China may be the real winner in Cambodian election

Special to

By John J. Metzler

PARIS — The very name Cambodia evokes tragic memories and historical passions.

This small Southeast Asian land which was ravaged by the communist Khmer Rouge genocide a generation ago, then occupied by neighboring Vietnam, and later, resuscitated back to life by a long forgotten United Nations peacekeeping and electoral mission in 1992, now is predictably overlooked by the international community. Cambodia has largely been forgotten in recent years.

Hun Sen, an old Khmer Rouge who has politically reinvented himself many times, has been in power in Phnom Penh since 1985. / Samrang Pring / Reuters
‘Hun Sen, an old Khmer Rouge who has politically reinvented himself many times, has been in power in Phnom Penh since 1985.’ / Samrang Pring / Reuters

Cambodia may now be forsaken too with the predictable re-election of longtime leader Hun Sen. The die was cast. With an 82 percent national turnout, an absence of any serious opposition parties, Hun Sen, an old Khmer Rouge who has politically reinvented himself many times, has been in power in Phnom Penh since 1985. And with the unapologetic backing of his mentors in Beijing, it seems his tenure and that of his increasingly authoritarian Cambodian People’s Party remains assured.

His party’s 77 percent victory and sweep of all 125 parliamentary seats, may reflect the population’s frustrated disenchantment with the future as much as any genuine support.

Sam Rainsy the exiled leader of the banned opposition National Rescue Party chided, “A victory without a contest is a hollow one.”

The U.S. State Department called the electoral outcome as “neither free nor fair.” The European Union decried the results as “Not credible.” While the EU refused to send election observers, China and Russia happily obliged.

As Sam Rainsy stated from France, “For the first time since the UN organized elections in 1993, Cambodia does not have a legitimate government recognized by the international community.”

At the end of the Indochina wars in April 1975, Cambodia became the bloody victim of the Beijing-backed Khmer Rouge communists who through the ferocious “killing fields” murdered up to a quarter of the country’s entire population during a few short if horrific years in power.

Then an invasion by neighboring Vietnam turned Cambodia into a vassal of its ancient rival but the mass murder stopped. Here Hun Sen, entered the scene as a callous collaborator of the Vietnamese sponsored regime.

Correspondingly, this was the period when Cambodia’s mercurial Prince Sihanouk, diplomatically lobbied in support of the ousted Khmer Rouge “Democratic Kampuchea” regime. Each year the debate would spill over into the United Nations where the Chinese backed factions would lobby successfully to hold the Khmer Rouge’s UN membership seat against Vietnam’s isolated client state, supported by the Soviets and their East Bloc allies.

After what seemed like a permanent conflict, the Vietnamese finally agreed to a UN backed Peacekeeping and Electoral mission which actually ushered in reasonably free and fair elections and not surprisingly, restored the historic Kingdom of Cambodia as a constitutional monarchy.

During the post-UN phase there was a giddy glimmer of hope for long suffering Cambodia; the country of 16 million was awash with foreign humanitarian aid and genuine goodwill. Tourism revived for the splendid Angkor Wat temple complex. Foreign firms invested in a growing textile industry which remains an economic bulwark. A free press flickered alive.

Today’s Cambodian economy is oriented towards textile and apparel exports from largely Chinese-owned factories. The building boom in the capital Phnom Penh reflects China’s commercial interests. Happily over the past twenty years, this once war ravaged land has seen economic growth and some prosperity.

“The Cambodian regime plays China against the European Union,” warned the French newspaper Le Monde.

Indeed as the USA and European countries are considering economic sanctions on Phnom Penh’s rulers, it’s the People’s Republic of China who has turned Cambodia, as it has Burma, into a playable piece on Southeast Asia’s geopolitical chessboard. China has equally reinforced its commercial grip on the economy and the political class.

A millennia ago, Cambodia’s storied Khmer Kingdom held sway over vast parts of Southeast Asia, including modern day Thailand and some of Vietnam. Indeed here in Paris the splendid Guimet Asian Art Museum holds the treasured stone sculptures of ancient Khmer elephants and deities.

Cambodia’s legacy contrasts sharply with the present regime which is hardly a regional power but a land whose sovereignty lies in the political shadows of People’s China.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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