There are still some bad memories and unsettled grudges in Washington dating back to the unceremonious end of the Vietnam War in 1975, and the man who has run Cambodia for more than 30 years is still feeling the heat.
Unlike other authoritarian leaders like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, or even the coup-installed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in neighboring Thailand, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is not getting a fresh look from the Trump administration, which has kept up a harsh critique of democracy and civil liberties in the Southeast Asian nation even as Cambodian voters head to the polls Sunday.
Citing a lack of democracy, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced earlier this year the U.S. was suspending some $8 million in aid for Cambodia.
Human rights groups are already condemning Sunday’s poll and calling on the U.S. and other countries to take even tougher measures.
“The Cambodian government over the past year has systematically cracked down on independent and opposition voices to ensure that the ruling party faces no obstacles to total political control,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “Dissolving the main opposition party and banning many of its senior members from politics means this election cannot possibly reflect the will of the Cambodian people.”
Unlike neighboring Vietnam, where changes in the Communist Party leadership have resulted in a far more developed relationship with the U.S., Cambodia is still viewed through an old-school Cold War prism. Mr. Hun Sen is widely seen as an embarrassing throwback, a Communist relic from a distant past.
“Regrettably, a nation that at one stage had appeared to have some hope of emerging out of decades of violence now appears to be reverting to an autocracy that is anything but benevolent,” said Keith Loveard, a risk analyst with Jakarta-based Concord Securities.
Mr. Hun Sen, came to power in 1985 and is the world’s longest-serving prime minister, has accused Washington and the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) of fomenting a “color revolution,” changes that were used to justify a crackdown on opposition parties and put opposition leader Kem Sokha in jail last November on charges of treason.
Mr. Kem Sokha’s party was subsequently dissolved by the courts and CNRP politicians and supporters have fled overseas. Independent newspapers have been closed or sold to government-friendly interests, and about 30 radio frequencies shuttered and dissenters prosecuted.
The U.S. Embassy put out a sharp statement condemning the crackdown on the opposition and the jailing of Mr. Kem Sokha at the time.
“It is becoming increasingly evident to the world that the Cambodian government’s restrictions on civil society, suppression of the press, and banning of more than 100 opposition leaders from political activities have significantly set back Cambodia’s democratic development and placed its economic growth and international standing at risk,” the embassy said.
Mr. Hun Sen’s many critics, including those in Washington, argue the crackdown has more to do with the opposition’s shock electoral performance in 2013, when it went close to snatching an outright victory. The CNRP enjoyed strong support in Republican and conservative circles in the U.S., where its exiled former leader Sam Rainsy was a familiar figure at conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the International Republican Institute (IRI).
U.S. conservatives see Mr. Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) “as the descendants of this legacy,” said Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
Rep. Ted Yoho, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, introduced in May the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2018, accusing Mr. Hun Sen of “undermining democracy” ahead of the poll.
If passed by Congress and adopted by the Trump administration, the act would impose financial sanctions and travel bans on the prime minister and top aides. But analysts said this would have only a marginal impact given Cambodia’s embrace of China in return for financial support worth many billions of dollars.
“None of this will phase Hun Sen,” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “China’s interests are best served by stability in Cambodia as well as a compliant regime in Phnom Penh.”
Beijing, Mr. Thayer added, “will welcome” another win Sunday by Mr. Hun Sen and the CPP.
As a proxy for China, Cambodia has proved most effective in backing Beijing’s maritime claims in the hotly disputed South China Sea, further angering Washington. An impasse over debts dating back to the Vietnam War have also soured relations between Washington and Phnom Penh.
“Human rights remains a disaster, Chinese investment is voracious and while there are increasing signs that the average Cambodian is dissatisfied with the situation — especially if he or she is being forced off their land,” said Mr. Loveard. “There is no sign that the country is going to become a democratic poster child.”