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1 August 2018

With Jonathan Pearlman

Our Cambodia dilemma

In one of the least surprising election results in recent history, Cambodia’s Hun Sen, who is among the world’s longest-serving prime ministers, extended his thirty-three-year reign by another five years on Sunday. The result was assured by the dissolving of the opposition last year, the jailing of its leader and a crackdown on the media. 

Seeking credibility for this sham, Hun Sen claimed the ballot was overseen by hundreds of overseas observers. But a breakdown of observers and those who boycotted the process says much about the worrying splits dividing the international community. 

Observers included: a Russian-led delegation that featured members of the UK Independence Party and France’s National Rally (formerly known as National Front); paid observer groups, such as the World Election Monitoring Organization, who called the election “perfect”; and a group of Chinese observers. Non-observers included: Australia, the United States, the European Union and Japan, which all refused to send delegations.

For Australia, Cambodia’s move away from democracy presents a difficult choice. Canberra can take a strong, principled stance to defend democratic values and human rights. But this risks alienating the regime, which has been strengthening ties to China – a nation that offers Cambodia aid, loans and observers without strings attached. 

This same choice is playing out across South-East Asia, where numerous countries, including Thailand and the Philippines, have taken an authoritarian turn and floated the possibility of siding closer to China.

Australia has traditionally had strong relations with Cambodia, and took a leading role in the Cambodian peace process during the late 1980s and early 1990s, which helped establish the nation’s democratic political system. Australia is also one of the largest aid donors to Cambodia, and last year gave AU$89.1 million. But Canberra has been unable to compete with Beijing, which has almost doubled its investment in Cambodia during the past five years and now accounts for about half of its foreign investment. 

Cambodia has become China’s closest ally in the region. Its support for China’s creation of islands in the South China Sea has helped to ensure that Beijing has not been criticised by ASEAN, a regional forum that prides itself on unanimity. Unsurprisingly, China strongly backed Hun Sen’s “re-election”, not only sending election observers but also announcing midway through the campaign that it would provide loans worth US$259 million to build a four-lane, forty-seven-kilometre ring road in Phnom Penh. After the ballot, Beijing described the process as “smooth and successful”.

The United States and the European Union have instead punished Hun Sen for his dismantling of democracy. They have threatened sanctions and restricted visas for some officials.

Australia has so far taken a much softer line. The foreign minister, Julie Bishop, criticised the Cambodian election – which she said “reversed more than 25 years of progress towards democracy” – but did not discuss sanctions. This drew heavy criticism from Cambodian opposition figures.

Canberra faces a difficult dilemma. It is pitiful to compromise on values, or fail to assert them: it damages Australia’s reputation, undermines its credibility on the international stage and erodes support for liberalism at a time when this is most under threat worldwide. Yet taking a tougher stand against Cambodia, or other nations in the region, risks pushing the regime closer to China, which may weaken the long-term prospects for liberalisation. A stance needs to be chosen carefully, openly and in a manner that invites the public’s trust.

Sadly, the situation is complicated by Australia’s efforts to include Cambodia in its offshore detention scheme. In 2014, the Abbott government reached a murky AU$40-odd million deal to encourage Cambodia to accept Australian refugees from Nauru (it took seven). Hun Sen told the ABC’s Four Corners this week he was willing to “accept more”.

Across the region, nations such as Cambodia, caught in a growing tussle for influence between China and the United States, are facing tough choices about where their interests lie. Australia will face further dilemmas, whether dealing with Cambodia or other nations in South-East Asia: trade-offs, though not pretty, may be understandable, as long as the reasons for any concessions are not already compromised.



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Source: International Association of Ports and Harbors, 2017.

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