Holding Cambodia Accountable for Its Descent into One-Party Rule

Op-Ed: Cambodia Leadership Skills

Next Steps for Accountability

Given these new developments, the U.S. should take concerted action to hold Hun Sen and other cronies in the Cambodian government to account. The U.S. and Asia Heritage Foundationother key actors in the international community, including the European Union, signaled their disapproval of the dissolution of the opposition and deteriorating conditions in the country. These actions may have been too little too late. A more robust response should have been carried out five years ago after flawed 2013 elections revealed a state of deteriorating democracy in Cambodia.22 The U.S. should take further steps to hold the Cambodian government accountable:

  • Name and sanction Hun Sen and other party cadres for the role they play in undermining democracy in Cambodia. The U.S. Treasury Department should use all available tools in its toolbox to freeze and seize assets of known individuals actively obstructing freedom in Cambodia. It should expand its use of existing Global Magnitsky authorities and use any other relevant authorities to place individuals on the SDN list. Such an action would send a clear signal to Hun Sen that the U.S. will intervene in necessary ways to get Cambodia back on the path toward democratic reform.
  • Expand existing visa restrictions on Cambodian officials undermining democracy. The U.S. State Department should follow through on promises made in its condemnation of the July 2018 election to expand existing visa restrictions on Cambodian government officials. One potential way to expand these authorities would be to extend visa restrictions unequivocally to family members, especially to Hun Sen’s direct family members. (Current visa restrictions only apply to family members on a case-by-case basis.)23
  • Create and convene an emergency meeting of the Cambodia Contact Group comprised of parties to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement, including the United States, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, the U.K., and France, to monitor and press for democratic reform. Among the purposes of the Paris agreement was to ensure “the right to self-determination of the Cambodian people through free and fair elections” and “assuring protection of human rights.”24 The signatories have a continuing moral obligation in this regard. The contact group should be used to coordinate human rights policies and assistance programs toward Cambodia. In short order, leaders from all of the countries at the foreign-minister level should convene to draw up coordinated plans to hold the Cambodian government accountable and get Cambodia back on the path toward reform.
  • Condition assistance to Cambodia on the health of democracy. The U.S. should adopt stringent metrics for determining whether Cambodia is eligible for key assistance programs. Such language could mirror proposed conditions in the 2019 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations bill.25 Language in the Senate version of the appropriations bill is particularly strong and specific. The U.S. government should conduct a thorough review of all assistance to Cambodia and consider instituting more severe restrictions on aid. Emphasis should be placed on holding the Cambodian government accountable without harming the people themselves.
  • Continue to press for the release of Kem Sokha. Every U.S. government statement issued in response to deteriorating conditions in Cambodia should continue to reference Kem Sokha’s imprisonment and request that the Cambodian government release him immediately. The U.S. government should also make clear that there will be additional consequences if Kem Sokha continues to be held. Without a swift, coordinated plan democracy may never be restored in Cambodia. The U.S. and the international community should learn from the mistakes of its limited response after the 2013 election and respond to the 2018 elections in an offensive, rather than defensive, manner. The U.S. should plan for conditions to continue to deteriorate and put in place mechanisms that ensure Hun Sen and his CPP cronies are held to account

Read more details at Asia Foundation…


As Singapore dredges sand out from beneath Cambodia’s mangrove forests, an ecosystem, a communal way of life, and one woman’s relationship to her beloved home are faced with the threat of erasure.

I remember my first trip to the mangrove forests near the island of Koh Sralau and along Cambodia’s coastline. I had no idea how extensive the mangrove forests were or how spectacular they would be. The forests stretched for miles and miles, carving out small islands, narrow waterways and channels, and ecologically diverse estuaries. I wanted to document the impact of sand dredging on the mangroves and on the lives of the people who live and thrive in these forests and the oceans surrounding them.

For over a decade, the government of Cambodia has granted several private companies concessions to mine these mangrove forests for sand. Each year, millions of metric tons of sand are shipped to Singapore to enlarge this island nation’s land mass, while Cambodia destroys its only natural protection against erosion, rising sea levels, tsunamis, and hurricanes and lays waste to a vital and fragile ecosystem that thousands of families depend on for their livelihood.

