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Will Economic Sanctions Work in Cambodia?

November 12, 2018
Prime Minister Hun Sen declared victory in Cambodia’s general election held on July 29; a race he was nearly guaranteed to win. His ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), pledges continued national economic growth, infrastructure projects in rural areas, lower utility prices, and increased access to water and other vital resources.[1] Having led Cambodia since 1985, Prime Minister Hun Sen argues that he has stabilized the country politically and economically, following the rule of the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, while committing a host of human rights’ violations. Hun Sen has publicly stated his intention to serve for at least two more five-year terms.[2]

Image: Cambodia's Stable Economic Growth, Source: The World BankImage: Cambodia's Stable Economic Growth, Source: The World Bank

After the Hun Sen administration dissolved its main opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in November of 2017, the CPP no longer faces significant electoral competition in Cambodian politics. As a result, Sam Rainsy, former CNRP president and co-founder, called for Cambodians to boycott the elections. In a Facebook post urging Cambodians to remain home on election day, Rainsy cited the example of the King of Cambodia, who traditionally abstains from voting to remain neutral in political affairs.[3] In light of these efforts, 6.94 million of the eligible 8.38 million voters have cast their ballots, making for an 82.89% turnout rate.[4] The CPP’s landslide victory of 4.88 million votes, or a 76.78% majority, far outweighs the runner-up FUNCINPEC’s 370,000 votes, or 5.88% of the total. However, without a competitive alternative to the CPP, close to 600,000 people, or 8.4% of voters, spoiled their ballots to protest the election. In response to Rainsy’s call for action, the CPP government categorized the move as an insult to the King and invoked Cambodia’s lèse majesté law against Rainsy, who will now face trial should he ever return to Cambodia. The Hun Sen administration has also charged several senior CNRP officials with treason, oftentimes forcing them to flee the country. Kem Sokha, the party’s current president, has been imprisoned without bail since September 2017.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP outperformed the other nineteen parties on the ballot by large margins. None of these parties had the political capital nor the public support to rival that of the CPP. After the dissolution of the CNRP, the royalist FUNCINPEC party was awarded 41 (formerly CNRP seats) of the 123 seats in the National Assembly, counteracting the 79 seats the CPP currently holds.[5] FUNCINPEC first came to the forefront when it won a plurality of the vote in the first 1993 elections, and the party formed a coalition government with the CPP. After Hun Sen ousted FUNCINPEC’s Norodom Ranariddh from the co-premiership in 1998, the royalist party has remained an obscure player in Cambodian politics. Cambodians refer to the eighteen other parties as “fireflies” or “ghosts” because of their ephemerality during election season.[6] The leaders of several of these parties often live outside of Cambodia and travel to the country once every five years solely to campaign.

Western powers denounced the election results as undemocratic and illegitimate. On July 30, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders condemned the elections as “neither free nor fair” and “the most significant setback yet to [Cambodia’s] democratic system.”[7] The White House intends to respond to the elections with “a significant expansion of… visa restrictions,” and called for the reinstatement of both the CNRP and its officials as well as “independent media and civil society organizations.” After the Cambodian government began heavily regulating media outlets, such as the Khmer Times and Phnom Penh Post, and other institutions of civil society, the White House initially responded by imposing travel restrictions upon Cambodian officials in December and suspending certain aid programs to Cambodia in February. Within the same month, a Senate bill imposing further sanctions and precluding Cambodia from any debt renegotiation, S. 2412, was introduced to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but has yet to have a Committee-wide markup.[8] Following the Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2018 in advance of the election to recommend enacting targeted economic sanctions against key military and security officials as well as high-ranking members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.[9]

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) escalated these efforts by imposing economic sanctions on Cambodian General Hing Bun Hieng, the head of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit and a key member of his inner circle, under the Magnitsky Act. Originally targeting high-level Kremlin officials, the Act authorizes the executive branch to unilaterally impose economic sanctions upon individuals accused of human rights violations in any jurisdiction. Sigal Mandelker, Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, cites Bun Hieng’s involvement “in a series of human rights abuses… [and] attacks against a number of individuals, including a U.S. citizen,” as evidence against the General.[10]

The international community remains divided over the legitimacy of Cambodia’s election. Following the example of the United States, Western powers have also threatened high-ranking Cambodian officials with economic sanctions and did not fund the National Election Committee (NEC) nor send officials to monitor the election. China, the U.S.’s main competitor in the region, not only funded the election, but also utilized other, more controversial channels to take an active role in Cambodian politics. American cybersecurity firm FireEye found evidence suggesting that Chinese hacking group TEMP.Periscope conducted phishing attacks against government and opposition officials as well as institutions of civil society ahead of the election.[11] Given China’s capital injections through infrastructure projects and aid, the East Asian power is obviously invested in ensuring its Cambodian interests remain intact. China has yet to comment on the election results.

Former members of the CNRP exiled from Cambodia have welcomed sanctions as an effective method of coercing the Hun Sen government. This includes Kem Monovithya, daughter of Kem Sokha.[12] Monovithya has been a strong voice for Cambodian political rights and democracy in the international arena by lobbying both the United States and European Union to take accountability measures against the Cambodian government. Rainsy has also publicly supported the sanctions and called for more hard-hitting measures, including sanctioning Cambodia’s garment industry. Since the industry comprises a large sector of the Cambodian economy and the United States is the country’s main importer, garment sanctions could lead to workers’ strikes and internal strife. Because Hun Sen’s platform relies upon his economic accomplishments, these internal disruptions to industry would ideally coerce his government into adopting more transparent and democratic policies. However, a lack of opposition leaders significantly reduces the likelihood of a large-scale workers’ movement.

Image: Export Destinations of Cambodia, Source: Observatory of Economic ComplexityImage: Export Destinations of Cambodia, Source: Observatory of Economic Complexity

Looking ahead, the bilateral relationship between the United States government and the Hun Sen administration will likely further deteriorate. With a CPP victory in the general election, Western powers led by the United States will likely impose harder-hitting sanctions on high-ranking officials and may take aim at Cambodia’s lucrative garment industry in the future. Although ASEAN remains a critical geostrategic area for the United States as an economic and security bulwark against a risen China, sanctions will probably foster even closer economic and political relations between Cambodia and the East Asian power. As the international community at large questions the efficacy of sanctions, their imposition will likely undermine the United States’ perception and soft power efforts in Cambodia.

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.









  [7] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-press-secretary-cambodias-flawed-parliamentary-elections/







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