Setbacks in democratization must not be ignored

Democracy is at risk in Cambodia because of the country’s China-backed authoritarian rule. A situation that could threaten regional stability must be prevented.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which has been in power for more than 35 years, won the majority of seats in recent local elections that served as a prelude for next year’s general election.

The administration blocked opposition candidates from running for office and campaigning across the nation. The elections can hardly be recognized as fair contests. The 2018 general election was held under circumstances in which the main opposition party was forced to dissolve, leaving the ruling party dominating the seats.

Last year, Hun Sen named as his successor his eldest son, a senior military officer. Hun Sen has apparently drawn up a scenario in which the ruling party will win a landslide victory in the next general election after gaining momentum through local elections, thereby realizing a hereditary succession of power.

Following more than 20 years of civil war that claimed millions of lives, Cambodia began pursuing reconstruction and democratization in the 1990s with the support of the United Nations, Japan, the United States and Europe. The current situation, in which democracy has become a mere formality, greatly betrays the expectations of the international community.

Hun Sen’s authoritarian regime can be said to have been supported by China. China’s massive investments and aid have helped Cambodia grow, and economic development has been the centripetal force of the long-term government.

The crackdown on anti-Hun Sen forces and the media mirrors China’s actions in Hong Kong. Western countries have sharply criticized Cambodia’s policies, but China has come to its defense. Beijing bears significant responsibility for reversing Cambodia’s democratization.

There should be strict vigilance toward the military cooperation between the two countries. With Chinese assistance, work is under way to expand a naval base in southern Cambodia near the South China Sea. Many observers believe it is a strategic move for the Chinese military to use this facility as a base in the region in the future.

If that were to happen, Chinese forces would be able to quickly deploy to the south of the South China Sea. This would pose a threat to neighboring countries — such as Vietnam and Indonesia — that are engaged in a dispute with China over sovereignty. U.S. forces could also be constrained in their actions.

If Cambodia wants to dispel criticism, it should explain in detail the actual situation regarding its cooperation with China.

Partly due to a history of participating in U.N. peacekeeping operations and being deeply involved in the peace process in Cambodia, Japan has been trying to maintain good relations with Cambodia by keeping a distance from the hard-line stance adopted by Western countries.

Nevertheless, Tokyo should not tolerate authoritarian politics and moves to destabilize the region. It is necessary to reiterate the importance of democracy and a “free and open Indo-Pacific” to Hun Sen and urge him to bring about change.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, June 20, 2022)