As Cambodian repression worsens, donors fret over their responses

A cameraman from the government's national television station films as Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany light candles at the special ceremony. Photo by: Abby Seiff / Devex

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — On a recent Sunday, as the sun rose over the spires of Angkor Wat, five thousand saffron-clad monks shuffled into the park grounds. They — along with thousands more students, villagers, farmers and laypeople — had been bussed in from across the country as part of a hastily arranged "prayer for peace and happiness." Over the loudspeakers came a brief history of Cambodia, — the Angkorian empire, the great kings, the horrors of the Pol Pot regime, and then: Peace.

For those in attendance, the words appeared to have hit their mark. “I came here to pray for peace and happiness,” said 60-year-old Prak Van, who had traveled from a province hundreds of kilometers away to attend. “Peace means there are no more problems happening in Cambodia, no issues in the country ... I’m afraid of conflict because I lived through it for many years, especially in the Pol Pot regime.” While Prak Van spoke, a pair of security guards looked impassively on.

For more than three decades, Cambodia’s strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen has coupled such tacit threats with more overt ones to retain his grip on power. A Khmer Rouge cadre who defected and returned with the Vietnamese to overthrow the barbarous regime in 1979, the premier has long fashioned himself and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party as the country’s savior. But as the years slide by, a younger generation with no recollection of war is demanding more from their government than threats of violence and reminders of worse times.

For a leader that refuses to loosen his grip, this has left his CPP on shaky ground. In 2013, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party swept 45 percent of the vote — nearly doubling their seats held in parliament to 55 of 123. The ruling party held the remainder. In June, at the local-level commune elections, the CNRP repeated its performance — receiving almost 44 percent of the vote to the ruling party’s 50 percent. Had the July 2018 national elections gone on as planned, there was a distinct likelihood that the ruling party could be unseated.

Cambodia's controversial NGO law snares its first victim

Accused of collaborating to topple the government, the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute has been given seven days to shut down and send its foreign staff packing. The move is just the latest in a string of actions aimed at weakening an unusually vibrant civil society and independent media.

To combat that possibility, various branches of the government have carried out a campaign to dismantle dissenting voices. In recent weeks, Hun Sen’s ruling party government has dissolved the only viable opposition ahead of next year's elections, jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha, arrested journalists, shut down independent media and threatened rights groups. With the CNRP dissolved, thousands of commune council seats won just months ago have primarily gone straight back to the ruling party – which will hold more than 95 percent of those commune positions.

Amid such brazen rights violations, a familiar pattern has emerged. Rights groups have urged Cambodia’s donors “to act,” a flurry of strongly worded statements has appeared, and senior diplomats have stressed the need for Cambodia to return to democratic norms. But at the end of the day, the latest situation highlights how relatively small a sway donors can have.

“We are in the middle of a balancing act, where on the one hand, we have to show our concern and review programs that are linked to negative development,” explained Göran Holmqvist, director of the department for Asia, Middle East and humanitarian assistance at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. “On the other hand, we want to stay engaged, we want to keep channels for dialogue open.” 

Monks try to shade themselves at the December 3 ceremony. More than 5000 monks attended the "prayer for peace." Photo by: Abby Seiff / Devex

Donor response

On Tuesday, the European Union informed the government it was suspending assistance to the National Election Commission in light of last month’s dissolution of the CNRP. “An electoral process from which the main opposition party has been arbitrarily excluded cannot be seen as legitimate,” reads a letter sent by Ambassador George Edgar to the head of the NEC, Sik Bon Hok, and several senior ranking officials.

The suspension is just the latest concrete action put in place by donors thus far. Last Wednesday, the United States State Department announced visa restrictions for senior Cambodian officials.

“In direct response to the Cambodian government’s series of antidemocratic actions, we announce the Secretary of State will restrict entry into the United States of those individuals involved in undermining democracy in Cambodia. In certain circumstances, family members of those individuals will also be subject to visa restrictions,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement

The targeted sanction could be lifted, suggested Nauert, if the government “reverse[s] course” by freeing Kem Sokha, restoring the CNRP and allowing the media and NGOs to work unimpeded.

And in November, Sweden announced that its development agency would not enter any new government-to-government development cooperation agreements, except research and education. The U.S., meanwhile, said it would cut off a promised $1.8 million to the NEC.

Sweden’s primary government-to-government transaction comes in the form of roughly $3 million annual support of the country’s decentralization program. In an interview with Devex, Holmqvist, from SIDA, said the Supreme Court ruling made it impossible for them to justify continued funding to the decentralization reform.

“We regard it as very difficult to give continued support to develop a local democracy in the municipalities in Cambodia when de facto the recent electoral result has been nullified. It has been taken away from the opposition party and all their places in the local assembly have been distributed to other parties. Obviously it’s a major blow to the legitimacy of local democracy when that thing happens. So that is the reason why we don’t feel comfortable giving continued financial support to that particular reform.”

The U.S. declined several requests for interviews, but Ambassador William Heidt said in a Facebook Live interview with VOA that a similar calculation was made by the U.S.

“After the dissolution of the CNRP we just didn’t feel like that next election, the one in 2018 could be truly free and fair. And we were no longer willing to support that process. And so we regretted that, that’s not something we wanted to do, but it’s important for us that we support things that are truly leading to democracy and we just didn’t feel that was.”  

