West Should Focus on Flexing Soft Power in Hun Sen’s Cambodia

By Tioulong Saumura

The effectiveness of international pressure intended to improve human rights in Cambodia is being rightly questioned. As with other authoritarian regimes, engagement could prove disappointing, but censure or sanctions could be ineffective or even counterproductive.

High expectations for U.S. President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit to Cambodia from Sunday to Tuesday need to be curbed. However, there are avenues open for diplomats and advocates of democracy in this country.

In approaching the current Cambodian government, the key word is “legitimacy.”

What concerns Prime Minister Hun Sen the most is that forthcoming national elections in July 2013 could lead to a loss of legitimacy for his government if they are not seen as free and fair by international standards.

Hun Sen knows that for the international community to view the 2013 elections as legitimate, the Phnom Penh government must implement the recent U.N. recommendations relating to reform of the National Election Committee (to make elections in Cambodia meet international standards) and the safe return of opposition leader Sam Rainsy (allowing him to take part in an inclusive election process).

The substance of the U.N. recommendations is reflected in resolutions on Cambodia recently adopted by the Philippine Senate, the Australian Senate, the European Parliament, and in the October 31 letter by a group of prominent U.S. congressmen to Obama, urging him to insist on democracy and human rights when visiting Cambodia later this month.

If there is no indication that the U.N. recommendations are to be effectively and rapidly implemented, friendly democratic countries should make it clear that they would not send any observer to monitor next year’s elections, which will then be considered a sham.

In effect, the result of those elections has already been determined through the manipulation of voting lists by the current NEC. There is no point in any international observer going to the country to observe a foregone conclusion. Moreover, the international community should make it clear that any government stemming from such illegitimate elections would be denied legitimacy and recognition and face international isolation.

The international community is entitled to adopt such a position given the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements on Cambodia, an international treaty signed under the aegis of the U.N. that guarantees the country “genuine elections” leading to “a system of liberal democracy, on the basis of pluralism.”

Only the prospect of international isolation can push Hun Sen to reverse his authoritarian drift and to show more respect for democratic rules and principles.

Cambodia is too small a country, depending too heavily on international assistance, trade preferences, debt forgiveness, new loans and foreign investment, to be willing and able to face any form of international isolation.

Moreover, Hun Sen’s pride and ego, his growing family ties and connections with the Western world, and his apparent eagerness to be more prominent among world leaders, make him dread the prospect of isolation more than anyone else in Cambodia.

The only remedy to isolation is legitimacy.

Because they are the recognized bearer and defender of universal values such as democracy and human rights, the West and its allies are in the unique position to assess the legitimacy of questionable or evolving regimes.

Isn’t the ability to deny, confer or condition legitimacy, part of that “soft power” whose might could be greater than the power of the gun or the power of money?

Tioulong Saumura is a member of Parliament for the Sam Rainsy Party.

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