At a congressional hearing in Washington on Tuesday that scathingly rebuked Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling CPP, a U.S. lawmaker called for legislation to cut American aid to Cambodia following the national election on July 28.
Representative Steve Chabot, who chaired the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific hearing on Cambodia’s looming election, said his bill would complement a Senate resolution last month that called for a cut in aid if the vote was deemed “not credible and competitive” and for other donors to follow suit.
“On July 28, Cambodia will hold its fifth national election behind a false veil of democracy during which Hun Sen will win his fourth term as prime minister through the incitement of political violence, corruption and nepotism,” Mr. Chabot said.
“A list of intimidating and repressive actions taken by the CPP is long,” he added, giving examples of the recent expulsion of all opposition lawmakers from Parliament and the government’s refusal to let opposition leader Sam Rainsy run because of criminal convictions.
On top of that, election monitors have warned that a deeply flawed voter list could disenfranchise about 1 in 10 voters and the government has pulled back from a monthlong ban on all foreign radio programming, the only source of independent news for most Cambodians, after swift and severe international condemnation.
Mr. Chabot praised countries not sending observers, who would only “legitimize Hun Sen’s illegitimate victory.”
“But declaring the election not free or fair is not enough,” he said. “U.S. policy towards Cambodia needs to change and the Obama administration needs to take a much tougher approach to Asia’s longest ruling dictator.
“Cutting off direct aid to the Cambodian government, specifically foreign military financing and international military education and training funding, is a tangible action the U.S. can take to show its condemnation of the upcoming fallacious and undemocratic election.”
Of the roughly $70 million in annual U.S. aid to Cambodia, about $6 million went toward military assistance in 2011. Amid a U.S. military “pivot” to Asia to counter China’s growing influence in the region, the U.S. State Department is asking for even more military aid in 2014.
Human Rights Watch Asia advocacy director John Sifton, who was called to testify, backed Mr. Chabot on cutting the U.S.’ military ties to Cambodia. He called on USAID to beef up support for groups working on democratic reforms in Cambodia and urged the U.S. to more visibly back local dissidents.
After 28 years in power, he said, Mr. Hun Sen and the CPP now control “almost every lever of power in Cambodia.”
Mr. Sifton ran through the country’s past elections: the 1993 vote Mr. Hun Sen lost but refused to accept, the 1998 vote he won after deposing his co-prime minister after their private armies faced off in Phnom Penh, and two more polls, in 2003 and 2008, that the CPP won with growing margins.
“Then, as now, they control the appointment, the membership of the National Election Committee [NEC] as well as the courts. That was how it was then, and that is how it is today,” he said. “What will occur on July 28, and what is occurring beforehand, is an illegitimate, theatrical enterprise aimed at appeasing the international community.”
Patrick Merloe, head of election programs for the National Democratic Institute (NDI), said the group’s audit of the NEC’s voter registry for the coming poll found flaws that “create real potential for both illegal voting and disenfranchisement of a large number of qualified voters.”
According to NDI, the list was even worse than the one the NEC drew up for the last national election five years ago, with 1 in 9 eligible voters removed unfairly and 1 in 10 names appearing to belong to people who did not exist.
“Cambodia’s electoral process, again, is not measuring well against international standards,” he said.
Evi Schueller, a legal consultant for local human rights group Licadho, who also testified, said her group had recorded 18 cases of politically motivated intimidation since the start of the year.
She accused Mr. Hun Sen’s government of robbing hundreds of thousands of Cambodians of their land over the past decade to the benefit of well-placed agri-business firms and covering up a string of recent related shootings and deaths. She blamed government soldiers for facilitating the land-grabbing and also called for a review of U.S. military aid to Cambodia.
Amid all the criticism, some rare praise for Mr. Hun Sen came from Daniel Mitchell, the CEO of Phnom Penh-based emerging markets investment firm SRP International Group.
With 1 in 3 new loans from leading local bank Acleda now being backed with private land titles, he said, “tangible progress has been made.”
He added that all the talk of human rights was also ignoring the country’s real challenge: jobs for a growing but undereducated workforce.
“The issue of youth skills and employability is of increasing significance and has greater long-term social crisis potential than the current human rights issues capturing the headlines,” Mr. Mitchell said.
With 300,000 people entering the workforce every year, he said the country needed to maintain a gross domestic product growth rate of 7 to 8 percent per year if it hoped to keep living standards on the rise.
“That growth requires significant capital investment,” he said, and rather than pulling back, he said the U.S. should be stepping up—responsibly.
“Our behavior sets the standard, in marked contrast to Chinese investors who have created serious issues for the local population,” Mr. Mitchell said. “But in our absence, the Chinese stand ready with both investment and aid. We can be sure that human rights and corporate social responsibility are not discussion points in these negotiations.”
Chinese loans and grants to Cambodia came to $2.7 billion over the past two decades compared to the U.S.’ $1.2 billion, and Mr. Hun Sen has proven fond of praising Beijing for “speaking little” and making no conditions on its aid.