Read more details at Emergence Magazine…


In late July, Cambodia participated (sort of) in the General Election, without having the option to choose the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which had been dissolved by the Supreme Court last November. The landslide victory by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) all but assures Prime Minister Hun Sen of near total control of the country. For poll watchers, observers of democracy and human rights activists, the post-mortem reflection on Cambodia’s decline will be painful. But for how long? This brief analysis offers three likely developments in Cambodia that offer both a glimpse of optimism and words of warning.

No. 1: Any imposed sanctions on Cambodia will fail: When the CPP clamped down on political freedoms, Western governments reacted strongly, yet predictably. Economic sanctions were at the top of the list of suggested responses. The United States called forsanctions for Cambodia in January after the arrest of CNRP leader Kem Sokha. Recently, the U.S. and the European Union have called for sanctions on high-ranking officials and more, including thoughts of stripping Cambodia of tax-free access to Western textile markets. If implemented, the loss of revenue could top $650 million. While that wouldcause few reservations for the CPP and Prime Minister Hun Sen, the impact would be felt by up to a million poor Cambodians who work in the textile and garment industries. Sanctions would almost certainly jeopardize efforts to boost national economic standing. The World Bank graduated Cambodia from LDC to lower-middle-income status in 2016and the United Nations has been supporting the country in efforts to move to upper-middle income status by 2030. Threats of sanctions reflect myopic foreign policies that fail to grasp the larger economic and political landscape. While Cambodia will not be able to find alternative Chinese markets for their goods, they will find political solace from Beijing and a new source of legitimate criticism in which to rest short-term political futures. The Americans should learn from the past. The U.S. imposed a trade embargo on Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge gained to power in 1975 and kept them through 1992. Cambodia relied then on China and communist states for their economic survival and it will soon again. Economic sanctions simply don’t work. They rarely have.

No. 2: Cambodia’s civil society will re-emerge: Creeping authoritarianism in the months before the July 2018 election subjected Cambodian civil society groups working in Cambodia to repressive restrictions. Recently, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) found that the judiciary has been used by the government to tighten controls on civil society groups that the regime saw as a threat, including the closure of some independent media organizations, violent responses to demonstrations, and arbitrary detention and arrest of human rights and political activists. The government passed the Law on Associations and NGOs in 2015, which provided a legal means for threatening civil society groups. However, the cost of repression is often high and civil society often quickly learns to adapt to acts of state violence. One need only look at Cambodia’s neighbor to the west as an example. Thailand imposed a number of repressive laws in the aftermath of the 2014 coup d’etat. Groups of five people were banned from gathering in public, political activists were arrested, and thousands were forced into re-education camps. But, five years after the coup, civil society is showing signs of re-emergence. Unless Hun Sen is willing to use much more repressive means to curtail civil society activities, it is highly likely that CPP dominance will face the same legitimacy challenges Prayut and the NCPO face today. Discounting the power of civil society in Cambodia is to not properly remember its history. Cambodians who faced human rights challenges during the Khmer Rouge eramobilized society and formed the basis for a robust human rights movement–even before the arrival of UNTAC. While it may not emerge in the short-term, it will inevitably happen.

No. 3: Cambodia will get China fatigue: As one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, Cambodia desperately needs investment. In the past several years it has welcomed investment from China, with $5.3 billion flowing into the country since 2013. Late last year, China penned 19 new development deals with Hun Sen, right after Chinese companies invested $7 billion in the country. Cambodia needs to develop its infrastructure and part of Beijing’s investment will pay for a new highway to connect Phnom Penh to the port city of Sihanoukville. However, Cambodia’s growing reliance on China (in addition to a rebuke of the West) has created an unstable political and economic environment. For example, in Sihanoukville, Chinese casinos dot the local landscape. As a major hub for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it has seen an influx of both casino cash and foreign arrivals. Locals report that the cost of housing has increased, sometimes pricing out Cambodians or forcing many low-income people to move to the edges of the city in search of affordable housing. Along the Meklong River, the need for hydroelectric power, critics say, is washing away local livelihoods. Other countries have already felt the effects. A breach in a dam along the Lao border with Cambodia killed 26 people, but more than 140,000 people in the area depend on the river for their livelihoods. One report in May warned that a proposed hydroelectric dam near Sambor along the Meklong could “literally kill” the river due to its impact on wildlife. A direct consequence of Cambodia’s lack of transparency, accountability or proper governance in managing the BRI could be political and social instability–not created by political divisions–but by social and economic inequality and environmental mismanagement. Hun Sen has shown an unwillingness to place good governance above short-term ties with China, a decision that could have devastating consequences.

