French President Emmanuel Macron was asked on 16 Jan. about how he would handle a possible re-election of Donald Trump in the US later this year.
“I take the leaders who are chosen by their people,” Macron replied. The French president two days later received Cambodian prime minister Hun Manet at the Elysée.
Hun Manet, of course, does not meet Macron’s criteria of being chosen by the people. He was not even officially a candidate for prime minister in the last election, which took place without any recognized opposition party, in July 2023.
That electoral exercise was the latest in a series of falsified elections which serious independent observers have long since stopped bothering to observe. The 2018 election likewise had no opposition after the politically controlled supreme court dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party in 2017. Modern Cambodia’s only genuine election was organized by the United Nations in 1993. Hun Sen lost that election, but overturned the will of the people in a bloody coup in 1997.
Since then, the West has by and large been content to wait and see, and hope for signs of piecemeal reform by the regime. Any such signs of a change of ruling mentality in Cambodia have never come. Since Hun Manet took over from his father Hun Sen as prime minister, the regime has not changed one iota, with Hun Sen saying openly that he will come back as prime minister if needed. Brutal beatings of members of the opposition by men wearing motorcycle helmets continue, including across the border among the Cambodian migrant workforce in Thailand. Not a single one of Cambodia’s political prisoners, who number over 60, has been released by Hun Manet, and new political arrests have continued.
These opposition supporters have been locked up by politically controlled courts simply for publicly criticising the government. Freedom of expression is taken for granted in France. The citizens of some countries, Macron’s policy suggests, shouldn’t expect to enjoy the same rights.
The meeting with Hun Manet is not a one-off. Macron also welcomed Hun Sen to the Elysée with open arms in December 2022. The only puzzle is why Macron is not prepared to be fully consistent in his strategy of engagement. The political leader who has the clearest parallels with Hun Manet is not Donald Trump, but North Korea’s Kim Jung-Un.
The handover of power by Hun Sen to Hun Manet is not a simple political tactic born out of necessity. Hun Sen continues to hold the real levers of power in Cambodia, and is committed to the principle hereditary power. The handover to Hun Manet was accompanied by the handover of power by a series of ageing ministers to the sons.
Hun Sen has publicly declared that he sees himself as “not only the father but also the grandfather of prime ministers.” The talents and abilities of Cambodians outside the family lineages of the ruling elite, as well as the wishes of the Cambodian people, count for nothing. Only the North Korean lineage of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un offers a comparable modern example.
Policy of Engagement
Macron has clearly made the calculation that it is better to engage with dictators rather than deny them legitimacy. He repeatedly held unsuccessful talks with Russia’s Vladimir Putin to try to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Seeking any opportunity, no matter how slight, to end the conflict in Ukraine is laudable and necessary.
There is no such rationale when dealing with a corrupt regime such as that in Cambodia which, for decades, has shown itself unwilling to even attempt serious reform. A more robust and intellectually coherent strategy would be to impose sanctions such as travel bans and asset freezes on the Cambodian leaders with direct responsibility for gross human rights violations.
There is no sign that Macron, along with some other Western leaders, fully understands the unseen impacts of affording high-profile acceptance and credibility to dictators such as Hun Manet. An official visit to a venue such as the Elysée is a major propaganda coup for any such regime. It gives an unequivocal message to the Cambodian regime and the Cambodian people that arrests of and violence against opposition supporters can continue.
The regime’s understanding and use of this green light is clear in the timing of the arrest of Khem Chanvannak, the acting head of the opposition Candlelight Party’s Phnom Penh operations, on 15 January, as Hun Manet prepared to leave for Paris.
Once the idea of engagement with renegade regimes which are not at war is accepted, there is no clear place to draw a line in the sand. The West’s policy on Cambodia is so ineffective that it may as well wait for one of Hun Sen’s grandchildren to take over as prime minister and then give him some time to see if concessions are forthcoming. In the meantime, Macron can push his policy of engagement to its logical conclusion by inviting Kim Jung-Un to the Elysée.
[Photo by Hean Socheata/VOA Khmer]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Sam Rainsy, Cambodia’s finance minister from 1993 to 1994, is the co-founder and acting leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).