A professor who escaped Cambodia as a child knows what terrifies the ruling regime

View from the outside.
View from the outside.
Image: Sophal Ear
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Cambodia holds general elections on Sunday (July 29). The result has never been in doubt.

Prime minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will win, with its main opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), having been dissolved in November. The CNRP had been making impressive gains in general and local elections in recent years, and posed a significant threat to Hun Sen’s rule of more than 30 years. As such, the ruling government accused the CNRP of plotting to take power with the help of the United States, and had arrested the party’s leader Kem Sokha on treason charges; he remains in custody.

Other CNRP leaders now living abroad have urged Cambodians to boycott the “fake” elections. None of the smaller parties running in the election poses a threat to the CPP. But the CPP wants to avoid low turnout, which could challenge its legitimacy, and has resorted at times to intimidation tactics to persuade people to go to the polls. Meanwhile Hun Sen’s government, increasingly shunned by Western powers over concerns of growing authoritarianism, has received strong financial support from Beijing to the point where many now view Cambodia as essentially a client state of China (paywall).

Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, will be closely watching the “electoral charade.” Ear is the author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia and co-author of The Hungry Dragon: How China’s Resource Quest Is Reshaping the World. As a youth, he and his family narrowly escaped into Vietnam from Cambodia, then ruled by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. In 2009, he gave a TED talk on that journey, and a video of it online has garnered over 590,000 views. In a conversation with Quartz, he discusses the possible outcomes of the elections, the lethargic response of the Cambodian people, and what the regime fears most.

What will happen if the voter turnout is high and the CPP wins convincingly?

The election won’t be seen as legitimate either way, but the ruling party will gloat about its high voter turnout and convincing win regardless. Of course, it doesn’t matter because the observers are of the ruling party’s choosing: 50,000 from China, Myanmar, and Singapore, and another 30,000 from the Youth Wing of the CPP—that’s like the Communist Youth League observing a Soviet election. So stealing the election in this scenario with made-up voter turnout and a super-majority of the vote can’t be disproven. They have complete control over the electoral system, including the computers, so it’s whatever they say. Plus 70,000 troops to ensure safety—or is it to ensure victory? No one will ever know.

In the Soviet Union, you also had high voter turnout and convincing wins… Did it mean the people loved their Soviet leaders? Fifty years ago, [Russian dissident] Andrei Sakharov told us that (paywall) “Freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of mankind by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorships.” He’s still right.

What would a CPP victory with a low-voter turnout mean?

It will be a slap in the face for the ruling party. They had a gun to people’s heads, but people still didn’t vote. It will be a more accurate reflection of a very twisted truth: People chose not to participate in an electoral charade.

Amid concerns over human rights and the deterioration of democracy, the EU has considered ending the duty-free trade status granted to Cambodia under the Everything But Arms scheme. Should it do so after the election?

The EU absolutely needs to step up its game. The Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia already claims Cambodia is out of the woods on the suspension of the EBA. Is this wishful thinking, or have their lobbying efforts already borne fruit? The EU needs to send a message to Cambodia: Not so quick, the consequences will begin after 29 July.

Kem Sokha’s arrest last September and the dissolution of the CNRP in November didn’t seem to cause the kind of popular reaction one might expect given the party’s strong performance in the general elections in 2013 and again in local elections in June 2017. What accounts for that lethargy?

The entire local in-country structure of the CNRP is devastated; for one, they have no means of communication with one another. Secondly, Cambodia’s history of mass-atrocity crimes, including genocide and crimes against humanity, has resulted in an actual named condition for its people: baak sbat (broken courage). You kill all of its heroes—like [political analyst] Kem Ley, [environmental activist]Chut Wutty, and [trade union leader]Chea Vichea—and soon enough you’ve broken the Cambodian spirit.

Does China want more countries to be more like Cambodia? 

Yes, if we talk of China’s sphere of influence growing, it’s literally China’s Monroe Doctrine moment: The US considers any attempt to extend other systems to this hemisphere “dangerous to our peace and safety.” Just substitute the US with China and Latin America with southeast Asia. The tip of the spear in the “Indo-Pacific” is Cambodia. It’s the test case/country study for Chinese influence, and if it isn’t stopped there, it will grow to more countries. It’s the domino theory for the 21st century. Cambodia has always been a domino used by great powers. It’s reprising its role once again.

What does Hun Sen have to fear at this point?

His biggest fear is that he and his people (increasingly his own family) will lose power, and it will mean very harsh consequences for all of them. He fears the loss of control and erasure of his legacy. He’s made a Faustian pact to keep his family and his party in control of domestic politics in Cambodia forever. The foreign policy he’s outsourced to China.

Is Hun Sen grooming his offspring to take over the country after he dies? Does that look like a strong possibility?

Absolutely… the odds are more than 50/50 that it will be one of his sons.

Does Malaysia’s surprise election result in May have any implications for Cambodia? (Malaysia’s ruling party was overthrown after decades in power, ousting prime minister Najib Razak, who’s been arrested on corruption charges.)

It has scared the living daylights out of the authorities—look at what could happen if we only let our guard down… We could be arrested. Every ill-gotten thing we’ve accumulated… could be taken from us. Imagine Najib in power… and then losing an unfree and unfair election of his own choosing and making. Unthinkable. Impermissible.

Of course, for Cambodia’s opposition, it has given them hope: The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. Anwar Ibrahim must certainly feel this way. [The former opposition leader was jailed on what he says were trumped-up sodomy charges in 2015, and now, having been pardoned and released in May, looks set to become the country’s next premier.] Today’s political prisoner could be tomorrow’s prime minister.