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Cambodia: Hun Sen’s Growing anti-Americanism; By Carlyle A. Thayer

Picture Courtesy: Cambodia Daily

C3S Article no: 0078/2017

Courtesy: Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, August 29, 2017

Grateful if you could kindly share with us your comments/thoughts on growing anti- American sentiment adopted by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling elites. As you are well aware, Mr. Hun Sen’s government has repeatedly accused the U.S. government, its related NGOs and media outlets of working behind the scene to sabotage or overthrow his legitimate government. My questions are as follows:

Q1. What are possible reasons behind such growing anti-American sentiment and conspiracy as adopted by the ruling elites and Mr. Hun Sen’s government?

ANSWER: There are proximate and historical legacy reasons for the surge in anti- American sentiment by members of the Hun Sen regime in Cambodia. The proximate reason is that Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won the commune elections but did not do spectacularly. Hun Sen viewed outside forces, such as the U,S.-funded National Democratic Institution and Radio Free Asia, as playing a partisan role. Hun Sen wants to win the 2018 national elections convincingly and now that the commune elections are over he is methodologically going about disrupting and repressing opposition to his rule.

The historical legacy factor is that the U.S., and western liberal democracies in Europe, Australia and Japan have always had a negative perception of Hun Sen, first as a former Khmer Rouge military officer, then as a lackey of communist Vietnam and then after 1993 as the main obstacle to liberal democracy in Cambodia. These sentiments have surfaced at each national election since 1993 and led to outside support to the various opposition parties during this period. Hun Sen is responding to an historical sense of victimhood.

Q2. Is it the right choice for Cambodian government to do so? What are the good and the bad points?

ANSWER: Cambodia should never burn its bridges and leave itself dependent on one patron such as China. The good points for Hun Sen are that China proclaims that it supports non-interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs. Hun Sen and the CPP benefit from Chinese economic, diplomatic and political support. This serves to insulate Cambodia from western interference and sanctions. Hun Sen is free to act with impunity domestically as long as Chinese business and political interests are not negatively affected.

The negative side to dependency on China is two-fold. First, there is the opportunity cost of a decline in western assistance and support. Second, “the piper plays the tune” and a dependent Cambodia will have to do what Beijing wants. Already it is evident that Hun Sen is adept at anticipating what China wants and acting accordingly. He is a sycophant par excellence.

Q3. What should Cambodia and the U.S. do to correct such growing mistrust and hatred so that history during Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum and the Khmer Republic will not be repeated?

ANSWER: It takes two to tango and there is no indication that Hun Sen will change tack so quickly. He views himself as the aggrieved party.

President Donald Trump has given no indication that he is interested in Cambodia in general or in promoting democracy and human rights in particular. The State Department is understaffed and likely will be underfunded. Thus, the U.S. Mission in Cambodia has few levers of influence. The best the U.S. can do is ride out the storm, as it appears to be doing in the Philippines, and continue to support NGOs and human security in Cambodia. The U.S. could – if only Trump supported multilateralism – work closely with the donor community for a long-term plan to assist Cambodia and its development. No matter what the United States does it will continue to face the brick wall of one-party rule in Cambodia by an authoritarian leader, Hun Sen. Historical legacies will continue to cast a shadow on Cambodia’s future.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is an Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. The views expressed are his own. All his background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients.]

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