Cambodian PM Hun Sen paints a bull’s-eye on his own back

By supporting Beijing on South China Sea matters at the recent ASEAN meeting in Laos and allegedly assassinating a harsh critic of his regime Kem Ley, it looks like Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen painted a bull’s eye on his own back.  But it will take a year or two to find out if his opponents can hit the mark.

At the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Conference in Laos on July 24, Cambodia’s intransigence on behalf of the PRC (China) in matters South China Sea was not as big an issue as it usually is.

Hun Sen arrives for a family photo during ASEM in Ulaanbaatar

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures as he arrives for a family photo with other leaders during the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit just outside Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, July 16, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

The Philippine delegation of the new Duterte administration was apparently not very interested in provoking the PRC ahead of the upcoming bilateral discussions on the South China Sea, so the group eventually came together around a toothless communique that failed to invoke the UNCLOS arbitration ruling, thereby pleasing the PRC and advocates of ASEAN consensus, while evoking the scorn of China hawks in the region and around the world.

John Kerry sidestepped the South China Sea controversy and concentrated on extracting a declaration concerning the rather remote North Korean menace instead, perhaps in hopes of extracting an Obama legacy achievement from that unpromising dispute.

I think the US is reasonably satisfied with the current state of play regarding the South China Sea and is in a holding pattern until Hillary Clinton and her team of China hawks enter the White House in February 2017.

Nevertheless, impatience with Cambodia is getting pretty pronounced, especially in pivot strongholds Australia and Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe went in strong on Cambodia to support The Hague ruling and the Japanese press chose to play Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s irritated refusal as an unexpected rebuff.  I suspect that nobody seriously expected Hun Sen to ditch the PRC for Japan, and Abe’s intention was to show Vietnam that Japan was firmly in its corner to the point that it would happily and openly provoke Cambodia.

In Australia, China hawks point to Cambodia as the epitome of ASEAN dysfunction, and evidence for the need to switch to a “coalition of the willing” led by the US, Japan, and Australia to shape the response to the PRC in the South China Sea.

To deal with the Cambodia issue, the idea of discarding the consensus formula or watering it down with an “ASEAN X” formula—by which various ASEAN states could, according to their individual enthusiasm, craft their own responses while remaining, at least nominally, under the ASEAN aegis — has been bruited.

There is another solution that would resolve the conundrum to the satisfaction of the anti-PRC forces: regime change in Cambodia that would place a democratic, West-friendly, more China averse administration committed to ASEAN unity and “centrality”— the buzzword of the moment — in power.

Regime change is in the back of everybody’s mind, especially Hun Sen’s.  Hun Sen is the world’s longest-reigning strongman, who has employed skullduggery and violence to keep himself on top of Cambodia’s political and economic pile for three decades, and has vowed to remain there at least for another decade.

Disenchantment with his regime is growing — Hun’s party was able to maintain its parliamentary majority in the legislature in 2013 thanks only to pervasive thuggery — and he has apparently thrown himself into the arms of the PRC in return for the uncritical financial and political backing that a strongman with fading support craves.

Think of Cambodia as another Myanmar: a corrupted Chinese satellite whose vulnerabilities make it a tempting target for Western rollback against the PRC.

Problem is, there is a distinct shortage of attractive opposition horses to back for foreign governments.

The main opposition party, the CNRP, is a throwback émigré-backed outfit that has planted its flag on overt anti-Vietnamese chauvinism.  Led by San Rainsy, the CNRP was midwifed by the International Republican Institute (funded by the NED) and supported by US Republicans when anti-Vietnam strategizing was the name of the game in Washington.

Today, the linchpin for US and Japanese agendas in Southeast Asia is Vietnam; and enabling a new Cambodian government founded on anti-Vietnamese zealotry is not, I expect, at the top of everybody’s priorities.

Therefore, consigning Hun Sen to the dustbin of history may not become a US priority until a more attractive opposition force comes along.

Preferably something indigenous, pro-democracy, pro-human rights and less big-money boss-man — like the movement that Kem Ley was fostering before his assassination in Phnom Penh on July 10.

For China watchers, Ley looks something like Ilham Tothi, the jailed Uyghur activist from Xinjiang.

Tothi tried to color revolution between the lines, working the limited space allowed by the PRC authorities to advance Uyghur cohesion, identity, and activism while not running afoul of PRC law.  His success alarmed the PRC to the point where he was imprisoned by the PRC on trumped-up charges and his network of followers harassed and suppressed.

