This weekend, President Biden will visit Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for the U.S.-ASEAN Summit, where he will emphasize the importance to the United States of the 10 countries and 600 million people of Southeast Asia. Yet just outside the luxury hotel hosting the summit, the Cambodian people are facing the most severe repression they have experienced in decades. It is critical for Biden to press Prime Minister Hun Sen both publicly and privately on this issue. He must also demand the immediate and unconditional release of the country’s more than 50 political prisoners, including Cambodian American human rights lawyer Theary Seng.
Hun Sen is one of the most long-standing authoritarian rulers in the world, having been in power since 1985. According to Human Rights Watch, he has lasted this long through “politically motivated violence, control of the security forces, manipulated elections, massive corruption, and the tacit support of foreign powers.” In 2017, he banned the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which enabled his Cambodia People’s Party to win all 125 National Assembly seats in the 2018 national election.
But Hun Sen has dramatically ramped up his repression of real and imagined opponents as he has accelerated plans to transfer power to his son Hun Manet. In March 2022, 20 opposition party members were convicted in a mass trial and sentenced to five to 10 years in prison. (Those convicted included leaders Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua, who were already in exile.) And in June, 51 other civil society and opposition party leaders were convicted on fabricated conspiracy and incitement charges, including Theary Seng, who was given six years in prison. Beyond imprisoning or forcing its opponents into exile, the regime also uses lawsuits, massive tax bills and violence to shut down or otherwise threaten, intimidate, and harass independent media and civil society organizations.