Prime Minister Hun Sen frequently warns Cambodians that political crises that invite outside intervention in other nations could likewise befall their country again, a dire warning in a land that suffered decades of civil war and a notorious genocide.
Months before the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) forcibly dissolved the main opposition party and launched a crackdown on civil society in 2017, it churned out videos informing the public that if it was ever ousted from power, then the country would dissolve in to a Syria-like civil war scenario.
Syria was à la mode back then. Today, it’s Venezuela.
Last month, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen described it as “shameful” that Venezuelan opposition leader and National Assembly chief Juan Guaidó had named himself president, a move to oust the embattled autocrat Nicolás Maduro, who also considers himself president.
Speaking at a gathering of workers, Hun Sen steered the Venezuela issue back around to his own 35-year rule, asking whether the US would “do this to Cambodia,” meaning Washington’s support of Guaidó’s claim to power and its refusal to rule out military intervention against Maduro.
Like the US, most European states, global democracies and many Latin America nations have thrown their support behind Guaidó. China, Russia and Turkey have been equally quick to back Maduro.
“There is no need to wonder,” Hun Sen said, responding to his own question of whether the US would also intervene in Cambodia. “This is to create trouble, and that is why I insist to be careful with Cambodia’s peace. We must not allow the foreigners to interfere and collude with people inside to attempt to destroy our hard-earned peace.”
By “people inside”, he meant officials and members of the now dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Once the country’s largest opposition party which almost beat the CPP at a 2013 general election, it was forcibly dissolved by the Supreme Court in 2017 after being accused of conspiring with the US to launch a “color revolution” aimed at toppling Hun Sen’s regime.
No evidence has ever emerged to support the claim, and both the CNRP and Washington strongly deny it.
With the CNRP off the ballot, the ruling CPP, which has been in power since 1979, went on to win all 125 seats in the National Assembly at last year’s general election. The CPP already controlled all but four seats in the Senate, the upper house and the vast majority of locally-elected positions, underpinnings for what has become a de facto one-party state.
The international community subsequently dubbed last July’s election as illegitimate and stage-managed. The US and European Union are now threatening economic and financial sanctions on Cambodia, which could cripple the economy if Hun Sen’s government doesn’t loosen its political chokehold.
Hun Sen has unfaltering described any criticism of his government as an assault on Cambodia’s sovereignty and independence. It is this aspect of the Venezuela crisis and Maduro’s claim that US support of Guaidó amounts to an imperialist coup that appeals to Hun Sen.
“This country will soon have a civil war because Maduro will not want to relinquish power,” he recently opined. “Why should this kind of thing happen? The opposition leader did not take part in the election, but has now been recognized as the country’s president.”
The prime minister’s eldest son, Hun Manet, who is now the second-highest ranked military official after being promoted to deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) last year, has also added his two cents to the issue.
“Some politicians have compared Cambodia to Venezuela. But don’t forget that these actors [opposition politicians] have never helped Cambodia besides destroying [the nation] and inciting [the people] to help them get power,” he said at the weekend, local media reported.
The situation in Venezuela has also been of interest to CPP-aligned newspapers in Cambodia, with Fresh News, the government’s main mouthpiece, publishing numerous reports on the situation in recent days.
Ever since its political crackdown, the CPP has failed to produce evidence that a foreign government, namely the US, has been actively trying to collude with opposition politicians or intervene in domestic politics. But if the US was to militarily intervene in Venezuela, although still unlikely, the CPP could say it reveals America’s interventionist intent to oust any government that falls from its favor.
This has added gravitas in Cambodia since the US allegedly played some part, though highly contested, in military commander Lon Nol’s rightist coup of 1970. His “republic” was overthrow five years later by the Khmer Rouge, launching a four-year genocidal killing spree.
The US Embassy in Cambodia sparked debate last week when it said in a Facebook post that there “has not been any evidence proving” the American government was involved in the 1970 coup in Cambodia. The Chinese Embassy in Cambodia responded with its own statement that it was the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), not the US government, that played a role in that coup. (The CIA is part of the American government.)