But Mr. Mitchell was not the only one with some kind words for the prime minister.
In 1997, a few months after Mr. Hun Sen ousted his co-prime minister with his private army, U.S. Representative Eni Faleomavaega signed onto a resolution that supported cutting aid to any country whose elected government was toppled by a coup. But at Tuesday’s hearing, Mr. Hun Sen could not have had a better friend.
He blamed the government’s human rights shortfalls on the U.S. for backing then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s overthrow in 1970 as well as the French for 100 years of colonial rule. But Mr. Hun Sen received special praise from the representative.
“From what I saw, these people were treated like animals, and France is supposed to be the source of enlightenment for democracy and freedom? Give me a break,” Mr. Faleomavaega said.
He said the U.S.’ pivot to Asia should be both military and economic, and called for canceling Cambodia’s war-era debt to the U.S., now at $460 million with interest, a longstanding request of Mr. Hun Sen’s.
If the U.S. was serious about improving the country’s rights record, he said, it should be promoting the investment of “responsible capital.”
“That is the way forward,” Mr. Faleomavaega said.
He accused the U.S. of hypocrisy after what it had done to its own Native Americans and for turning a blind eye to unsavory world leaders throughout the Cold War. He said the U.S. also had no business lecturing Cambodia about democracy after its own 2000 presidential elections, which hinged on a decision by the Supreme Court and installed a candidate who had lost the popular vote.
“Sometimes I think we have to understand that democracy means…different things to different people and with different regions,” he said. “If we call ourselves a great democracy, how come we allowed nine unelected officials to determine the results of a presidential election we had some years ago? How do we justify to Cambodians that that’s a better form of election, of campaign or democracy when the majority of the people did not determine who should be our next president?”
But if Mr. Faleomavaega was forgiving, fellow subcommittee member Dana Rohrabacher was scathing.
“Hun Sen is a corrupt, vicious human being who has held that country in his grip for decades. It’s time for Hun Sen to go,” he said.
A long-time opponent of Mr. Hun Sen, he has in the past said the U.S. ought to study the possibility of backing groups that might be able to overthrow him.
“By the way,” he said Tuesday, “all those people who died in Cambodia, wasn’t there a field commander of Pol Pot named Hun Sen? Am I wrong about that? No. So when we’re talking about atrocities in the millions, there’s nobody who comes close enough to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin than Pol Pot, and Hun Sen was his field commander doing his dirty work. And he ended up on top.”
Mr. Hun Sen was a Khmer Rouge soldier before defecting in 1978, fleeing to Vietnam and joining a resistance force that toppled the Pol Pot regime the following year. Vietnam then installed him as Cambodia’s leader in 1985.
After nearly three decades of rule, Mr. Chabot wondered what leverage the U.S. still had to change his ways in the face of overwhelming investment from China.
Human Rights Watch’s Mr. Sifton said that cutting military ties was just the start.
From the U.S. State Department to the Department of Defense, he said, “the thinking now is starting to tilt toward the realization that Hun Sen responds, if he ever responds, more to tough talk than to diplomatic talk, talk all the same but talk in the sense that a warning is being put on the table.
“The money is not so much the issue…but symbolically it’s quite potent. The real hurt comes from infrastructure lending from financial institutions like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the [International Monetary Fund] and others,” Mr. Sifton said.
“The U.S. can use its voice on the World Bank, the IMF, the Asian Development Bank to vote against large infrastructure lending.”
He rejected the idea that the U.S. and China were locked in some sort of zero-sum game over Cambodia—that less U.S. investment would mechanically mean more investment from China. He said China would keep investing in Cambodia whatever the U.S. did.
Mr. Sifton also dismissed fears that pulling away from Cambodia would only drive Mr. Hun Sen closer to China, and even welcomed it.
The Burmese government’s growing resentment of Beijing’s heavy-handed approach to foreign investment is now widely credited with helping to convince the onetime pariah state to start opening up in the past few years.
“After the experience in Burma, I don’t think anybody in the U.S. government really has a problem driving a country into the arms of the Chinese. I don’t think the Cambodian government really wants to be in the arms of the Chinese any more than any other government anywhere else in the world,” he said.
“So driving folks to the Chinese to beg hat in hand for infrastructure lending may be in the long-term interest in the sense that the ruling elite of Cambodia, undemocratic as it is, may realize, like Burma did, that the future ultimately will be predicated on opening up to the rest of the world and not just depending on handouts from the Chinese government.”
In Phnom Penh, Cambodian officials were quick to dismiss the hearing.
Only hours after the hearing had wrapped up in Washington, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong was signing off on a new $200 million loan from South Korea for a host of infrastructure projects.
“The future of Cambodia is in Cambodians’ hands,” he said of the rebuke coming from U.S. lawmakers. “This is our sovereign right, which means the right to determine the nation’s fate regardless of what others say.”
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)