Why Bother Campaigning When Jailing Political Opponents Is an Option?

Cambodian general elections are scheduled for July 29, 2018, with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) looking as if it has a chance to unseat the current Prime Minister Hun Sen of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Hun Sen is celebrating his 32nd year in office. The CNRP secured an unexpectedly high 46 percent of the popular vote to the CPP’s 51 percent during local elections in June – this was despite threats from Cambodia’s Defense Minister who vowed to “smash the teeth” of anyone who protested against the election’s outcome as well as the open support of the CPP by Cambodia’s military and judiciary. Rattled by the election results and a surge in the polls by CNRP leader Kem Sokha, PM Hun Sen had Kem Sokha arrested for treason, accusing him of conspiring with the United States to overthrow the Cambodian government. He has been in solitary confinement since September 3. This is not an atypical action by Hun Sen – Kem Sokha’s predecessor in CNRP leadership had been forced to flee the country in 2015 after Hun Sen brought defamation charges against him – just the latest development in what has been a steady erosion democracy in this Southeast Asian nation.

There is a strong correlation between rule of law and a country’s economic fortunes. Oliver Paddison, Chief of the Countries with Special Needs section of the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific cautioned Cambodia, “Essentially, you cannot develop if you do not improve governance … if you don’t improve transparency if you don’t improve accountability.”

The U.S. has remained remarkably silent, offering little more than embassy statements and a U.S. Senate resolution that has yet to receive a vote, urging the U.S. government to ban select Cambodians from coming to America. This is unfortunate as American economic leadership, including artful use of programs such as the USTR’s Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), and moral authority on issues like rule of law are two of the most potent items in America’s soft power tool kit. The U.S. response is consistent with an overall retreat from the Asia-Pacific which could have profound economic and strategic consequences for the region and for America.

Withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the administration’s not infrequent threats to dissolve the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) have led many countries to doubt America’s economic commitment to the region. Trade frameworks are about more than trade and economic partnership; they represent a non-military, regional strategic footprint as well. Modern FTAs include requirements to strengthen or in some cases create the institutions that underpin liberal democracy. Protections of intellectual property rights, the environment and labor are mandatory for nations hoping to become negotiating partners. The Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism effectively “exports” U.S. Constitutional protections for American companies doing business overseas. TPP membership and its promise prodded the less developed negotiating partners and hopefuls to modernize and embrace western-style institutions.

Emblematic of what is beginning to be seen as America’s lack of interest in the region is President Trump’s decision not to attend the East Asia Summit, an annual conference of Asian and other world leaders to focus on the strategic future of the region, in mid-November. It is not lost on East Asian countries that the President will already be in the Philippines, where the Summit is scheduled to take place, the day of its opening sessions.

Kem Sokha’s daughter, Monovithya Kem correctly observed earlier this month that, “Perhaps the U.S.’ lack of engagement in the region sends a signal to other places that it’s OK for them to take over.”

America has left an influence and power vacuum that other regional players – most notably China – are ready and happy to fill. The PRC, Cambodia’s most significant investor and donor has already expressed support for Hun Sen’s political machinations. From acceleration of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade framework advanced by China that excludes the U.S. and lacks TPP’s high standard IP, labor and the environmental protections to meetings of former TPP negotiating partners to forge a new trade framework with or without the U.S. to the erosion of rule of law in countries like Cambodia, the Asia-Pacific is moving on without us in ways which are of dubious long-term benefit to it or America. Many nations want a resumption of the American economic and moral leadership that led to the creation of institutions that underpin international law, including trade law, recognizing that the planet is better for it.

Monovithya Kem agrees by saying that Cambodia needs “…the international community but in particular, countries like the U.S. to take immediate action to reverse this crackdown in order to restore the integrity of a possible free, fair election in 2018.” She wisely observed, “When people don’t have hope in the system or in free, fair election, they would likely take control over the system themselves … that could lead to actual revolt.” An engaged America strengthens liberal democracy globally; an America in retreat emboldens authoritarians.

In Depth: Federalism

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