Cambodia’s New Leader Poses Dilemma for Western Powers

Last Updated on September 3, 2023 10:42 am

Western leaders face a dilemma in dealing with Cambodia’s new leader Hun Manet, eager to try to forge ties based on his education in the United States and Britain but hesitant to be seen as endorsing the undemocratic way in which he came to office weeks ago.

“The fact that Hun Manet came to power in a non-democratic way will make it difficult for the United States to consider deepening ties with him,” Charles Dunst, a non-resident fellow in the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told VOA Khmer via email. “The same goes for much of Europe, as well as Australia and New Zealand.”

The U.S State Department said on July 23, the day Cambodia voted, that the election was “neither free nor fair.”

Dunst continued, “Hun Manet will likely consult his father on critical decisions and is unlikely to challenge him. That lack of flexibility could make it hard for Hun Manet to diversify Cambodia’s economic and geopolitical ties.”

Other longtime observers of the southeast Asian nation point to Hun Manet’s need to establish himself after his father’s 38-year rule and to Cambodia’s cozy connection with China as examples of flashpoints in already uneasy relationships with the U.S. and other nations.

A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Hun Manet has served in Cambodia’s military and holds a master’s degree from New York University and a doctorate from Bristol University in Britain, both in economics.

Sophal Ear, an associate professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University and a longtime observer of Cambodian politics, told VOA Khmer, “At some level, everyone is willing to hear him [Hun Manet] out. However, the circumstances of his election cast a cloud because he lives in his father’s shadow. This is not good to establish leadership — that is why he must consolidate power. Will he have the mettle to do so? Can he be his own man?”

Peter Maguire, a seasoned observer of Cambodia, cautioned against dismissing the son, telling VOA Khmer via email, “While Hun Sen’s survival skills and staying power will one day be studied by future historians, Hun Manet is certainly better equipped to improve the Cambodian economy than his father … Hun Manet is a man of the 21st century and anyone who underestimates him does so at their own peril.”

The U.S. reached out to Hun Manet’s government on Aug. 13, before he became prime minister. U.S Ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy posted on X with photo of Cambodia’s foreign ministers under Hun Sen and Hun Manet. Murphy posed between outgoing Prak Sokhonn and incoming Sok Chenda.

Days later, on Aug. 28, a U.S. delegation of bipartisan congressional staff of the Senate Appropriation Committee and Murphy met with Hun Manet, and according to the embassy’s Facebook post, “urged the new Prime Minister and government to reopen civic and independent media space in the Kingdom, make progress on democracy and respect for human rights by ensuring all Cambodians can participate freely in the political process, and release political figures and activists.”

China, long supportive of Hun Sen, had no issue with the 2023 elections and welcomed Cambodia’s new leader. On Aug. 22, the day Hun Manet became prime minister, Li Qiang, China’s premier, wrote “China and Cambodia share a bond of brotherhood, friends who treat each other with all sincerity … China firmly supports Cambodia in a path suited to its national condition … I stand ready to work with you.”

During Hun Sen’s tenure, dozens of large-scale infrastructure projects were built across rural Cambodia with Chinese loans and investment, while massive Chinese investment flowed into real estate in urban and coastal areas. For one of them, China provided $2 billion on a build-operate-transfer basis for a 190-kilometer expressway connecting Phnom Penh with the country’s main port at Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand as part of its Belt and Road initiative.

After the 2018 national elections returned the country to one-party rule, the European Union and the U.S. began withdrawing their preferential trade treatment for Cambodia because it had failed to comply with the required conditions such as free and fair elections, building a civil society and respecting press freedom.

Losing the preferences has cost Cambodia tens of millions of dollars every year, but as Hun Sen said in February 2020, the nation would not give up its sovereignty in exchange for a preferential trade scheme.

Dunst and Maguire told VOA Khmer via email that Hun Manet’s government cannot continue to rely on Beijing alone as China is dealing with its own economic downturn.

“Cambodia is currently reliant on trade and investment from China, whose own economic slowdown could see a decline in funds reaching Cambodia — which could cause real problems for ordinary Cambodians,” said Dunst.

Maguire also said via email that China “will certainly do their best to support their client state … If economic chaos at home forces China to curtail their imperial ambitions, Cambodia will suffer in the short term.”

Sophal Ear told VOA Khmer it is good for the country to have a younger prime minister than Hun Sen, who turned 71 on Aug. 5.

He added, “I think it’s fairly evident, the political landscape of Cambodia remains terribly repressed,” referring to opposition leaders such as Kem Sokha, Sam Rainsy, Mu Sochua and Theary Seng.

Two of the three most prominent faces of opposition to Hun Sen’s rule — Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua — have been sentenced to prison time in Cambodia, but both fled or remained abroad before they could be arrested, and are now effectively banned from the country, as VOA Khmer has reported. Kem Sokha, the third, who led the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) along with Rainsy, is under house arrest in Phnom Penh serving a 27-year sentence. Another voice of opposition, Theary Seng, a Cambodian American lawyer, is serving a six-year sentence for treason in a remote prison in Preah Vihear after criticizing Hun Sen and publicly advocating for a fair and transparent judiciary.

All the conditions set by the EU and the U.S. trade agreements that Cambodia failed to meet remain in play, from human rights to press freedom to creating a democracy and a civil society, as Western nations figure out how to work with Hun Manet.

“All need to find amicable resolutions,” Sophal Ear said. “If [Hun Manet] can solve some of these problems, it will be a huge improvement. If he cannot solve any of these challenges, we will have more of the same.”

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