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Kingdom is at a crossroads between East, West after poll

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A voter drops her ballot into a box during the general election in Phnom Penh on July 29. Manan VATSYAYANA/afp

Kingdom is at a crossroads between East, West after poll

It was dubbed a success by caretaker prime minister Hun Sen after the electoral victory of his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which is poised to take all seats in the National Assembly.

But the July 29 national election has not been positively looked at by western countries that have called it undemocratic, unfree and unfair.

In contrast, China, Russia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore have all congratulated the Kingdom on its “peaceful and orderly” polls.

Ear Sophal, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs based in California, said except for the Philippines, most countries that have praised the election or congratulated Hun Sen are themselves undemocratic. He said the praises were given with a keen eye on the future.

“They want to congratulate the world’s newest non-democracy. The Phnom Penh authorities, in turn, will congratulate them when they hold their ‘elections’,” he said.

Paul Chambers, a lecturer and special adviser for international affairs at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said it was a priority for countries with authoritarian leaderships not to criticise the CPP, while Western countries, in contrast, have strong civil societies.

Chambers pointed to the Philippines which “killed a bunch of people without due-process, China jailed a Nobel Prize winner until he died and Russia’s Putin is staying in power forever”.

Sophal said the new government would become just another friend “to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, and better to allow [allied] leaders to do whatever they want to their people,” he said.

He said the government strayed from the Buddhist middle path, and it was sad that Cambodia had many choices but chose only the patronage of China.

Chambers agreed, saying that it seems Cambodia was supporting a Chinese model of development which favours “economic liberalisation minus political liberalisation”.

The analysts said with Cambodia closer to China and becoming an “entrenched party dictatorship” the consequence would be political turbulence.

“The political system would become a benevolent dictatorship like Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, otherwise it will become a hereditary military regime like Japan’s pre-Meiji Shogunate and subservient to both China and Vietnam like pre-French colonised Cambodia,” said political analyst Lao Mong Hay.

But Em Sovannara, another political analyst, held a different view. Accepting that Cambodia was heading toward China, he said the US’ Generalised System of Preference (GSP) and the European Union’s (EU) Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme would help prevent Cambodia from losing itself to China.

“The US, EU, and Japan don’t want Cambodia to fall into Chinese influence. So, they have mechanisms that are favourable to Cambodia. Things such as the EBA, GSP, and Japanese aid will prevent Cambodia from going to China. The Kingdom needs foreign aid,” he said.

He said Cambodia was at a crossroads. “If the country turns too far to one side, either China or the West, it will be at risk,” he said.

Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan, however, refuted the claims that Cambodia was on the verge of becoming a dictatorship. He said if Cambodia strengthens its rule of law, democracy will prevail.

“I see it differently. These analysts read US books, and they do not understand much about the US. They do not understand that constructing the rule of law and democracy are based on the majority voice,” he said.

He said that a country which prioritises democracy over rule of law would be in a state of anarchy “like what the Cambodia National Rescue Party did in 2013”.

Siphan said he didn’t believe that a country with a one party-parliament tantamounted to a dictatorship.

“Some countries only have one party, the president and prime minister are from one party, and they are able to lead their country correctly,” he said.

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