Read more details at The Geopolitics…


The ‘privatisation of urbanisation’ in Phnom Penh, supported by Chinese foreign direct investment, is almost exclusively aimed at the Cambodian upper class and at Chinese tourists and businessmen. While few of the large real estate projects in Phnom Penh provide exact figures on the nationality of their tenants, it is estimated that about 90 per cent of units are sold to Chinese citizens. This drives the city’s housing prices up to the point where the units are unaffordable for most Cambodians.

The luxurious, Western-style design of many of the Chinese-built apartments is also out of sync with traditional Cambodian architecture and can be unappealing even to middle- and upper-class Cambodians. As a result, Chinese real estate development projects in Phnom Penh frequently do not integrate with the broader urban fabric and instead form satellite cities within the capital that are largely disconnected from their wider surroundings.

The construction of these projects also often requires the displacement of previous residents and the infilling of lakes, to the detriment of the existing urban infrastructure.

Another concern is the true intentions behind Chinese real estate investments in Cambodia. Observers note that more than half of the luxury apartments and condominiums in Phnom Penh bought by Chinese nationals are paid for in cash. This could suggest that the acquisition of such properties is a front for money laundering by wealthy Chinese citizens who are worried about their home country’s mounting debts and unpredictable authorities.

Being primarily a cash economy, Cambodia has lax internal banking controls and few enforced policies against money laundering. This would be an appealing environment to any wealthy Chinese businessperson who wants to usher their excess money out of reach of the Chinese government, which has been targeting corruption on an unprecedented scale in recent years.

This means Chinese investment in the Phnom Penh real estate market is unlikely to be sensitive to Cambodian demand. The growing housing bubble in Phnom Penh could very well result in an oversupply of empty, overpriced condos in the capital while much of the Cambodian urban population remains locked out of the housing market.

Real estate development should become the responsibility mainly of the public rather than the private sector, as the primary concern of real estate development should be the provision of decent housing, including and especially to low-income and poor city dwellers. It is essential that the Cambodian authorities who are concerned with urban planning introduce policy planning and implementation processes that can prevent Phnom Penh from becoming caught in a pattern of unsustainable growth.

Read more details at EastAsiaForum.Org


Hun Sen received a scare in Cambodia’s 2013 general elections, when the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) made an alarmingly strong showing. After it did so again in last summer’s local elections, the party was dissolved on charges it tried to overthrow the government with help from the United States.

In recent years Hun Sen has moved heavily into China’s orbit, receiving its financial support while bending rules for Chinese businesses—including through controversial land concessions—and backing Beijing (paywall) on issues such as the South China Sea on the world stage.

Many now see Cambodia as a client state of China, and Beijing, of course, has no problem with autocratic rule. “It is beneficial to China when its clients are weak, undemocratic, and where rule of law is not implacable,” noted CNRP deputy president Mu Sochua, who lives in exile for fear of arrest.

Hun Sen has “made a Faustian pact to keep his family and his party in control of domestic politics in Cambodia forever,” said Ear Sophal, who’s authored books on Cambodia and China and teaches world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “His biggest fear is that he and his people—increasingly his own family—will lose power, and it will mean very harsh consequences for all of them.”

Read in details at Quartz…


Do you think that these sanctions, if they are put into effect, will be effective?
They are effective. There’s an example already – the American sanctions against the commander of our prime minister’s bodyguard unit [Hing Bun Heang]. That made a dent into the pillar that supports the office of the premier. It hasn’t broken it yet. In Venezuela, after the election, there was pressure and sanctions from many countries to ensure that the regime was following the democratic path. To ease off that pressure, some opposition party activists who had been jailed were then released.

