Why Cambodia Matters for Americans
Since World War II, the United States and her allies have prioritized spreading democracy as a part of our foreign policy. This goal is in our national interest for two reasons: Because promoting freedom is in line with American values, and because it also benefits our national security.
Observing our nation in its infancy in 1835, the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that when democracy spreads, “the inhabitants of these different countries, notwithstanding the dissimilarity of language, of customs, and of laws, nevertheless resemble each other in their equal dread of war and their common love of peace.”
Cambodia, a country of 15.7 million people in Southeast Asia, is a good example of this principle in action. Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia, operates like a dictator and has clung to power for over three decades. Over the last several years Cambodia made some halting steps towards genuine democracy. The opposition made surprising gains in the 2013 national election. When Hun Sen realized he could no longer keep winning even rigged elections, he doubled down on his authoritarian tactics.
In advance of general elections next month, Hun Sen has threatened to use military force if he is unseated and has shuttered independent media. Politically-linked beatings and killings have occurred. He has arrested and persecuted opposition politicians, and ultimately used the Supreme Court he controls to outlaw the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party late last year. Since then, Cambodia has operated as a sham democracy with fake elections, featuring token opposition candidates who are put forward by the regime—a pathetic attempt at pretending the will of Cambodia’s people is being heard.
Predictably, the actions taken by Hun Sen and his regime to undermine democracy in Cambodia have increased tensions with the United States and like-minded countries. Also predictably, the People’s Republic of China has stepped in to enable his abuses. China has become Cambodia’s most important economic sponsor and has publicly defended Hun Sen’s consolidation of power. In return, Hun Sen has turned his country into a tool of Chinese foreign policy, helping China snatch territory in the South China Sea.
Cambodia is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a ten-member group of countries that make decisions about shared interest according to unanimous consensus. ASEAN is the most important regional institution when it comes to the South China Sea, because numerous ASEAN members are victims of China’s territorial aggression.
China is not a member of the ASEAN, but effectively has a veto over the group’s activities because client states like Cambodia are willing to kill any initiative at China’s bidding. I have heard stories of Cambodian officials hand-carrying ASEAN joint statements to the hotel rooms of Chinese officials for approval during ASEAN summits.
So, in no small part due to Cambodian interference, ASEAN has been essentially silent about China’s militarization of the South China Sea. This has been a huge blow to international efforts to resist China’s maritime bullying and has allowed China to consolidate its military strength in the South China Sea without local opposition.
The South China Sea might be far away, but leaders like Defense Secretary Mattis focus on the area for good reason—it’s key to global commerce; our friends and allies in Korea, Taiwan, and Japan depend on it for their energy supplies; and we can’t let authoritarian countries get accustomed to unjustly annexing territory without opposition.
Cambodia’s turn away from democracy has enabled China’s aggression and serves as a good example of why it benefits the United States to promote democracy around the world. To pressure the Hun Sen regime to return to democratic elections, I’ve introduced a bill called the Cambodia Democracy Act which would use financial sanctions to target government officials who undermine democracy. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has unanimously approved the measure, and I’m hopeful that it will move swiftly through Congress. Cambodia holds general elections on just over a month, and we shouldn’t let him cement his hold on power without pushback.