Tanks and Sam Rainsy arrived in Cambodia last week. Rainsy arrived from the US, where he was attending his daughter's wedding and also drumming up support for his Cambodian National Rescue Party's (CNRP) call for an independent review of Cambodia's recent
Rainsy has long been campaigning against Prime Minister Hun Sen, the longest-sitting leader in Southeast Asia. In public, Hun Sen has railed against the immorality vices such as alcohol and prostitution, and he deliberately carries himself in a manner evocative of a Khmer king. However, much of his political base is made up of the “Lexus-owning class” of Cambodian society: extremely rich elites who have made their fortunes on alcohol, prostitution and other forms of exploitation.
He has important foreign support as well. China, unbeknownst to many in the West, has been gradually and seriously arming Hun Sen’s Cambodia. China has openly given and sold trucks, helicopters and even uniforms to Cambodia, while some tanks and armoured personnel carriers have arrived, via Eastern Europe, from murkier sources. (Through the fog of government evasion, we are meant to think that the personnel carriers are the Ukrainian BMP-1 – but they more closely resemble the nearly identical Chinese WZ-501.) Are these armaments purposed for defence of the frontier or for internal security?
It is no secret that the US is courting countries like the Philippines and Vietnam to establish a bulwark against China’s regional hegemony. China, meanwhile, has been successful in using Cambodia to splinter Asean unity over the South China Seas issue. China’s South China Sea objectives are the key to understanding the developments inside Cambodia. Last year, for the first time in its 45-year history, Asean failed to put forward a joint communique. This prevented the issuing of a Code of Conduct, a necessary first step in joint negotiations with China over the South China Sea issues. China would much rather settle this matter through a string of bilateral negotiations rather than negotiate with a unified Asean. Cambodia has no claim of its own in the South China Sea, and so Beijing has done much to court Hun Sen.
The CNRP won a spectacular 55 of 123 National Assembly seats in this year’s election, at least. They claim to have won as many as 63, but the elections appear to have been rigged, and a fair recount is being hindered by the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP). Meanwhile, Hun Sen has been deploying his new armaments post-election around the major cities to quell possible opposition demonstrations. Opposition supporters and politicians have been bullied, beat up and marginalised to the point where Cambodia is a powder keg. These armaments could ensure that Hun Sen remains in power, in a Mugabe-esque disregard for democratic process. This is both a reward to Hun Sen for his loyalty to China, and a way of ensuring that the Chinese have in Cambodia a leader they know how to work with.
But there is also an important regional dimension: many of the personnel carriers to have arrived recently are tracked vehicles. In the muddy terrain of Cambodia, wheeled vehicles have always fared poorly, and the military have avoided them since the days of the Khmer Empire. Tracked vehicles in Cambodia are conceivably a threat to neighbours such as Thailand in a way that wheeled vehicles are not. And the current Thai government, goaded by its domestic political opposition, could be lured into an arms race with Cambodia. This would further splinter Asean and play into China’s hand.
The US has suspended military cooperation and training exercises, and Australia has done the same in a show of support for Cambodia’s opposition. The biggest danger to China’s plans now, and the best hope for a unified Asean, is the growing opposition movement within Cambodia. We may be on the verge of a “Jasmine Spring”, in which the people of Cambodia demand an end to the crony capitalism and heavy-handed governance that has been stifling economic growth for decades.
We might also be on the verge of another bloody chapter in Cambodia’s history. In a nation where young people increasingly do not know what the Khmer Rouge did, where labour unrest and land seizures are increasingly common, and where wages have remained stagnant, trouble is brewing. Will the ruling party accept a verifiable recount, a growing opposition, and a possible turnout from office in the next election? Or, does a country with such a violent and genocidal history turn into another Egypt, Zimbabwe or Iraq? For a country we have come to love and admire, we hope for the former.
Lawrence Gundersen is a professor of history and political science at the University of Tennessee. Scott Mikalauskis is a graduate student in Southeast Asian Studies in Bangkok.