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The Crackdown in Cambodia

Samrang Pring/Reuters
The final issue of The Cambodia Daily, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, September 4, 2017

“Descent into Outright Dictatorship,” read The Cambodia Daily’s final headline on Monday, a defiant last cry from a fiercely independent newspaper that has now been shut down by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government. For the Daily’s final issue, its reporters worked through the night to cover the arrest of the country’s main opposition leader, Kem Sokha, as part of a government crackdown that has consumed politicians, journalists, and non-profits ahead of next year’s election.

Hun Sen’s government alleges that the Daily owes over $6 million in taxes, and ordered it to pay up or close. The paper was given until Sunday to make good on its arrears, and meanwhile Hun Sen called it Cambodia’s “chief thief.” The Daily, whose motto is “All the News Without Fear or Favor,” claimed that it has not turned a profit in nearly a decade, and responded with a statement that “the power to tax is the power to destroy”—acknowledging the possibility of a “legitimate” tax dispute with the government but insisting that its closure was politically motivated.

The Cambodian government has used allegations of bureaucratic misdemeanors against many targets in its recent crackdown. In past weeks it has ordered the closure of more than a dozen radio stations that it said had violated broadcasting regulations. These stations were among the few outlets that regularly featured opposition politicians, and licensed programming from the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, which are both funded by the US government and have been accused of tax delinquencies of their own. The government last month also shut down a pro-democracy US non-profit, the National Democratic Institute, and expelled its foreign staff from Cambodia, for allegedly failing to register itself. The National Democratic Institute had been working with Cambodia’s ruling and opposition parties to foster democracy in the country.

These closures appear to be a veiled targeting of institutions backed by the United States, whose foreign policy Hun Sen has long criticized. But Hun Sen sent a less ambiguous message after his government arrested Kem Sokha, president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party: he justified the arrest with the startling accusation that the US government was conspiring with opposition leaders to topple Cambodia’s government.

Kem Sokha was arrested just after midnight in his Phnom Penh home by one hundred police officers—a show of force—and isolated in a prison two hundred kilometers from Phnom Penh, on Cambodia’s border with Vietnam. The government charged Kem Sokha with treason, claiming he was caught “in flagrante delicto,”or red-handed, a necessary condition to override his parliamentary immunity. Government officials pointed to a video from four years ago in which Kem Sokha spoke about advice he received—from US government-hired academics—on building his grassroots opposition movement.

That opposition movement has slowly grown to pose a credible threat to Hun Sen in next year’s election. During the last general election, in 2013, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party lost a quarter of its seats and won by less than 5 percent, its poorest showing in fifteen years—despite widespread allegations of vote rigging. This small margin of victory led many observers to believe that the Cambodian National Rescue Party had in fact won the election. Hun Sen’s government, and not election officials, announced the vote’s result, which was then protested by thousands on Phnom Penh’s streets. The leader of the opposition party in that election, Sam Rainsy, was banned from Cambodian politics six months ago, and now lives in exile.

Hun Sen defends this repression like a classic dictator, invoking a foreign threat to Cambodia’s peace. Sixty-five years old and hospitalized in Singapore this summer for “exhaustion,” Hun Sen is increasingly insistent that his government is the target of a US plot. On Monday he cited the US government’s history of political interference, including its ousting of Cambodia’s king in 1970 to install Lon Nol’s repressive regime. In citing that coup, Hun Sen evokes Cambodia’s dark history under the Khmer Rouge, which toppled Lon Nol and killed perhaps two million Cambodians. Hun Sen is himself a former Khmer Rouge commander who defected and, with Vietnam’s support, eventually became Cambodia’s leader. During his thirty-two-year rule over Cambodia he has built few independent institutions. And he signaled his own intentions when he warned of “civil war” should he lose next year’s vote.

Hun Sen’s latest crackdown stems both from the threat to his grip on power and his strategic move away from the United States and toward China. The Chinese government reacted to Kem Sokha’s arrest predictably, emphasizing stability over any concerns about democracy. Booming Chinese investment has helped to drive Cambodia’s economic growth, from new high rises towering over Phnom Penh to giant hydroelectric dams on Cambodia’s extensive river network. But Cambodia, one of Asia’s poorest countries, remains dependent on aid from the United States and other Western powers to finance more than 30 percent of the government’s budget, and also for preferential export terms to the US from its large garment industry.

Hun Sen’s political shrewdness has helped him become one of the world’s most enduring leaders. Unlike many dictators, he uses democratic institutions such as elections and opposition newspapers to help him stay in power. Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk, under whose patronage The Cambodia Daily was founded, referred to the Daily as his “CIA,” according to the Daily’s founder, because few other sources told him what was “really happening” in Cambodia. Hun Sen has reacted to media and opposition party reports of worker discontent, for example, by adjusting government policies to favor garment workers and rural Cambodians. He has allowed a level of free expression so he can gauge the country’s mood. And a visible opposition has allowed him to create an image of a growing democracy.

Hun Sen tolerated the Daily because it published mainly in English, a language not understood by most Cambodians, and had a circulation of only about five thousand. Most Khmer-language papers are friendly to Hun Sen’s regime, rarely reporting its crimes. Reports from the Daily sometimes filtered into Khmer-language news, but rarely threatened to spark an uprising. Its principal achievement—along with The Phnom Penh Post, another independent English-language newspaper that is seen as less oppositional to the government—has been to hold Cambodia’s government accountable to an influential international community: Western governments, non-profits, and journalists. But Hun Sen is less concerned these days about his standing in the West. Despite Western criticism, his government has even barred the Daily’s owners from leaving Cambodia until its alleged $6 million tax bill is settled.

Hun Sen’s government has been accused of land grabs, illegal logging, and widespread corruption. Over the past two decades, more than a dozen journalists and human rights activists have been killed, including the prominent political commentator Kem Ley, assassinated last year in a Phnom Penh coffee shop. The trial for that murder bordered on farce: a Cambodian court accepted the accused killer’s detailed confession, as well as his claim that his name was “Chuop Samlap,” which means “meet to kill.” Such flagrant abuses of power will only grow with a weaker local press.

The Daily’s closure may also have a long-term effect on the quality of journalism in Cambodia. Since its founding in 1993, the Daily has served as a training ground for Cambodian and foreign journalists. The presence of many Daily alumni in distinguished Western media outlets is a testimony to the quality of the Daily’s coverage, and has contributed to the international visibility of its closure.

The waning of the international community’s influence over Hun Sen raises ethical questions about Western aid to Cambodia. It is now evident that foreign donors like the United States are financing the policies of an increasingly dictatorial government. As long as the Cambodia National Rescue Party gained votes at the ballot box, the United States could credibly argue that the more than $80 million it provides to Cambodia annually—mostly for health programs—allowed it to influence democratic reform. With next year’s election likely to be compromised at best, that argument is looking weaker than ever.

But donors find themselves in the familiar bind of dealing with dictators, for cutting aid to Cambodia would adversely affect health and education programs for millions of Cambodians. Hesitant to withdraw, the West is likely to grow increasingly complicit in Hun Sen’s repression, as he shrugs off criticism and pockets aid money. A Cambodian government spokesman told the Daily in December that in his experience, regardless of how much donors have criticized Cambodia’s government for human rights violations, they have “always increased aid.”

The risk to Hun Sen is that his new repression is slowly cutting him off from the sources of information that he had used to judge the effects of his policies on the Cambodian people. In cracking down on independent news and his opposition, Hun Sen may have decided to make explicit that there is no alternative to his rule, and that Cambodians have no choice but to be happy with his government.