The agreement published by Peking with four Asian countries on 23 April, has widened the split in the Association of South-Eastern Asia Nations (ASEAN) between the coastal countries involved in a territorial dispute with the People’s Republic of China on the South China Sea and others who are not only exposed to the territorial question but also have ever closer ties that, in some ways, condition them, with the Chinese themselves.
According to the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, Brunei, Cambodia and Laos are already agreed that the territorial disputes created by Peking on its claim to control almost all the seas having Chinese coasts, “are not an internal ASEAN problem”. This point of view is open to debate and is all the more controversial if we take into account the common views of the ten members of the association, such as the agreement of 2002 where the solution to each common problem is unanimously agreed.
It is a position that is giving way to the politics of bilateral agreements by Peking that are given the added incentive of substantial investment and mutual interests at leadership level. With its occasional highs and lows, tension overall is increasing in the South China Sea where the solidification of atolls in international waters, the creation of permanent military structures such as runways for aircraft, naval bases and missile placements is bringing about rearmament in the entire region as well as an ever more likely intervention by the power and interests of the United States.
Whatever may be the reasons for taking sides with Peking, tiny Cambodia (with an area of 181,035 Km2 and a population of 16 million), whose only access to the sea is confined to the extreme south but which has in the Mekong an efficient means of communication and whose position is coveted by the regional powers, has a role that is destined to increase.
China, with its enormous investments, exports even more there while politically protecting the country is an inevitable ally, given their common historical enmity towards Vietnam and the difficult relations between Phnom Penh and nearby Thailand which, for decades, has sought to impose controls on Cambodian resources and trade and does not intend to surrender the control it sees as vital to its interests, especially in the present nationalistic climate after the coup d’état in May, 2014. An example of this is its pretentions regarding the Cambodia waters bordering on their own in the Gulf of Siam, believed to be rich in natural gas. This tug of war periodically raises tensions in the waterways used, often arbitrarily or clearly illegally, by fishing boats, smuggling and trade.
This tension is heir to the historical enmity going back to the last centuries of the Khmer empire which was given the coup de grace by the Thai in the XIV century and which, in recent years, moved into a few hundred square Km of territory around the Buddhist religious compound of Preah Vihear. International negotiations have long since granted Phnom Penh control of the temples built right on the border. There has been no clarification of the boundaries of some frontier areas, leaving room for opportunistic interpretations, opposing nationalisms and the possibility of manoeuvres in the interests of the military. Several times in recent years there have been brief and limited clashes, up to when both countries withdrew their troops from the border in July, 2015. The planned arrival of Indonesian observers requested by the UN, remains to be seen, though it was, in principle, accepted by Cambodia but opposed by their Thailand counterparts. The question of the temples is not the only difficult heritage of this country with such an afflicted history.
The country and the Regime
On 26 January, last, before going to Peking and after he visited Laos, the US Secretary of State John Kerry stopped over in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. It was a brief stay, less than twenty-four hours, but he managed to meet not only premier Hun Sen and the Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, but also Kem Sokha, interim president of the major opposition party, that of the National Salvation of Cambodia, and representatives of civil society.
Bilateral relations, greater USA commercial presence, regional and anti-terrorism questions were uppermost in the series of official meetings but the commitment to democracy, seen by Kerry as “essential”, was equally prominent. Though it was denied by the official spokesman, Kerry had declared beforehand that, in order to improve relations between the two countries, it was “imperative” to tackle “sensitive topics such as human rights”.
In support of this, the Secretary of State, in a press conference held before he departed, confirmed that he had “emphasised the essential role that a democratic system plays in the legitimacy of its political system”. Democratic governments – Kerry added – are responsible for ensuring that all the elected representatives are free to carry out their tasks without fear of aggression or arrest. It is a fundamental responsibility for a democratic government as it prepares for the elections next year and also those of 2018”.
On the other hand, among those who found that the fragmentation and polarisation of alignments, as well as the authoritarian government of Hun Sen that has been in power for almost thirty years, create the danger that Cambodia may arrive at “danger point”, was Rhona Smith, special UN envoy for human rights in Cambodia. After a visit to the country in December, she pointed out that growing political conflict was being accompanied by the abuse of human rights including “acts of violence, the intimidation of individuals and the use of offensive language in political debate”.
The most recent crisis caused by the issue of an arrest warrant for the parliamentary opposition leader Sam Rainsy while he was abroad. A sentence pardoned two years ago by the premier had been reactivated after he made declarations unfavourable to the government during a journey he made to South Korea and Japan.
Sam Rainsy, president of the Party for National Salvation was deprived of parliamentary immunity and runs the risk of spending two years in jail if he is arrested on his return and even more due to two other sentences for other crimes.
For the historical opponent of Hun Sen, the present situation is “the complete elimination of the only opposition party represented in parliament and a de facto return of the country to the one-party system that existed before the Paris Agreement signed by 18 countries under the protection of the UN, in 1990, which started the democratic process.
Even the Secretary general of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, recently showed that he followed “with concern” the tensions between the government party in Cambodia and its parliamentary rivals and described this and more recent questions that betray an attitude of persecution towards the opposition as “worrying developments”.
Online information, especially in the social media, is at the centre of oppressive initiatives: the control of local and international charitable and aid organisations active in the country by means of a recently passed law which makes government interference possible through the control of financial resources; the suppression of basic movements in opposition to the expropriation of lands belonging to villages and protected areas that is often organised by persons or groups associated with the political power. Lastly, there is an attempt to limit the work of the special mixed Tribunal for Cambodian genocide to a few eighty-year-old leaders so as to prevent the premier himself (formerly of the Khmer Rouge) being found to be one of those responsible for a regime believed to be responsible for the deaths of at least 1,5 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. (S.V.)