On July 24, the U.S. Department of State announced that it would withhold $18 million in aid earmarked for the Royal Government of Cambodia. This move came in response to profound democratic repression throughout the run-up to the national elections held a day earlier.
Yet, over the weekend, following newly installed Prime Minister Hun Manet’s low-profile visit to New York, the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the funds had been re-instated. This shift has since been repeatedly touted by Cambodian state-affiliated media outlets as a foreign policy victory for the new prime minister. The State Department remains quiet but sources within the U.S. Embassy confirm the reports as true.
This begs the question: What provoked the sudden reversal and how does this move align with broader U.S. strategic and humanitarian objectives in the Kingdom?
From the outset, the State Department was vague on precisely where the $18 million – an amount originally reported by VOA Cambodia – would be deducted from, as the total U.S. annual foreign assistance to Cambodia far exceeds this amount.
In the official press release following the elections, the stated reason for the aid withdrawal was the assessment that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) “denied the Cambodian people a voice and a choice in determining the future of their country.” This sense aligned well with the dominant perspective of independent observers that the elections were neither free nor fair.
The entire election campaign was marred by baldly repressive tactics. These included shuttering one of Cambodia’s last independent media outlets, Voice of Democracy (VOD); banning the only legitimate opposition party (the Candlelight Party); jailing numerous opposition party members; and threats of physical violence against opposition party activists – most notably in the form of the “we’ll beat you with sticks” threat by then Prime Minister Hun Sen, which almost got him suspended from Facebook.
The result was predictable. The CPP dominated the polls, despite a non-trivial number of illegally and intentionally spoiled ballots. Hun Sen’s eldest son, a political novice, was positioned and eventually installed as the new prime minister. Many other key posts were also gifted to the unqualified children of ranking officials in an effort to maintain the CPP’s internal power balance.
Alongside the critiques leveled against the form and function of the election, the State Department press release also offered a seemingly clear set of guidelines for the princeling government.
“As the ruling Cambodian People’s Party forms a new government,” it stated, “authorities have an opportunity to improve the country’s international standing, including by restoring genuine multi-party democracy, ending politically motivated trials, reversing convictions of government critics, and allowing independent media outlets to reopen and function without interference.”
A quick look through the top Cambodian news cycles over the last eight weeks does not reveal any evidence of this guidance being heeded. Rather, the status quo appears firmly entrenched.
Following the election, numerous opposition members were rounded up and arrested. The vice president of the Candlelight Party was recently convicted on spurious charges. Cambodia’s overcrowded prisons continue to hold many political prisoners – notably including American citizen Seng Theary.
Closed news outlets were not re-instated. Rather, VOD recently saw fit to open a new base of operations overseas, signaling its acceptance that Cambodia’s civic space is unlikely to reopen anytime soon.
The situation facing the small cadre of remaining local journalists appears equally grim. Two weeks ago, CamboJA News reported on a violent attack against a government critic shortly after he blasted incoming Minister of Agriculture, Dith Tina. Tina railed against the story and his ministry issued a strong edict threatening an American journalist (Jack Brook) with legal action and insinuating that CamboJA News may soon “meet the same fate as VOD.”
The brazen attacks on what is left of Cambodia’s civil society and free press seem to have ramped up rather than dissipated since the election.
Moreover, Cambodia’s largest industry, a $12 billion-plus criminal empire of slavery-fueled online scamming, appears to be thriving under protection from the ruling elite and imported brainpower from Chinese transnational criminals. Last month, Singaporean police arrested nine Cambodian naturalized citizens (originally from Fujian, China) for money laundering activities connected to the scamming industry. $2 billion and counting in assets have so far been confiscated by in the related investigation. Shortly after the arrests, public domain network analysis revealed extensive business connections between these transnational criminals and multiple prominent Cambodian government officials.
And these criminal connections, initially reported on in a 2022 documentary by Al Jazeera, increasingly appear to be the rule, not the exception. An August exposé in the New York Times demonstrated how Ly Yong Phat, a longtime business partner and advisor to Hun Sen, is overseeing his own forced scamming fiefdom in Koh Kong. Then, just last week, the wife of a top Ministry of Environment official was revealed to be the owner of a known scam compound in Phnom Penh. Her sole explanation: “I do not remember the tenant’s name and no longer have his contact info.”
The import to U.S. foreign policy of this epidemic of state-embedded criminality in Cambodia is significant. Beyond the related repression (arrests and convictions of some NGO activists for supporting victims and threats of legal action against others) lies the significant risk to U.S. citizens posed by this type of crime. In July, Interpol General Secretary Jürgen Stock stated that, “just about anyone in the world could fall victim to either the human trafficking or the online scams carried out through these criminal hubs.” With romance scams on the rise, Americans may be losing billions to Cambodian governance failure.
Domestic industries in Cambodia have long found themselves at the nexus of human rights abuses and organized crime. Take for instance, Cambodia’s domestic brick production, a licit industry staffed by debt-compulsory labor and empowering a money-laundering fueled real estate explosion. Or the illegal timber trade, linked intimately to prominent officials and facilitated by a continuous stream of officially endorsed land grabs against poor villagers.
Yet, the documented high-level state involvement and utter intractability of Cambodia’s scamming industry, despite nearly 18 months of concerted international attention and pressure, is on a different plane altogether. Beyond pressing humanitarian concerns about the large number of forced criminals and extorted victims languishing in Cambodia’s detention centers, this phenomenon raises serious questions about who is calling the shots in Phnom Penh.
Given its obvious concern about Cambodia’s shift toward Beijing, one might expect the State Department to be earnestly evaluating just how much sovereignty the endemically corrupt CPP may have ceded to shadowy criminal interests with opaque ties back to China. Indeed, analysts at the U.S. Institute for Peace and others have raised this point repeatedly.
Accordingly, continued State Department withholding of regime-enabling aid funds should be a foregone conclusion. One might reasonably be expecting to see additional sanctions about to be released in the wake of Cambodia’s renewed “Tier 3” TIP Report ranking – earned largely for endemic official complicity at the cyber scam-human trafficking nexus. Global Magnitsky sanctions for a slew of prominent and perennial CPP abusers shouldn’t be far behind.
One would think.
Yet, this new development tells a very different story, and a perplexing one. Certainly, a case was made on some basis at some desk in D.C. or perhaps by a certain ambassador hoping to exit stage right with a gold star on his resume. Of course, there’s the possibility that this is quid pro quo for Seng Theary’s release. Or, perhaps it can be read as a pragmatic (okay, desperate) bid to get relations with the Manet administration off on a good foot and prevent Cambodia from becoming totally engulfed by Chinese influence. Yet, whatever the rationale, it belies a persistent naivety from the U.S. government about the reformability, or even moldability, of this regime. Hun Sen expertly played this lack of understanding or resolve to his advantage for 38 long years.
The photo accompanying this article shows the strongman’s son’s first official visit to the United States. It took place in a tiny side-room of a nondescript U.S. government building with an acting deputy secretary of state. This was a clear diplomatic snub and not the sort of welcome suggesting much on the negotiating table. Yet, Hun Manet walked out of the meeting with $18 million. It appears that Manet, whatever he lacks in experience or qualification, may have inherited at least a portion of his father’s pragmatism.
From any angle, this appears to be a strategic blunder for the State Department’s geopolitical machinations. More importantly, for those concerned about the fate of the 16 million citizens languishing under a predatory dynastic kleptocracy, the move undermines one of the final remaining levers of accountability.