Pointed critiques of the United States by Cambodia’s ruling party are nothing new given the long-fractious relationship between the two states, but the volume of scorn recently heaped on America’s actions both at home and abroad by Phnom Penh appears to point to a new strategy: that the best defence is a good offence, according to analysts.
Long viewed as part of a Cambodian effort to realign itself with China, Cambodia’s mounting criticism of the West, and the US in particular, is now inviting a different interpretation, with observers asserting that the government is mounting a pre-emptive attack in hopes of delegitimising international criticism ahead of “inevitable” irregularities in upcoming elections.
Recent months have seen the government and Cambodian People’s Party surrogates repeatedly lash out at America over various issues, culminating this week in an 11-page press release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The statement, released on Monday night, lobs accusations of interference at various external actors – including, most pointedly, the United States.
The document, titled To Tell The Truth, castigates the international community in general, but begins by accusing Cambodia’s current favourite punching bag of destabilising the Kingdom in an attempt to establish a new regime.
In the days preceding the statement, government spokesman Phay Siphan took to Facebook, sharing a slew of posts that accused the United States of violating international law for bombing Syria on April 6. Siphan also questioned how America can make human rights criticisms while struggling with racism and police brutality at home.
Reached by phone on Monday, Siphan appealed to the US to “put human rights first”. He also accused US government-funded news sources Radio Free Asia and Voice of America of inciting instability.
“They talk up colour revolutions and try to incite the people . . . they are happy in an air conditioned room while the US launches Tomahawk missiles,” he said.
On Sunday, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan publicly asked the NGO community why nobody was reacting to “violent police crackdowns” on Americans protesting the same attack in Syria.
“When the Cambodian police crack down on people who illegally protest in order to keep the peace leading up to the forthcoming commune elections, the human rights organisations in Cambodia are quick to react,” he later told The Post. “They don’t react to the US government because they are afraid the US will cut off their funding.”
However, David Josar, deputy spokesman at the US Embassy, maintained that the US’s “judicial system is well equipped to handle any allegations of misconduct by either protesters or police. The right to free speech, without fear of retaliation, is a critical part of any democracy.”
“In Cambodia, as in the rest of the world, the United States supports democratic principles, not specific parties . . . We are proud of our longstanding partnership with the Cambodian people and government,” Josar added yesterday in response to the ministry’s press release.
While the United States has taken a – largely unanswered – battering this week, the steady stream of attacks began months ago. In December, Hun Sen compared protests against Donald Trump’s election to protests following Cambodia’s 2013 election, accusing American police of a “savage crackdown”.
Post-election protests in Cambodia – sparked by a lack of a credible investigation into poll irregularities – ultimately culminated in a mass peaceful sit-in being brutally dispersed by masked, plainclothes thugs wielding metal pipes.
A few weeks after the protest remarks, the prime minister began what would become a repeated appeal to Trump to cancel Cambodia’s “dirty debt” to America, accrued during a period of US interference in Cambodia.
In January, the Cambodian government cancelled an annual joint military exercise with the United States after holding an inaugural military exercise with the Chinese just the month before.
In February, the government justified its hard line on the free press by invoking Trump’s own criticisms of the media, with Siphan threatening to “crush” US-funded media outlets VOA and RFA.
The growing trend has puzzled many long-term observers, who say Cambodia has gone much further than necessary to demonstrate its realignment with China, or even to send a message to Washington that it won’t tolerate interference.
“There’s nothing in it for Cambodia . . . is greater dependence on China and Russia in Cambodia’s long-term interest or [for] short-term gain?” asked Southeast Asia specialist Carl Thayer.
The ministry’s latest statement, he added yesterday, “just tells me even more so that the Hun Sen regime is feeling very insecure about the upcoming commune elections”, which Thayer said he expected the CPP to “bulldoze its way through”.
“I say it’s short-sighted . . . The United States is not going to leave Southeast Asia, so things are going to get worse for Cambodia,” Thayer continued, explaining that alienating the US would inevitably also alienate other members of ASEAN, the European Union and Australia.
The US, he added, “can’t keep rewarding countries that kick you in the shin and insult you”.
Billy Tai, a London-based human rights consultant who worked in Cambodia during the previous election cycle, said everything the CPP does should be analysed through the lens of upcoming elections.
“I think it’s all part of the great scheme in preparation for the next election cycle,” he said, noting that the attacks on America are both meant to anticipate external criticism and win internal approval.
“The real target audience is the voting public who will read this almost Trump-esque diatribe and probably find favour with it,” Tai said, explaining that the CPP’s top priority is ensuring it wins the upcoming elections, then worrying about repairing its relationship with the West.
Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, also said Cambodia was pre-empting “inevitable” criticisms of the upcoming elections, but pointed to Hun Sen’s own emotional state as an explanation of the lengths he’s gone to antagonise America.
“Resentment towards the United States and US foreign policy has been a trend in Hun Sen’s political career since before 1979,” Strangio said on Monday.
Strangio theorised that Hun Sen felt personally offended by America’s perceived meddling in Cambodia, had no tolerance for US lectures on human rights and felt like he finally had the freedom to go on the attack now that he’s allied with China.
Strangio pointed to the cancelling of the military exercises as particularly surprising, noting that America had always enjoyed a closer relationship to Cambodia in that regard than China. He also questioned the effectiveness of winning votes by bashing America, claiming that the younger generation doesn’t feel the same resentment that Hun Sen and his peers do.
“I’m reminded of something that Sam Rainsy once said,” Strangio said referring to Hun Sen’s now-exiled long-time political enemy. “[Hun Sen is] like a ship’s captain so busy trying to avoid the rocks that he doesn’t know what direction he’s going.”
Ear Sophal, a policy analyst and associate professor at Occidental College, said cycles of anti-Americanism come and go in Cambodia, but never to this extent.
“It’s as if there’s blood in the water and Cambodia is circling. But Cambodia as shark? Who are they kidding? What’s strange though is the short-sightedness of all this.
America may be down, but she’s not out for the count. And China may be Cambodia’s patron, but one day it might not be,” Sophal said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA