When Nobel laureate and Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi visited Hun Sen, the dictatorial ruler of Cambodia, in early May, it hit home just how much democratic progress had stuttered in both countries.
Since Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party romped to power in the propitious 2015 election, displacing more than 50 years of military rule, civil liberties in Myanmar have taken a tumble. On the human-rights icon’s watch, thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been killed, and around 700,000 have fled the country, after military clearance operations that amounted to “ethnic cleansing” according to the United Nations. Meanwhile, significantly more people have been charged under a dubious defamation law than under the previous junta-backed president Thein Sein.
Free expression has fared no better in nearby Cambodia. After maintaining some semblance of democracy for decades to garner Western support, Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, has given up all pretenses in order to protect his hold on power. The past two years alone have seen non-governmental organizations expelled, independent media outlets shuttered, the main opposition party dissolved, and political opponents exiled. With no credible opposition left, the Cambodian government has lapsed from a “hybrid regime” into an “authoritarian” one, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Presiding over flagging democracies, it seems these once unlikely bedfellows, Suu Kyi and Hun Sen, n0w have a lot more in common. The international community has been outspoken in its criticism of the leaders. The European Union has threatened to remove preferential trade agreements with both Myanmar and Cambodia as punishment for human-rights abuses. In turn, both countries have cozied up further with China and its open checkbook: In the 2017-18 fiscal year, investments from China in Myanmar amounted to around US$1 billion, more than from the US, UK and Germany combined, while in 2017, roughly 70% of foreign direct investment in Cambodia came from China.
Indeed, while Suu Kyi’s two-day official visit saw agreements to boost trade and cultural exchanges between the two nations, it also reinforced a sense of unity between two leaders under the international spotlight. At the regional World Economic Forum last year, Hun Sen derided accusations of genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar. In a stereotypical appeal to national sovereignty – a line of defense often used by Suu Kyi’s government – he said countries should be allowed to solve their own problems.
Turning to China and championing autonomy are not the only similarities in their leadership styles. Both have taken a leaf out of the Machiavellian playbook. Instead of condemning the attacks on the Rohingya, Suu Kyi has remained silent and has behaved more like an authoritarian than a democrat in decision-making processes. She has preferred to stay on the right side of the military and a fervently nationalist electorate, with elections slated for next year. The shrewd Hun Sen meanwhile has enervated dissenting voices without remorse, while pivoting foreign policy toward willing financiers.
While the Cambodian strongman has long been known for his authoritarian antics, Suu Kyi’s visit marks a low point in her ever demising global reputation. The incongruity of her visit to Cambodia, where Kem Sokha, the opposition leader, has been under house arrest since September – for effectively being a threat to Hun Sen – is probably lost even on her. Former political prisoner Suu Kyi after all was feted for her long fight for democracy in Myanmar during 15 years of junta-imposed incarceration in her own home. Needless to say, she did not broach the subject on her short visit.
Mutual future challenges may push the two leaders closer together. The withdrawal of EU trade benefits threatens both economies, as well as the livelihoods of millions. Meanwhile the international community will continue to keep up the pressure on human-rights abuses, a growing dependence on China will come with financial risks, and an emerging young social-media-savvy demography will be less willing to accept weak governance.
As such, while the democratic transition may be stalling inside both Myanmar and Cambodia, the implications of anti-democratic rule will continue to leave both Hun Sen and Suu Kyi with an uphill struggle.