Cambodians go to the polls July 23 to vote in the country’s seventh parliamentary elections since democracy was nominally restored in 1993. But, just like last time around, we already know who the winner will be: Prime Minister Hun Sen, who’s ruled this Southeast Asian autocracy of 17 million people for the last 38 years.
Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party are virtually guaranteed to win all 125 seats in the National Assembly, especially since the National Election Committee in late May barred the Candlelight Party—the only contender that could have unseated him—from participating on a legal technicality.
But hardly anyone seems to care, says Council of Foreign Relations analyst Joshua Kurlantzick.
“With the United States focused on bilateral competition with China and the war in Ukraine, major rights abuses in Southeast Asia have fallen to the bottom of the to-do list for the Biden administration,” Kurlantzick wrote in a recent CFR column.
“Even Myanmar, one of the deadliest conflict zones in the world, has received far less attention than it did a year or two ago,” he said. “China continues to back Hun Sen to the hilt, undermining any leverage other foreign donors have over the autocratic prime minister.”
Furthermore, the Jakarta-based Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) appears to be indifferent, with many of its 10 member states themselves autocracies. In early June, Antonio Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, implicitly criticized Hun Sen in a mildly worded statement declaring through a spokesman that “inclusive elections, in which a plurality of views and voter choices is represented, are important to engender confidence in the electoral process and underpin the ability of Cambodia’s people to exercise their democratic rights.”
HRW: Cambodia ranks near bottom in human rights
According to Human Rights Watch, “draconian laws, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and judicial harassment—including politically motivated mass trials against over 100 opposition members and dozens of human rights defenders—perpetuate autocratic rule and silence dissent.”
Keo Chhea, Cambodia’s ambassador to the United States, said claims of fraud and abuse always surface before elections, and while some of these claims contain “some truths,” they are largely exaggerated.
“Now the criticism has started to flare up again before the July elections. You play a game, and when you lose, you cry. We arrested two people, and that created a lot of crying,” he said, noting that charges of injustice are sometimes heard in Washington as well as in Pnomh Penh. “Even President Trump claimed the last election was not fair.”
Chhea, interviewed earlier this year at the Cambodian Embassy on 16th Street, said it’s a bit hypocritcal for the West to pass judgment on Cambodia, a country that between 1975 and 1979 alone lost an estimated three million people in the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. Those atrocities, which followed a five-year civil war, were brought home to American audiences in Roland Joffé’s Oscar-winning 1984 film, The Killing Fields.
“Please understand that we have just come out of two decades of war, and we are trying to educate our people,” he said. “The problem is that people understand their rights, but they forgot about others’ rights. When we enforce the law, they say this is against human rights. We want reporters and the West to see the reality.”
Keo Chhea: From ditchdigger to diplomat
Chhea was born in Cambodia’s Prey Veng province in 1954, the year after Cambodia won its independence from France. As a teenager, he lost 16 of his family members, including his father, at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
“He was arrested and killed in a concentration camp,” he said. “They accused my family of capitalism because he was a trader.”
Cambodia’s decline started in 1970, when Prince Noor was deposed by communists under the banner of the Khmer Rouge. China, Russia and North Vietnam supported the regime while the Americans opposed it.
“In 1973, the Americans pulled out, leaving Cambodia to the communists. When the war ended, we all thought we’d have peace. But instead of peace came the iron hand of the Khmer Rouge. The barbarians abolished schools and markets, and forced all the people out of the cities and into the fields,” said Chhea, who was a college student at the time. “I spent three years and eight months in forced labor, digging ditches, plowing fields and doing everything they forced me to do, from 4 in the morning to 8 at night.”
Eventually, Vietnamese forces overthrew the Khmer Rouge, and the self-styled People’s Republic of Kampuchea once again became Cambodia. Chhea attended India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he earned a bachelor of arts in English literature and linguistics, he also has a master’s degree in foreign affairs and trade from Australia’s Monash University, as well as a post-graduate diploma from the Indian Academy of International Law in New Delhi.
Joining Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1979, the aspiring diplomat served as a desk officer—and then a bureau chief—at the ministry from 1985 to 1992, then was first secretary at the Cambodian Embassy in India (1992-96); he had the same title at Cambodia’s embassy in Brunei Darussalam (2000-01), and for two years served as deputy director-general of ASEAN in charge of political and security cooperation.
“Some pockets of the country were still under Khmer rule until 1998, but from 1998 on, we got full peace and joined ASEAN in 1999,” he explained. “Thanks to a stable peace and government efforts to rebuild the country through a market economy, we were able to lift ourselves out of poverty and now have an annual per-capita income of $1,460, up from only $200 or $300.”
Cambodian ambassador seeks more US investment
Cambodia has held the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN three times: in 2002, in 2012 and 2022.
Chhea headed the special programs division at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta from 2003 to 2009, and then the secretariat’s external relations division from 2009 to 2016. From 2017 until his present post, Chhea advised the Foreign Ministry on ASEAN affairs, with the rank of undersecretary of state.
In a rather unusual—possibly unique, at least for Washington—arrangement, Chhea’s wife, Sophea, is Cambodia’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York.
Like neighboring Thailand, Cambodia must maintain a balancing act between the United States and China.
“We need both countries to be stable so that our economy will grow. Not only Cambodia but all of Southeast Asia is playing this balancing act,” he said. “As ambassador, I’m always trying to explain to US business executives that the problem is we’re seen as being too open to investment from Chinese companies. But where are the US companies? I have already helped organize two or three business trips by big companies with the US-ASEAN Business Council.”
So far, Cambodia has had limited success attracting Fortune 500 companies. Last year, Ford established spare parts factory there employing 1,000 workers. Wal-Mart is interested in processed foods, and Conoco Philips is looking to explore offshore oil opportunities.
Before COVID, Cambodia’s GDP was growing by 7.5% annually. But the pandemic shattered the country’s tourism industry, which normally saw 10 million visitors a year—primarily from China, Japan, South Korea and Europe. Tourism is now coming back slowly, said Chhea, with 1.6 million visitors last year. The economy grew by 3.5% in 2022 and will rise by 5% this year.
Human, sexual trafficking still plagues Cambodia
One problem that seems to persist is human trafficking, both for sexual and criminal purposes.
“Cambodia is a source, a transit point and a destination for human trafficking,” the ambassador conceded. “We had a problem with Chinese gangs in Cambodia. Ten years ago, the problem was very bad. But now it’s less. The Australian police and US government has helped a lot, along with ASEAN member states.”
The Guardian would beg to differ. In a November 2022 expose titled “Cambodia’s modern slavery nightmare: the human trafficking crisis overlooked by authorities,” the London newspaper claims that “casinos, dormitory blocks, luxury hotels and remote office complexes across Cambodia and the wider region—many linked to powerful political figures—have become host to criminal operations running crypto, investment, and gaming scams. People from all over the world are lured by the promise of work, then forced to defraud strangers with threats of beatings, torture, and electrocution should they not comply.”
The newspaper cites the World Justice Project, which recently ranked Cambodia among the worst globally for rule of law. Meanwhile, the US Treasury’s downgrade of Cambodia to “Tier 3”—the lowest ranking—in its 2022 Trafficking of Persons report, put the country at risk of sanctions and slashed foreign assistance.
Chhea said Cambodia wants and needs close ties with Beijing, but not at any cost.
“We cannot be allies of China alone. We have come through a civil war, and we will never forget who helped the Khmer Rouge kill our people,” he said. “You can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your neighbors. And we understand that after having come through so many years of civil war and suffering, we totally believe that war cannot solve anything.”