“Extremists! Nazis! Terrorists!” The labels change, but the tactics used by the world’s dictators to quash the opposition remain the same –first stigmatize the opponent that you want to destroy and endlessly pound away at them. Most importantly, don’t change your tactics no matter what happens.
This governing approach has been used time and again by all of the world’s worst autocrats, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping in China, their Burmese counterpart General Min Aung Hlaing in Myanmar and none other than Cambodia’s current Prime Minister, Hun Sen.
The lack of a substantial and sufficient response by the Free World to counter the ambitions of any of these individuals means their cynical calculations about imposing their world views have largely succeeded. Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and essentially got away with it due to a meek response by the majority of Europe’s most powerful democracies.
As the world watched in horror, In February 2022, Putin ordered an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which surprised many governments in Europe and sent shockwaves through the global financial and energy markets.
For anyone who has ever lived under a dictatorship, Putin’s actions came as much less of a surprise.
In China, beginning in 2008, Beijing ruthlessly crushed anti-government protests in Tibet, which resulted in the Communist Party of China creating a closed police state across the Tibetan plateau. Chinese officials went on to replicate the same mode of oppression in Xinjiang, a region in western China where the Uyghurs – an ethnic Turkic and Muslim people – are the majority of the population.
For nearly a decade, Chinese officials in Beijing have launched a full-fledged genocidal campaign against the Uyghurs that has included the establishment of a Tibetan-style police state and the creation of detention centers, which are little more than concentration camps, that hold thousands of Uyghurs as prisoners.
Myanmar’s military toppled the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in the middle of the COVID pandemic just over two years ago. They have since re-established a brutal dictatorship; those who dare to resist their tyranny are labelled “terrorists”.
In Cambodia, Hun Sen’s dictatorship began in 1997 when he overthrew a democratically elected government which had been brought into office in 1993, following free elections and the restoration of the monarchy, which had been organized by the United Nations.
Sen, a former Marxist–Leninist and Khmer Rouge battalion commander who later rebranded himself as a statist Capitalist, ousted his co-premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh and moved to consolidate power around Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party.
Sen has since used well-honed Fascist methods to become the longest-serving ruler in Asia, having held power as prime minister for 38 years. The international community, by and large, has treated his regime as legitimate. Ahead of national elections that are due to be held on July 23, Sen’s only tactic thus far has been to talk of “eliminating extremists”, which for him means anyone who demands nothing more and nothing less than free, fair and democratic elections.
Sen has followed the same authoritarian script as Putin and Xi by constantly demonizing the basic concepts of democracy and pillorying anyone who supports basic democratic values.
The country’s main opposition party to Sen’s autocratic rule – the Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP – was and still remains outlawed ahead of the upcoming national elections. Those polls – if held under the current circumstances – will be utterly meaningless, just as they were in 2018 when the ruling Cambodian People’s Party won every single seat in the national assembly.
What makes the upcoming elections an even greater farce is that the leader of the CNRP, Kem Sokha, was sentenced on March 3 to 27 years of house arrest and barred from taking part in politics for the remainder of his life. This act was a blatant attempt by Sen to weaponize Cambodia’s justice system in his favour and to ensure that democracy never returns to the country.
This is an exact copy of how Myanmar’s courts used their power to quickly take down Aung San Suu Kyi’s legitimate and internationally recognised government in 2021.
No evidence has ever been produced to substantiate the charge of treason made against Sokha, a man who is widely respected in the international community as a peaceful and centrist political leader. The US Ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy has repeatedly and publicly stated that the alleged charges were “fabricated” and that the verdict was a “miscarriage of justice”.
Democratic achievements cannot be taken for granted. Democracy has to be defended at every turn. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in London calculates that in 2022 only 8% of the world’s population was living in full democracies. That number is dwarfed by the 37% of people, most of whom are in Russia and China, who live under full autocracies.
Dictators in modern times only have one way to operate – they simply attempt to impose a fait accompli about their positions in the world and the fate of their populations, which they say the Free World has no choice but to accept. The Putins, Xis and Sent of the world paint those who oppose them as extremists of one sort or another.
In truth, there is no hope that the authoritarianism that the world sees in places like Russia, China and Cambodia can ever be interpreted as a peaceful and benign phenomenon, or that it should be accepted by an implicit racist or discriminatory assumption that some cultures just don’t have a democratic tradition and aren’t quite capable of ever developing one.
Cambodia Plays an Outsized Regional Role
Cambodia has greater importance in the global struggle between dictatorship and democracy than its small size might suggest. Under Sen, the country has become a compliant and subservient satellite of China, which has been allowed to establish a military naval base at Ream, on Cambodia’s southwestern coast, bordering the Gulf of Thailand.
This violates Cambodia’s internationally required neutrality that was laid down in the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, which marked the official end of the Cambodian–Vietnamese War and the Third Indochina War. The agreement also specifically laid down the framework regarding Cambodia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, national unity and neutrality.
China has become Cambodia’s largest military donor. The establishment of the naval base was preceded by the suspension of joint military exercises with the US and annual counter-terrorism military exercises with Australia. Chinese influence over the Cambodian government gives Beijing a partner within ASEAN, the influential Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and undermines the security of the whole region.
India’s National Maritime Foundation has argued that China’s Cambodia-based base will mean that member states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are “subject to an ominous ‘new normal’ of Chinese presence right at their doorstep.” The base poses “a direct threat to Cambodia’s neighbors” and will “disrupt the peace and stability of the eastern segment of the Indo-Pacific.”
ASEAN, chaired by Cambodia in 2022, has so far remained alarmingly silent about the prospect of Chinese combat vessels being permanently deployed to a Cambodian port.
Where Average Cambodians Stand on the Question of Democracy
The overwhelming majority of Cambodians across the political spectrum want democracy, both as a system of domestic governance and as the only viable guarantee of national independence and neutrality. The democratic tent in Cambodia is large and diverse, while the dictatorship serves only the Hun family and a narrow group of insiders who benefit from systematic corruption.
Globally, the cause of democracy is not lost. The catastrophes unleashed by Putin, Xi, Sen and Min Aung Hlaing have reminded the world that brutal, authoritarian dictators do exist. Though relatively few people globally enjoy full democratic rights, the Economist Intelligence Unit analysis finds signs of a renewed encouraging trend. The number of countries that improved their democratic score in 2022 stood at 75, a clear increase from the 47 countries in 2021.
This means that the Free World must seize and encourage this momentum toward a renewed discovery of democratic values. As stated earlier, Sen is a former Khmer Rouge commander and his language of crushing the opposition has gone unchanged from the verbiage used by Pol Pot during the darkest days of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in the 1970s.
Sen has no vision, nor any sort of political, social or economic program for the development of Cambodia beyond maintaining the status quo and his position in power.
The 2022 Corruptions Perception Index that is published annually by Transparency International placed Cambodia at 150th in the world, tied with Afghanistan and the Central African Republic – two countries that have only recently come out of major conflicts.
Cambodia under Sen has had decades and billions of dollars of aid to recover from the trauma of the Khmer Rouge. Sen wants to hand over power to his eldest son Hun Manet, thus treating Cambodia as a family fiefdom that is answerable to China rather than to its own citizens.
Such regimes – as Putin has demonstrated in his iron-fisted rule over the Russian people for nearly a quarter century – can never be peaceful, let alone address the aspirations of their citizens. Continuing to give international legitimacy to a Cambodian government that benefits from a sham election would do nothing but advance the cause of dictators, not just in Southeast Asia, but globally.