress the situation in question and reverse any perceived deterioration of human rights and democracy in countries that aspire to embrace democratic values and principles.
It is undeniable that pressure, sanctions, and measures taken by the international community, particularly the Western bloc, against authoritarian and less democratic governments, more often than not, inflict harm and suffering in the vulnerable group of the population. And it is agreeable that the government elites and the rich are in general immune to any harm caused by sanctions and actions taken by external players.
However, one needs to be reminded that, despite their serious consequences on ordinary people, Western sanctions or any political pressure in that matter do make authoritarian and quasi-democratic leaders more accountable for their actions.
In absolute terms, sanctions are the international community’s watchdog on the promotion of democratic values and respect for human rights. They are clearly better than nothing. Put another way, they act as speed bumps to the smooth transformation of quasi-democratic leadership into authoritarian rule.