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The Collateral Damage of the Hun Manet Charm Offensive

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The Collateral Damage of the Hun Manet Charm Offensive

Who stands to lose the most as the world welcomes the next generation of Cambodian kleptocrats?

The Collateral Damage of the Hun Manet Charm Offensive

French President Emmanuel Macron waves as he welcomes Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Manet on January 18, 2024,before a working lunch at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France.

Credit: AP Photo/Thomas Padilla

Thai police rush into Kork Seim’s home in Rayong, Thailand just after 5p.m. on Friday afternoon. She is quickly rounded up along with her husband and their children, aged 2 and 4, and shuffled into a waiting car with no explanation.

Despite their status as UNHCR people of concern, Seim and her family are sent directly to the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok for deportation processing. If they are returned to Cambodia, they will face certain political persecution. They are exiles in Thailand fleeing the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) government. The CPP, for the entirety of its 45-year death grip on the country, has dealt harshly with any who dare raise their voice in opposition. As a member of the Candlelight Party, blocked from running in the months prior to last year’s general elections, Seim’s husband is guilty of just that.

This young family was joined in detention by a number of other Cambodian dissidents living in Thailand. All were arrested over the weekend as Prime Minister Hun Manet prepared for his first official visit to Thailand on February 7. The asylum seekers were all subject to CPP surveillance during their time in Thailand. They were arrested, after backroom negotiations between the Cambodian and Thai governments, for their perceived ability to mobilize demonstrations during the Cambodian leader’s visit.

This group of Cambodian dissidents is joined by a great many others across the region who have likewise fallen victim to transnational repression – the practice of authoritarian states reaching with increasing frequency and boldness across borders to silence critics abroad. Manet and company are not unique in their deployment of this tactic, but this case bears specific note given the backdrop and rationale.

As ever, paranoia prevails as a strategic guide for the CPP. In this sense, the week’s arrests, while concerning, are unremarkable. However, unlike past years, Cambodia’s top foreign policy objective is a concerted white-washing of the new PM’s international image as some sort of heroic reformer. Whereas Hun Sen would have gleefully twisted Thai arms to bring home dissidents for persecution merely to intimidate his rivals, Manet is doing so to sweep away any evidence that undermines his superficial image as a more benevolent – and more Western-friendly – authoritarian.

This sort of repressive attention to detail has already yielded a few early wins. Manet was more or less welcomed at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos. A few weeks later, he walked away from meetings with French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron with $200 million in aid pledges.

Pivoting between global poles has long been a core strategy of the CPP. Hun Sen has pragmatically played off the sympathies and insecurities of every world power since the early 80s, all while maintaining a monopoly on domestic politics (via repressive action) and the economy (including activities of the criminal variety). Manet has taken the reins of power at a time in which the need for pragmatic multilateralism is as pronounced as ever, particularly following a difficult few years on the regional stage. This included an embarrassing tenure as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2022 and an even more embarrassing loss of face resulting from revelations about Cambodia’s massive state-facilitated scam industry, which enslaves tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of regional citizens. Manet likely knows that this $12.5 billion domestic criminal industry is too large to quash if he hopes to cling to power. So, in a sense, his hands are tied.

Enter the Manet-as-reformer propaganda train. Cambodia’s new leader presents a softer face than his father, both literally and figuratively, and boasts a Western education. Manet lacks his father’s ruthless pragmatism and his hot-headed rhetoric, both so inimical to high diplomacy. He also finds an open audience in a Western world desperate to claw back its lost geopolitical influence in the region.

However, the effort to welcome Manet into the fold and pretend that all is normal in Cambodia carries significant risks. These exist not only for those few remaining local voices of dissent in the country, like Seim and her young family, but for all those in Cambodia suffering under what remains a highly predatory and criminal regime. The evidence overwhelmingly points to worsening state-facilitated environmental devastation, criminal impunity, and political repression since Manet took office in August. Indeed, the ripple effects of this mode of governing are increasingly impacting the world outside of Cambodia.

Manet is certainly striking a different tone than his father, who vociferously threatened to beat opposition members with sticks or to blow off their heads with bazookas. Yet, his practical actions look eerily similar. In the six months since assuming power, over a dozen opposition party members have been arrested with minimal explanation, a similar number to the last six months of his father’s rule. Several more have been brutally beaten by an emboldened thug contingent of Manet’s CPP. While transnational repression was long used by Hun Sen to pursue his opponents abroad, this week’s arrests demonstrate an escalating brazenness and paranoia – as is common to the dynastic heirs of rogue states needing to demonstrate their authority.

Further, Manet is showing no less enthusiasm than his father for the environmental evisceration of his country in the name of a quick buck. Land concessionaires continue to brutally evict residents, mine unsustainably, and haphazardly fill-in lakes. Forests are still being razed with apex late-capitalist fervor. New plans are emerging for a bevy of ill-advised hydro-electric dams along the major waterways – rights gifted, per family custom, to an influential kleptocrat.

And Cambodia remains, as ever, a haven of organized criminality. While under-funded and beleaguered ethnic armed groups across Myanmar’s interior find it well within their capacity to swiftly rid their territories of the scourge of industrial scale scamming and human trafficking, Manet has shown no such resolve. He continually parrots his father’s tired lines about biased Western media reports while his hapless deputies berate victims of human trafficking with a tone deaf fervor few other global regimes are capable of matching. The real weight of the state apparatus remains fully in support of the criminal industry itself. This takes the form of police protection, the repression of activists, and obfuscating propaganda. To top it off, in December, ultra-scamlord Ly Yong Phat was named as a permanent CPP central committee member. The Manet regime is clearly digging in its heals with regard to its most lucrative industry.

All the while, key U.S. government officials are busy handing back aid money and posing for photo ops. European heads of state are pledging economic investment and Australia remains as impotent as ever in its attempt at a “balanced” foreign policy posture.

It also bears noting that there is little evidence that the West’s welcoming approach to Hun Manet is bearing foreign policy fruit. Rhetoric aside, Cambodia continues to demonstrate steadfast fealty to Beijing. Despite years of American handwringing, Chinese joint military exercises are now fully operational at Ream Naval base. Chinese infrastructure projects and real estate developments are ubiquitous in the Kingdom of Wonder. And, of course, it is deep-pocketed Chinese criminals atop Cambodia’s scam industry who are feeding the CPP’s coffers more generously than perhaps any other revenue source. Let’s make no mistake who is propping up this sovereign criminal enterprise.

Welcoming a baby dictator with open arms such as world leaders seem bent on doing is not only misguided. It is not merely a pragmatic trade-off between interests and human rights. It is downright naive, self-harming, and deluded. As Interpol’s Jürgen Stock said of the forced scamming industry safely centered in Manet’s Cambodia, “just about everyone in the world is vulnerable to this scourge.”

So, as one of the world’s most corrupt and predatory regimes slimes its way back into good graces of the international community, it is not only families like Seim’s who will pay the price. It is all of us.