Today, Washington insists that military intervention in Venezuela is not a primary option, though it hasn’t ruled out the possibility. Its attempts to downplay this option weren’t helped when US National Security Adviser John Bolton was recently seen holding a notepad that read: “5,000 troops to Colombia,” a country that borders Venezuela and has accepted more than a million Venezuela migrants and refugees in recent years. For some, this was an indication Washington plans to move more troops southwards.
Maduro, who remains in power, claims that US President Donald Trump’s administration “intends to turn my homeland into a ‘Vietnam war’ in Latin America,” and that if the US does “invade” then it will have “a Vietnam worse than they can imagine.” He also stated that Trump would leave the White House “stained with blood” if he deployed troops to Venezuela.
Such premonitions are music to the ears of other despots across the world, who also eye the US as an imperialist threat rather than a champion of international democracy and human rights.
It probably also helps that Maduro is currently the secretary general of the Non-Aligned Movement, a 120-member bloc that stands up for the national sovereignty and independence of smaller nations vis-à-vis great powers. Some analysts, however, think the bloc has been hijacked in recent years to serve the interests of anti-American governments.
Cambodia’s interest in Venezuelan affairs took a more combative turn when exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy also saw it as bearing some resemblance to the situation in Cambodia, though in the opposite way to Hun Sen.
“The US and the European Union have issued an ultimatum to Nicolas Maduro to hold a new presidential election in Venezuela in 2019 to replace the fake poll held in 2018,” he wrote on Facebook on February 1. “They should issue the same ultimatum to Hun Sen to address the fake legislative election held last year in Cambodia.”
Since its dissolution, the CNRP has been lobbying foreign governments to exert pressure on Phnom Penh, either through sanctions or trade restrictions. The US has imposed limited measures, including some visa bans and cuts in aid, though bills before Congress could ramp up financial sanctions.
The EU, meanwhile, has dangled a more ominous threat in the possible withdrawal of Cambodia from its duty-free preferential trade deal, the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme. If Cambodia’s duty-free privileges were revoked, its export-dependent economy would severely suffer.
In essence, the Venezuela crisis has brought to light a growing global chasm between nations, chiefly Western democracies, that want to support democracy-building and human rights in other countries, and think they can use economic, financial – or even military – means to do so; and nations, chiefly autocracies, that interpret such rhetoric as nouveau imperialism that aims to erode the sovereignty of weaker nations.
Venezuela’s pro-democracy leader Guaidó has pleaded for foreign support of his would-be presidency – and most likely knows that he stands zero chance of winning power if foreign governments fail to act. Cambodia’s Sam Rainsy and the CNRP also know that foreign pressure, through sanctions or reductions in trade, stand the best chance of getting the CPP government back to the negotiation table.
Sam Rainsy, however, also raised another aspect of the Venezuela crisis pertinent to Cambodian affairs: Many analysts think the crisis will be resolved by the actions of Venezuela’s military. Maduro, who has lavished money and accolades on the military even as the country’s economy slumps, still has the support of most senior armed forces officials.
Guaidó , his challenger, has appealed for military elites to turn their back on Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela and to not fire on peaceful protesters, a reference to the dozens of demonstrators who have been killed in recent months. Sam Rainsy clearly hopes for a similar schism in Cambodia. The ruling CPP has effectively politicized the military in recent decades.
Apart from Hun Manet, now as the second-highest ranked military official, another of Hun Sen’s sons is director-general of military intelligence. Two of the most senior RCAF officials, Pol Saroeun and Kun Kim, stepped down last year and successfully ran to become CPP lawmakers. A number of military elites sit on the CPP’s Permanent Committee, the party’s Politburo.
Despite those ties, Sam Rainsy last year sparked the ire of the CPP when he asked military officials to question their loyalty. On February 1, in the same breath as speaking about Venezuela, he raised the issue again.
“I appeal to the armed forces not to use their weapons to shoot people for Hun Sen,” he wrote on Facebook, despite the fact there are currently no protests in the country. “Please keep those weapons to protect yourself, the people and the country…Don’t protect dictators.”