Tens of thousands of people attend a funeral procession to carry the body of Kem Ley, an anti-government figure and the head of a grassroots advocacy group, "Khmer for Khmer" who was shot dead on July 10, to his hometown, in Phnom Penh

Tens of thousands of people attend a funeral procession to carry the body of Kem Ley, an anti-government figure and the head of a grassroots advocacy group, “Khmer for Khmer” who was shot dead on July 10, to his hometown, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia July 24, 2016. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

Ley had considerably more space to work in, since Cambodia is a democracy of a certain kind.  He had midwifed the creation of a new grassroots political party and then stepped away from it, ostensibly to concentrate on his research and analytic work but also, possibly, to insulate himself from political exposure so he’d be able to stay out of jail and continue to work and write even if the government cracked down on the party.

Whatever his considerations, he was gunned down in what was asserted to be a dispute over an uncollected debt but is widely considered to be an assassination.  Associates reported he told them he was being tracked, and he pointed out men with walkie-talkies monitoring his meetings.

As to why Ley was killed, all the accounts contain a rather hanging reference to the release three days prior of a Global Witness report, Hostile Takeover: the corporate empire of Cambodia’s ruling family.

Journalistic omerta seems to inhibit the dot-connecting one would expect in this story.

The Global Witness report was clearly intended to embarrass Hun Sen before the Cambodian people, weaken him politically, and also provide a basis for limiting foreign aid and governmental investment to the Cambodian government.  It employed “data journalism,” combing corporate records for damning links, similar to the exercise exposing Xi Jinping’s finances that was spiked at PRC insistence, causing a major meltdown at Bloomberg.

Global Witness’s organizational mission is to protect victimized citizens of resource-rich countries from exploitation of their national wealth by corrupt governments either working directly or in cahoots with multinational corporations.

Specifically targeting a politically corrupt elite represents something of an expansion of its brief, though Global Witness did provide a similar indictment of the Burmese junta; and Cambodia has historically been one of the focuses of its work.

Global Witness was founded by George Soros, so the color revolution narrative works itself into the Kem Ley story, along with the inference that the authors of the report seriously underestimated the backlash a regime change hit piece might provoke from its targets.

Ley had been on VOA Khmer for an English-language interview and had carefully distanced himself from Global Witness while endorsing the report and its value as a tool for transparency and reform (as in, “I’m not sure what the objective or direction of the Global Witness report’s author…”).

If this was meant to place a safe distance between Ley and the London authors of the report — while permitting him to praise and use its data and conclusions — perhaps it didn’t work and Hun Sen lashed out at the nearest and most vulnerable target for his wrath.

It’s also possible, by the way, that some other furious branch of the Hun family had Ley killed without Hun Sen’s prior knowledge and approval.

Global Witness dipped its toe into allegations of criminality, stating in the report it had obtained information from “confidential sources” (footnote 247) concerning holdings by Hun Sen nephew Hun To, who has been linked to big-time drug dealing allegations in the Australian media.  In retrospect, advertising that Global Witness was collecting tittle-tattle from informants about a drug dealer connected to the ruling family may not have been some of its best work.

In any case, if Hun Sen ordered the assassination of Kem Ley, it wasn’t some of his best work, either. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of grieving and indignant Cambodians lined the roads to witness Ley’s 70-kilometer funeral procession, and the cause of an indigenous, localized anti-Hun Sen political movement was probably advanced far more by his death than by the Global Witness report.

Tom Malinowski, the U.S. State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, went to Cambodia and delivered condolences to Ley’s wife (who is now seeking asylum in Australia).

At a press conference, he was asked about the PRC grant of $600 million to support the upcoming elections among other things, which is unsurprisingly viewed as a cash grant to assist Hun Sen in buying the elections.

Malinowski replied:

More and more Cambodians are getting their information from media that nobody can control – from media that they control…

… I hope that it is the government’s intention to have a free and fair election in 2017 and 2018. I think that if anyone has contrary intentions, there are certainly things that they can do that would be unfortunate but I think that they will find that, as we have seen in Burma and as we have seen in Sri Lanka and many countries over the last few years, it is very hard to deny people their voice and their choice.

By siding with the PRC and by allegedly assassinating Kem Ley, it looks like Hun Sen painted a bull’s eye on his own back.  But it will take a year or two to find out if his opponents can hit the mark.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

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