A government spokesperson called such cuts “hypocritical.”

“If they see the election committee as a political issue they are hypocritical,” said Phay Siphan spokesman for the Council of Ministers. “NEC has the right to oversee the election going on.

If they abandon the NEC as an independent body [that means] they don’t want to see Cambodia grow or improve. It’s an internal issue in Cambodia, they should not involve [themselves] in that.”

The ‘development dance’

Haley Swedlund, a researcher who focuses on foreign aid delivery, said that while aid is meant to be conditional, rarely is it suspended for rights abuses or governance failings. In one study, Swedlund charted the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development program changes between 2006 and 2014. Of 39 instances of aid suspension, a quarter were related to issues around rights or governance. The vast majority were suspended for corruption or mismanagement. She also surveyed scores of donor officials in 20 African countries on their willingness to suspend aid for a range of hypothetical transgressions, with results that mirrored the DFID outcomes. While more than half said they would suspend for corruption of mismanagement in projects they were funding, only 17 percent suggested “deterioration in respect for civil liberties” would warrant a suspension.

“If you have a government who knows that in the end aid is not going to suspended, then conditionalities are never going to be effective.”

— Haley Swedlund, assistant professor at Radboud University Nijmegen

“It’s relatively clear that donors don’t uphold their conditionalities and what I think is interesting is how recipient governments respond to that. Of course they’re not really incentivized to change their behavior if they know conditionalities are not going to be upheld,” said Swedlund, who is an assistant professor at the Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management at the Nijmegen School of Management, Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

“There’s also a cost to individuals when aid is suspended. But the problem is of course, if you have a government who knows that in the end aid is not going to suspended, then conditionalities are never going to be effective … I had an interviewee who said that exact thing to me: Aid is full of carrots but it doesn’t have a stick.  Especially when you have donors who have been active in all of these countries for decades — the recipient government is not new to the game. They know the suspension threshold is very, very high.”

Holmqvist, of SIDA, said he had few illusions about the limits of such efforts.

A police officer and officials snap photos of Angkor Wat ahead of the prime minister's December 3 ceremony. Photo by: Abby Seiff / Devex

“What I tried to convey to the Ministry of Finance is that we understand that the leverage of our development programs is not huge. Cambodia is a sovereign country and we respect that, but on the other hand, our development cooperation also faces constraints that we have to pay attention to. I don't expect a cut in development cooperation aid to solve this, it has to be through internal processes,” he said.

In Cambodia, that “development dance,” as Swedlund terms it, is particularly polished. Over the past 25 years, the country’s traditional donors have given at least $10 billion in development aid. The aid is a legacy of the 1992 United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, an 18-month, $1.6 billion administration sent to broker the country’s first post-conflict multiparty elections. The vote was marred by brutal violence in the lead-up, though more than 90 percent of voters braved the polling stations. When — to the surprise of many — the royalist party Funcinpec won, Hun Sen refused to back down. With Hun Sen threatening a return to civil war, UNTAC hastily gave its blessing to a joint premiership with Prince Norodom Ranariddh and the aid continued to flow.

In the intervening years, it has hardly slowed. It did not stop in 1997, after a grenade was lobbed into a rally held by opposition leader Sam Rainsy, killing dozens. And it did not stop months later after bloody battles broke out between forces loyal to Hun Sen and those loyal to Ranariddh. When Ranariddh fled, only to return and join a coalition government, Hun Sen’s grip tightened. In the intervening years, he has wholly consolidated power. He has also presided over one of the region’s fastest growing economies, and presented himself as an arbiter of “stability.” And so the aid keeps coming.

In recent years, to be sure, aid has indeed dropped slightly. In 2015, the last year for which there is Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data, Cambodia received $677 million compared to $802.7 million in 2014, and $808.2 million in 2013. However, while some have suggested the drop was tied to dissatisfaction with the 2013 election — the results of which the opposition protested for a year — that’s far from clear. Perhaps its most critical donor, the U.S. — for instance — saw its disbursals rise: From $86.05 million in 2015, compared with $80.82 million in 2014, and $77.73 million the year before that. When cuts come, such as those forthcoming to U.S. Agency for International Development programs here, they are nearly always due to domestic considerations.

Few understand that better than the Cambodian government itself. In a speech to garment workers reported by the Phnom Penh Post last month, Hun Sen taunted U.S. lawmakers threatening cuts.  

“I welcome the U.S. to cut aid to the National Election Committee,” he said. “When aid is cut, all domestic NGOs will die. Go ahead and kill your children.”

Government spokesman Phay Siphan told Devex that while the government is “very pleased” by the humanitarian funding delivered over the years, efforts aimed at pressuring court or parliament decisions is undue interference in a sovereign nation.

“They cannot use humanitarian aid to put pressure on political situation, shame on them. Poor people have nothing to do with it,” he said. “If they want to use donations or aid to reflect what they want, we don’t need that. But if they want to use that aid for the interest of Cambodian people, we welcome it.”  

About the author

  • Abigail Seiff

    Abby Seiff is a reporter focused on human rights, land issues, and politics. She has been covering Southeast and South Asia since 2009, working previously for Devex and freelancing for Time, Newsweek, Al Jazeera, and others. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in anthropology.