Two million reasons why Cambodia’s prime minister fears US meddling in elections
Jonathan Power says when one looks at the history of Washington’s involvement in Cambodia, including its backing of the murderous Khmer Rouge, it’s easier to understand Hun Sen’s crackdown against opposition forces ahead of next year’s election
Cambodia is slipping backwards again. Earlier this month the government asked the Supreme Court to dissolve the main opposition. The English-language Cambodia Daily has been closed and relatively free radio stations leaned on. Prime Minister Hun Sen talks about rebels in the capital plotting to overthrow the government.
Yet economic growth nears 7 per cent year after year. Land reform has worked. Health and education of the poor has improved markedly. In other countries, this might mean political liberalisation. But Hun Sen, who has won many elections, fears defeat next year.
To understand, we must go back 47 years. In 1970, a pro-American military junta, led by Lon Nol, deposed King Sihanouk, who had kept his country out of the Vietnam war. Lon Nol threw his weight behind the US, supporting their bombing of the Khmer Rouge, which roamed in the interior. Napalm was used unsparingly. In the end, though, the Khmer Rouge overthrew Lon Nol.
Fast forward to 1979. The Vietnam war ended in 1975 with US defeat. The Khmer Rouge were in power in Cambodia. Besides continuously provoking Vietnam with military incursions, at home, they killed nearly 2 million people.
The North Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979, and installed in power ex-Khmer Rouge dissidents. One of them was Hun Sen, prime minister since 1985.
Because the Cambodian government was installed by the hated North Vietnamese, the US persuaded its allies to let the Khmer Rouge keep Cambodia’s seat at the UN. The Khmer Rouge went on slaughtering Cambodians but the US did not change its mind until 1990. Even after this, the Khmer Rouge continued their attacks, boosted by all the help they had received in the past on the Thai border from the US and China.
The US and its allies never apologised for supporting the Khmer Rouge. In Phnom Pen, I was told by a senior US diplomat that they were under strict orders by the Obama administration not to even discuss it.
I’ve concluded that the long period when the US and Europeans supported the Khmer Rouge embittered Hun Sen and most Cambodians. It helped build his popularity.
Cambodia attracts a lot of foreign investment. It has cut the number of people in poverty faster than any other Asian country, apart from China and Bangladesh. Cambodia is reasonably efficient, despite high levels of corruption. Hun Sen feels that his opponents are being helped by outside forces.
Those of us who believe in democracy must criticise his effort to fix next year’s election. But it is easy to understand his motivation.
Jonathan Power is a foreign affairs columnist and commentator