Politicians, civil society members and citizens have urged Cambodia’s government to broaden its diplomatic outreach, saying they fear Phnom Penh may rely too heavily on Beijing in the aftermath of a rollbacks on democracy that have alienated the country from the West.
The reactions came at the end of a visit by Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni to Beijing on Tuesday, during which he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and was quoted by Chinese state media as saying that the people of Cambodia “will stand firmly with the Chinese people under any circumstances.”
Xi pledged that China will continue to support Cambodia “in pursuing the development path suited to its own national conditions,” and work with Cambodia to push their comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation to a new level, according to the report by Xinhua news agency.
It also follows a trip by Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen to Beijing at the end of April to attend a summit on Xi’s sweeping Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), from which he returned laden with deals said will offset the impact of impending trade sanctions from the West over his regime’s crackdown on the political opposition, NGOs and the independent media.
Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for local rights group Licadho, told RFA’s Khmer Service Friday that Cambodia’s constitution does not allow for the country to take a biased approach to diplomatic relations with any one country.
“If we are taking stance toward China and walking away from the path of democracy, it will affect our country’s development,” he said.
He urged Prime Minister Hun Sen to restore democracy and human rights to Cambodia in order to ensure the country continues to enjoy tax-free entry into the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, now under threat.
In February, the EU announced it would launch a six-month monitoring period to determine whether Cambodian exports should continue to benefit from the EBA, prompted by a November 2017 ruling by Cambodia’s Supreme Court to ban the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), months after its president, Kem Sokha, was arrested for an alleged plot to overthrow the government.
The dissolution of the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the opposition, NGOs and the independent media, which paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
China, which offered its full support of Hun Sen’s government following the election, typically offers funding without many of the prerequisites that the U.S. and EU place on donations, such as improvements to human rights and rule of law.
Chinese investment now flows into Cambodian real estate, agriculture and entertainment—particularly to the port city of Sihanoukville—but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they say are unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese residents, and worry that their country is increasingly bending to Beijing’s will.
Critics of deals through the BRI say that China is using investment to push its own political agenda, and that nations involved in the initiative see their sovereignty undermined if they fall into a “debt-trap” that leaves them beholden to Beijing because they are unable to meet regular payments on loans and default.
Memories of genocide
Kan Savang, coordinator for the rights group Comfrel, told RFA that Cambodia must balance itself between the influences of communism and democracy, and that the country “will fail” if it becomes too oriented towards China.
“We must learn from past experience,” he said, referring to the harsh Beijing-backed Communist Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia under whose 1975-79 rule an estimated 3 million people are believed to have died.
“We would like the government to take both sides [China and the West]. We can’t be biased to any particular country.”
CNRP deputy president Eng Chhay Eang echoed concerns about China and its role in supporting the Khmer Rouge, while speaking to RFA from self-imposed exile.
But he also warned that China “continues to exploit Cambodia” today by extracting its natural resources and through trade.
“When I see Chinese leaders flattering Cambodia leaders, I am really concerned because we know that Cambodia fell into genocide because of China,” he said.
Local and regional concerns
A villager from Banteay Meanchey province told RFA that Cambodia’s pivot towards China has led to a huge influx of Chinese nationals who he said are taking jobs from locals and bringing crime to the country.
“Many Chinese are living here illegally and we would like the King to know what’s going on in their communities here,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Last week, Cambodia’s National Police said that of 341 foreign nationals detained for criminal offenses occurring between Dec. 20, 2018 and March 19, 2019, 241 were Chinese nationals, but the government has sought to downplay public criticism of Chinese investment in the wake of the report.
On a regional scale, Mu Sochua, another deputy president of the CNRP, told RFA that while campaigning in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to gain support for the restoration of democracy in Cambodia, officials she met with expressed concern about China’s growing influence in Asia.
“People are concerned about Chinese influence because it is affecting the democracy of ASEAN,” she said.
On Friday, government spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA that Cambodia’s development relies on China and dismissed any concerns over Beijing’s intentions or Sihamoni’s trip this week.
“Our King is following his ex-King’s footsteps,” he said of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, who maintained close relations with Beijing throughout his life and lived part-time in the Chinese capital for decades.
“We won’t make enemies with anyone,” he added.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.