(Editor’s note: The following is an adaptation of an article published today in French at Libération.)
Since Hun Manet succeeded his father last month as Cambodia’s dictator, he has been shoring up international support for his power grab. This week, he is in New York to address the opening sessions of the United Nations General Assembly, followed by a private dinner with major U.S. companies.
Barely weeks after the United States and the European Union condemned his father’s government for stealing an election — the U.S. State Department declared the July elections as “neither free nor fair” — Hun Manet is being offered the trappings of international legitimacy. Next year, he will visit Australia and Japan, despite his illegal rise to power that shreds the remains of the four-part 1991 Paris Peace Agreement. The accord, in which 18 counties committed themselves to supporting democracies in Asia, ushered in Cambodia’s short-lived transition to democracy 30 years ago. Japan has even paid a blood price for trying to uphold freedoms there: In the 1990s, two Japanese election volunteers were killed during U.N. peacekeeping missions.
How times have changed. Now, U.N. ambassadors are rejecting the calls of Cambodian rights activists to oppose Hun Manet’s address at the General Assembly, even though walkouts are common in protest of leaders who’ve committed human rights abuses. And social media company Meta has overruled its own Oversight Board and allowed Hun Sen back on Facebook, even after he posted a video threatening to beat up his political rivals.
This de facto acceptance of widespread repression, a fraudulent election, and the creation of a hereditary dynasty in Cambodia is shameful. Hun Manet is no reformer, nor would it matter if he were. His father will remain the real power in the land. Hun Manet is formally taking on the presidency of the King’s Supreme Privy Council, and will become president of the Senate following those elections, scheduled for 2024, which will make him the formal head of state when the King is out of the country.
Prior to the claimed “landslide” victory of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party’s in July, members of the main opposition party, Candlelight, were attacked in broad daylight and the party was banned on a bureaucratic technicality. Just yesterday, a vice president of Candlelight, Thach Setha, was sentenced to 18 months in prison on politically motivated charges.
The West is reluctant to condemn Cambodia’s government for fear of pushing the country further into the arms of China. But appeasement means Hun Sen and his son will continue to toy with the United States and its allies while drifting further into China’s sphere of control. Just last week, Hun Manet chose China for his first official trip abroad, receiving a red-carpeted welcome in Beijing, where joint China-Cambodia military exercises were announced. China has funded the construction of roads, airports, and other infrastructure, and holds more than 40 percent of Cambodia’s $10 billion in foreign debt. In 2021, satellite imagery showed U.S.-funded buildings at the country’s Ream Naval Base being torn down and replaced with Chinese-funded buildings and roads, actions that prompted at least some U.S. sanctions over corruption. China is also funding land reclamation, and in recent months a pier has been expanded to accommodate their warships. Hun Manet in power means the assertion of China’s military capabilities further through their “ironclad friend.”
The West cannot benefit from Cambodia’s relationship with China, yet it continues to be weak in opposing the Cambodian regime’s human rights abuses, in flagrant rejection of U.S. and European promises in the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement. The international community must urgently strengthen its resolve to hold Cambodian leaders accountable, to avoid complicity in what thus far has amounted to impunity.
President Biden met Hun Sen at the ASEAN Summit last November in Phnom Penh, but did not help ensure that Cambodian voters could participate freely in the July 2023 election and vote for a party of their choice. As Hun Manet addresses UNGA as a legitimate representative of Cambodia, and dissenting voices continue to be silenced, the United States is once again going along with the same soft diplomacy that has enabled the Hun family.
There are many steps the United States and its Western allies can take. They should, of course, walk out during Hun Manet’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly session today. In addition, we urge the U.S. government not to renew the trade benefits granted to Cambodia under its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) mechanism. We ask the EU to fulfill its 2021 pledge to fully suspend their “Everything But Arms” trade scheme with Cambodia until verifiable democratic reforms have been achieved. The West also should expand visa sanctions, such as those imposed by the United States in its July post-election condemnation, and freeze the assets of key members of the government and their families.
The international community also must press Hun Manet and his government to immediately release the at least 200 political prisoners currently jailed. They include civil society workers, human rights defenders, and citizens who expressed support for opposition leaders, including for the “crime” of clicking “Like” on a pro-opposition Facebook post. Jailed politicians like the former opposition leader Kem Sokha, who recently was sentenced to 27 years on fabricated charges, and Cambodian-American lawyer Theary Seng, whose case attracted the attention of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, must be freed.
Opposition parties such as Candlelight must be allowed to freely contest next year’s Senate and Provincial elections. We must see an end to a culture of fear, censorship, and reprisals, and the restoration of free media outlets such as Radio Free Asia and Cambodia Daily, which were banned during previous election cycles. The “new” regime shouldn’t be allowed to claim it has changed until those of us from the opposition who were forced to flee our country can return and freely contribute to our nation’s politics again. Hundreds of democratic politicians have been forced into exile, after fleeing with just the clothes they were wearing, cruelly separated from their parents, children, and grandchildren.
Those of us in the opposition are trying to do our part. The Khmer Movement for Democracy, representing the Cambodian diaspora, is staging a peaceful protest outside the United Nations headquarters in New York during the General Assembly session today, aiming to draw attention to the continued dictatorship of Hun Manet.
Again, we urge member states to walk out when Hun Manet addresses the assembly. Otherwise, they will be endorsing his legitimacy, and essentially complicit with his regime’s abuses. Equally, business leaders meeting with him in the United States must raise how he plans to combat systematic corruption and establish the independence of the judiciary, both of which would be not only morally and ethically important but also crucial to doing productive and legally protected business in Cambodia.
While there is a clear reluctance to stand up for the oppressed peoples of a small country allied with China, the failure to do so is to legitimize his regime and the crimes of him, his father, and their cronies.