Prime Minister Hun Sen returned from a three-day trip to China yesterday, all but confirming in a statement what observers have long theorised: that Cambodia now sees China’s backing as a bulwark against Western criticisms over its rights record.
Cambodia has recently been the subject of growing international criticism over what is widely seen as a crackdown on the free press and political freedoms, which culminated in the recent arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha on charges of “treason”. In response, Hun Sen has repeatedly accused foreign powers of interference in its internal affairs – particularly the US, which he has accused of conspiring to topple his government.
Apparently undaunted by the mounting criticism, Hun Sen – who had travelled to the 14th China-Asean Expo with Commerce Minister Pan Sorasak – praised China in a Facebook post yesterday, calling it “a strong backer who continues to help Cambodia in all conditions, without allowing any foreign countries to break us”.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said that the meeting with China in the midst of so much criticism from Western powers was merely a coincidence, but added that the two countries have a “steel relationship”.
On the Chinese side, a Monday statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs summarised the many meetings with various countries’ leaders, making particularly amicable mention of Cambodia.
“[Vice Premier] Zhang Gaoli expressed that China-Cambodia relations enjoy sound development momentum at present,” the section on Cambodia begins.
“China highly appreciates Cambodia for its significant contributions to maintaining the overall situation of China-ASEAN friendly cooperation,” it continues.
Last year, Cambodia was criticised for hamstringing an Asean statement condemning China over its territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Days later, China unveiled a new $530 million aid package for the Kingdom.
Monday’s statement follows previous affirmations of support for Cambodia’s recent actions from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and a visiting senior diplomat.
The statement’s section on Cambodia concluded with a reminder of China’s support for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party, as well as an acknowledgement of the premier’s support for China.
“Hun Sen expressed gratitude to China’s long-term support for the Cambodian People’s Party . . . Cambodia is willing to take this as an opportunity to constantly deepen bilateral friendship,” it said.
Yesterday, Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament and the chairperson of the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said China was the one guilty of interference.
In an email, Santiago claimed China’s friendly overtures to the CPP amid crackdowns on freedoms “confirms our suspicion that the superpower is interfering in the affairs of an ASEAN nation, especially in relation to human rights, the rule of law, and democracy”.
He added that the relationship was troubling for the entire region.
“China is indirectly sending a negative message to the region: it is prepared to support undemocratic regimes as long as they remain loyal to China. Other countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Myanmar will, no doubt, take notice and be lining up for Chinese support.”