Trump, Normally Cozy With Despots, Takes a Hard Line With Cambodia’s Hun Sen

World Politics Review, 12.04.2019
Charles Dunst, periodista basado en Phnom Penh (Cambodia)

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at a groundbreaking ceremony for a Chinese-funded expressway project in Kampong Speu province, south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 22, 2019 (AP/Heng Sinith).

In December, nearly 40 men stepped off a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-chartered plane onto a humid tarmac on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the capital of their unfamiliar homeland. It was the first time many of them, who were born in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines to parents fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime, and who grew up in the United States, had ever set foot in Cambodia. Others fled the country as children, with their only memories of Cambodia being the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

The overwhelming majority of these Cambodian deportees came to the U.S. legally as refugees and lived in the country as permanent residents, holding green cards. They became deportable after being convicted of an aggravated felony, including attempted murder and drug trafficking, or two misdemeanors, including marijuana possession and petty theft—convictions that invalidate one’s U.S. green card. These deportations have continued largely unabated since 2002, with more than 700 people sent back to Cambodia in that time. But the Trump administration has increased these removals at an unprecedented rate, deporting around 130 last year, a record number.

On the surface, these deportations appear to simply be another plank in President Donald Trump’s restrictive immigration platform, which has included drastically reducing the number of refugee arrivals to the U.S. and ending Temporary Protected Status for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans and tens of thousands of Hondurans and Haitians in the U.S., among other harsh measures. But these Cambodian deportations also reflect the declining state of U.S.-Cambodia ties under Trump.

The U.S. needs Cambodia’s cooperation on these deportations, as the receiving country must issue travel papers for those whom the U.S. intends to deport. But when the Trump administration began increasing these deportations in 2017, Cambodia’s longtime autocratic leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, lashed out at Washington and said his country would refuse to receive the deportees. In response, the Trump administration officially labeled Cambodia a “recalcitrant” country—along with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam—for its unwillingness to issue the travel papers necessary for the U.S. to deport those in detention. It then imposed visa sanctions on Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, but exempted Vietnam, with which it has an increasingly close and strategic relationship—made most evident by the fact that Hanoi hosted the recent summit between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, which included important sideline meetings between U.S. and Vietnamese officials. Cambodia eventually acquiesced early last year and agreed to receive the deportees in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions.

The entire episode demonstrates both the Trump administration’s laser focus on the deportations and the strained nature of the U.S.-Cambodia relationship, which has existed under previous American administrations in a state of tense but semi-productive collaboration since diplomatic ties were reestablished in the early 1990s.

In 1993, the United Nations, after spending almost $2 billion to help rebuild Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese occupation that followed, backed moderately free and fair elections that Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, lost to Prince Ranariddh and his royalist party, despite engineering a deadly pre-election terror campaign designed to sway voters. But after stoking and claiming to “solve” a post-election secession crisis, Hun Sen forced his way into power—a move the U.S. all but endorsed with a subsequent power-sharing agreement that included him and was unveiled in a ceremony at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel.

The U.S., while proclaiming to be initiating Cambodian democracy, had instead legitimized Hun Sen’s coup. But the 1993 power-sharing agreement set the stage for the normalization of U.S.-Cambodia relations under President Bill Clinton. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama later pursued some cooperation with Cambodia, providing the country with U.S. aid and, at times, direct assistance to Hun Sen’s increasingly kleptocratic regime, in exchange for moderate assistance on counterterrorism and military issues. Both Bush and Obama condemned Hun Sen’s human rights abuses but still sought him out when American interests trumped these concerns.

Bush, fearing after 9/11 that Cambodia, with its porous borders, could become a terrorist safe haven, deepened U.S. security ties with Hun Sen’s regime and helped establish Cambodia’s National Counter-Terrorism Committee, which more recently has been described as a “personal intelligence service for the prime minister.” Obama made a landmark visit to Cambodia in 2012, the first ever by a U.S. president, where he publicly sidestepped Hun Sen’s abuses. Obama had hoped, among other regional goals, to enlist Cambodia to counter China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

That effort essentially failed. Cambodia in recent years has utilized its veto power to block the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the main regional bloc, from opposing China over the South China Sea, as Hun Sen has increasingly aligned his country with Beijing and actively weakened ties between Phnom Penh and Washington.

Ties with the U.S., in the meantime, have soured. In escalating rhetoric, Hun Sen has accused the U.S. of planning to overthrow his regime and last year called the American ambassador a “liar” over U.S. aid cuts. With stronger backing from Beijing, Hun Sen has appeared more comfortable pursuing an openly autocratic agenda, putting aside the pretense of reform in brazenly undemocratic elections last year. Growing Chinese political and economic support has largely insulated his regime from Western pressure.

The Trump administration’s response has been to downgrade ties with Cambodia and ratchet up its criticisms of Hun Sen. This posture is reflected most of all by its heavy-handed, sanctions-laden approach to the deportations of Cambodians from the U.S., but it also includes other measures. Last year, the White House cut aid to Cambodia, specifically to certain Hun Sen-controlled governmental sectors, including the military and police, citing “deep concerns” over “recent setbacks in democracy.”

Yet the U.S. continues to fund programs in the country for health, agriculture and the clearance of land mines, all of which can bolster existing pro-U.S. sentiment among Cambodians. According to a 2016 survey, 85 percent of Cambodians had a positive view of America’s impact in the region.

The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh has also taken a vocal line against Hun Sen and China’s influence in Cambodia. Khmer-language social media posts by the Embassy, including a post on Facebook in January marking the 40-year anniversary of the Khmer Rouge’s initial defeat, seem to reflect U.S. efforts to play upon pro-American sentiments in Cambodia at Hun Sen’s expense. That post included photos of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot with Chinese government officials, offering a clear message: The U.S. did not conspire with the genocidal Khmer Rouge; China did. The subtext—that the U.S. is a friend of the Cambodian people, while China and, by association, Hun Sen are not—was hard to miss.

Some in Cambodia have welcomed this more assertive American messaging. After the U.S. Embassy in mid-February decried the continued imprisonment of opposition leader Kem Sokha, one prominent Cambodian commentator called the statement “remarkably candid and lion-hearted.”

But Cambodia’s browbeaten opposition will need much more than rhetorical support from Washington. Hun Sen rules through fear and patronage, hardly tolerates dissent and, at 66 years old, plans to remain in power for years. He has also positioned his son, Hun Manet—a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point in the late 1990s––as his successor-in-waiting.

The line the Trump administration has taken with Cambodia—trying to engage with Cambodians directly and cautiously encouraging them to oppose Hun Sen—is surprising, given Trump’s demonstrated disdain for democracy-promotion and affinity for other autocrats and autocratically minded leaders, including elsewhere in Asia. Yet this engagement still seeks the same overly optimistic outcome that other administrations have pursued here for years: a democratic Cambodia in America’s orbit.

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