Cambodia has scrapped a long-running US military aid programme and heavily criticised western governments in parallel moves seen as an ongoing shift away from Washington to China.
As the country gears up for municipal elections in June, Cambodia has asked the US Navy Mobile Construction Battalion (pictured), the Seabees, to leave without explanation after a nine-year deployment, according to the US embassy.
A joint military exercise with the US has also been scrapped while Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held the post for 32 years, is calling for debt to be cancelled to Washington from the dying days of the Lon Nol regime of the 1970s.
Cambodia’s shift to China has been mirrored in the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand and proceeded Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House.
Cambodia notified the US last week that the Seabees’ “community–service” work must cease. Their efforts included building maternity wards, wells and school toilets, the US embassy said.
Phnom Penh was unwilling to comment on the decision.
On Trump’s inauguration, Hun Sen renewed calls for the cancellation of US$500 million of loans made to the ailing Lon Nol regime, which took power in a coup.
The loans were taken to feed and clothe Cambodians displaced by “secret” US bombing campaigns. As villagers fled the ravaged countryside, the agrarian economy collapsed and the US charged Lon Nol heavily for food and other aid to address the crisis created by its own bombing.
The government’s actions are inevitably viewed through the prism of impending elections.
Ahead of June’s commune elections there is speculation that the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) will be dissolved and that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will lose seats, if the polls are to be believed.
In the 2013 general election no other party won a seat in the National Assembly, pointing to a worrying lack of options for Cambodian voters.
The third-largest party at the 2008 general election, the Human Rights Party, merged with the second, the Sam Rainsy Party, to form the CNRP in 2012.
Smaller parties have developed and 10 will now compete in the elections. Many of the minor parties were formed by disaffected members of the Sam Rainsy Party or the CNRP but they could split the anti-government vote and cancel each other out.
Effective opposition needs to be established before the 2018 general election.
The Cambodian government is pre–emptively launching an assault on the west, its diplomatic community, media and NGOs, in a possible attempt to win nationalistic support ahead of the elections.
In a white paper entitled “To Tell the Truth”, Phnom Penh vowed to “set the record straight” on its sovereignty, commitment to democracy and historical legacy.
The document blames the US and other foreigners for a “campaign of disinformation” and of supporting “racists and holocaust non-believers”.
The paper expressed “sheer contempt” for the “mindboggling” statement in 2015 by UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, that said the government should be held accountable for the rights situation.
The Phnom Penh authorities have bristled at criticism of its Law on Political Parties, seen as further bolstering the CPP’s grip on power. The main beneficiary of this vocal contempt for the west and its institutions is China.
“Cambodia has now officially produced its piece de resistance against the western narrative. [The relationship] has gone off the deep end,” said Sophal Ear, author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy.
With bilateral trade worth nearly US$5 billion in 2016 and China largely oblivious to how Cambodia handles its domestic affairs, Prime Minister Hun Sen appears to have selected sides.
“A new phase of Chinese-backed authoritarian capitalism – emphasis on stability – has begun,” said Sebastian Strangio, who wrote the book Hun Sen’s Cambodia.
“Cambodia is making it clear that it is no longer willing to tolerate western criticism. Confident of Chinese backing, it is staring at them over the poker table and daring them to up the ante,” Strangio said.
“It would be short-sighted to think that Cambodia could cast its lot with only one partner, who while generous, isn’t going to hold-up the sky for it,” he added.
Phnom Penh is not short on evidence of western hypocrisy in its dealings with Cambodia to spice up its report. The paper details US backing for the Khmer Rouge between 1979, when Vietnam forced the barbaric group towards the Thai border, and 1991. Despite its years of genocide, Pol Pot provided Washington with a means to bog down its Vietnamese foes in a protracted conflict and weaken an ally of the Soviet Union.
The paper says “several” western governments are supporting “the wrong side” and the subsequent “blaming, criticism, isolation, threats of market closure and sanctions” are causing instability. Phnom Penh has claimed that its heavy-handed response to protests and the justice system was justified as a means to maintain stability.
“Cambodia has been submerged, months after months, years after years, by reports from opposition media, biased NGOs and misinformed institutions, which twisted historical facts and events in an attempt to portray a negative image of Cambodia and to lay the blame on the government,” the paper alleged.
It takes on the CNRP, accusing Sam Rainsy of inciting hatred of the Vietnamese at home while demanding democracy and human rights overseas.
It seems a fair bet that the one-party rule of the CPP is not going to end soon and Hun Sen will be able to chose the date of his departure.
Picture credit: Wikimedia