Those prisoners may have been released, but the political situation in Venezuela appears largely unchanged. Beyond minor concessions post-election, what real impact can these measures have?
First, those targeted – who have not honoured their international obligations to respect human rights, to adopt liberal pluralistic democracy governed by the rule of law – are now being dishonoured. Their image and their reputation are badly affected. What is next? There could be more actions to name and shame them internationally. What kinds of difficulties are diplomats, especially the targeted minister of foreign affairs, going to face when attending international conferences? In America, his ability to travel would be limited by the American authorities: “Okay, you can go to New York to attend that general assembly at the United Nations – but not beyond that.” They would not feel at all comfortable. And if the American president or top leaders meet these people at an international conference, they could just turn their back on those leaders who have been targeted, and refuse to shake hands with them, in public, deliberately – just to shame them.

And remember, those sanctions include economic sanctions against those individuals. Look at those targeted individuals – they are, more or less, the government of Cambodia. If the Americans were to go further and succeed through international financial organisations – ADB, the World Bank, IMF – to squeeze them, what would happen? For perhaps the first time, tycoons, the business elite, have been identified [in a Global Witness report] – and in the list suggested by the congressman, there’s one CEO of a big company. This regime and Hun Sen himself has been supported loyally by those CEOs and tycoons.

Kem Sokha, former leader of the now dissolved CNRP, was arrested in September 2017 on treason charges Photo: Kith Serey / EPA

Unlike the post-election protests of 2013, the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha and the dissolution of the CNRP seem to have been met with very little public protest. Will international pressure be enough to effect change without that internal pressure from Cambodia’s citizens?
It’s quite understandable inside the country. When the opposition party was dissolved, they made sure there were no offshoots – they banned not just their 55 parliamentarians, but 118 top leaders, both at the provincial and national level to ensure there were no local leaders left. And those 5,000 [CNRP] commune councilors likewise – they are being watched, controlled, and some have had to flee the country.

Look at the control of the people. It goes as far as the people’s fingertips. Can you imagine your big finger without a nail? Because this government was trained in a communist coup. Look at Eastern Europe, the Russian people and all that [under the Soviet Union]. How many decades before they had a voice? There were discreet activists working against the regime, publishing secret news bulletins. But if anyone stood up, the regime would nip it in the bud. They’d send you to a mental hospital, or in Stalin’s time just to Siberia, to the Gulag. That schooled our ruler, and our police officers, our security forces. What chance do we have? Only Facebook, social media.

But there are flaws in the system. The rising expectations of a changing people. The old communistic mentality of our rulers, their antiquated institutions, have not advanced in parallel with the aspirations of our people. A generation ago, in the Untac time, our people were like a child, and they wore a child’s clothes, that mentality, those institutions. But now we have grown up – and our clothes are still the same size. People are more aware of those flaws. Corruption, land-grabbing – injustices. The wealth gap. The education gap. The justice gap. All growing.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) greets his supporters during a political campaign in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 27 July 2018 Photo: Mak Remissa / EPA-EFE

It’s worth mentioning that both Hun Manet and Hun Mana, children of Prime Minister Hun Sen, were named on that list. Do you see any hope for change in the next generation of the ruling party?
Among those named, there are no people whose performance so far seems to be good in terms of both human rights or even in their own field, their respective jurisdictions. In their daily responsibilities! There’s been so much nepotism for so long.

It’s a big party, with a big leadership pool, with many people who are a lot cleaner than those singled out, just the same as in the business sector – people who earn their wealth more licitly than those named in the Global Witness report. No doubt about that. Perhaps those people are more moderate, and could accommodate people from outside the party. Not placing so much emphasis on party loyalty, but put that emphasis on skill, meritocracy. Perhaps I’m being too optimistic. But the country has to survive – so why can’t it change for the better as well?

After the election, with the CNRP gone and no obvious challengers to the ruling party rising to take its place, do you think we will see more conflict within the CPP about the party’s direction moving forwards?
At the moment in this election there are 20 parties, including the CPP. But this election is more like the sky at night – there are a lot of stars, surrounding the moon. And who knows? Perhaps they could learn from this experience, and join forces. It’s happened before, with the merger of Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy’s parties. Time will tell – and time also favours that kind of merger. And what about the ruling party? Without change, I’m not so sure it can digest and dissolve the spirit of change that has been ingrained in the hearts and minds of many Cambodians. If they want to gain more acceptance from those people, and eventually their support, then they have to change.

Read more details at Sea-Globe…