In 1993, with thousands of their peacekeepers and civilian personnel working for the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, the international community watched and monitored Cambodia’s first ever free and fair elections.
It was the most expensive operation then undertaken by the UN, and the outcome was praised for bringing a fledgling democracy to war-wracked Cambodia, which had endured more than 20 years of conflict and dictatorship.
After 12 years experimenting with a taste of democracy, Cambodia’s leaders appear set on ever-closer political and economic ties with countries that have largely forsworn democracy, particularly China, historically Vietnam and most recently and controversially, Burma.
Prime Minister Hun Sen last week expresses his support for Burma’s military dictators in a simmering inter-Asean dispute over the Rangoon junta’s suitability to assume Asean’s rotating chairmanship.
Cambodia’s circle of authoritarian and anti-democratic friends is not a concern, say Western and Asian diplomats, but the drift does raise questions about the direction the government is choosing for the country.
“Cambodia, as a small country, has to balance its interests. But Cambodia cannot ignore the big players in the region,” an Asian diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
In March 2003, Chinese Deputy Premier Wu Yi visited Cambodia and signed off on a raft of pacts designed to promote trade between the two countries.
By the end of 2004, China was the single largest investor in Cambodia with $80.4 million worth of projects. Previously holding the number one spot, Malaysia is now a distant second at $23.2 million.
Jimmy Gao, president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia, said Cambodia lends itself to Chinese business for a variety of reasons—particularly proximity, cultural affinities and close political relations between the two countries.
“More and more Chinese companies are coming to look at investing in Cambodia,” he said. “[Cambodia] is one of the most favorable countries in the area.”
In contrast to China, Western countries, Asean countries and Japan contributed less than $13 million in investment.
As the Asian diplomat described it, the “carrot” Western and other countries employ to continue their involvement in Cambodia is aid money, to the tune of around $500 million annually.
But these two influences often act against each other when applied in Cambodia, said Koul Panha, president of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.
Whereas donor aid funding is used to improve quality of life for average Cambodians and implement reforms to create more democratic institutions, Chinese and Vietnamese interests often implement projects that benefit themselves and the ruling elite.
The current crop of Cambodian leaders were also schooled in communism during the Cold War and, at least at that time, believed in the need for a tightly controlled society.
“The way they control the country is because they have Chinese training, Vietnamese training,” Koul Panha said.
“To control Cambodian society, they think they need to be strong. They say the West is trying to undermine them,” he said, adding that ordinary Cambodians do not share their leaders’ sentiments.
“They do not accept this ideology,” he said. “People trust the West.”
What the government needs now more than anything else is investment, the Asian diplomat said, adding that aid from the West and other donors is welcome as long as there is no interference.
And the donors know better than to interfere, the diplomat added.
“The West will weigh in with their aid, but I’m not sure Cambodia will just accommodate what the West wants to achieve,” he said. “[The government is] letting things happen as long as [the West doesn’t] interfere.”
Pointing to the last Consultative Group meeting in December, the diplomat noted that even though reform was slow to nonexistent, international aid was not cut. If they did slash aid, donors know, they could lose their last toe-hold of influence in the country, the diplomat added.
“If they pull out, it allows other countries to move in,” he said.
A Western diplomat, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said he didn’t believe Cambodia was moving closer to the Chinese or Vietnamese models, and he felt progress was being made.
“It’s not unusual for most donor aid to be Western aid and business investment to come from major players in the region,” the diplomat said.
The two, Western aid and Chinese big business, can work together to help the country get back on its feet, the diplomat added.
Such rosy optimism is lost on the opposition, who said Western and other donors are bankrolling the government as it cozies up to dictatorial governments, which it is imitating more and more.
“The government doesn’t have close relations with democratic countries because they don’t want democracy applied,” Sam Rainsy Party Secretary-General Eng Chhay Eang said.
The government is simply being pragmatic, co-Minister of Defense Tea Banh said, adding that Cambodia wants to maintain relations with all countries, regardless of their ideologies.
“Generally, we make friends with every country,” he said.