SIEM REAP, Cambodia — The status of human rights in Cambodia is declining from an already dire state, and China holds a lion’s share of the blame.
For decades now, Western donors have been giving Cambodia hundreds of millions of dollars each year—almost $20 billion since 1992. Year after year, smiling Cambodian government leaders attend the pledge conferences, holding out their hands. But first they have to listen as ambassadors and aid officers stand at the podium, look them in the eye, and lambast them for rampant corruption and jaw-dropping human rights abuses.
Each year Prime Minister Hun Sen promises to reform. But little ever changes. Still, the government managed to maintain a democratic facade—a moderately free, English-language press and a variety of civil-society institutions including several human-rights groups—so the donors could find reason to continue giving money.
“There’s a free press,” Peter Jipp, a senior specialist with the World Bank, once told me with a cheery grin. “You don’t find that in other states—Laos, Vietnam. There’s a developing civil-society network. So, in the parlance of the donor community, these are the champions!”
The journalists and civil-society groups write primarily in English, meaning hardly any Cambodians can read what they’re writing. Illiteracy is widespread in the state, so even Khmer versions are inaccessible to most.
But now the government seems unwilling to accept criticism in any language.
In September, Mam Sonando, a 71-year-old radio station owner, was sentenced to 20 years in jail for criticizing the government on air. He’d been broadcasting for decades.
At about the same time, newspaper journalist Hang Serei Odom was found dead in the trunk of his car, hacked to death with an axe. He had been writing about illegal logging, a longstanding problem in Cambodia. Hang was the first journalist killed there in four years.
Meanwhile, the accused killer of Chut Wutty, an environmental activist who was shot dead last spring while visiting an illegal logging site, was tried last month—and set free, even though two reporters for the Cambodia Daily newspaper were with Chut and witnessed the shooting.
Is it any coincidence that these and several other repressive acts came days after Hun Sen visited Beijing and came away with promises of as much as $5 billion in loans and grants over the next few years—that on top of $8 billion China provided in the last five years?
All of that money comes with no hectoring from Beijing about human-rights abuses, endemic corruption, home seizures, arrests, murders of dissidents, or the many other problems that are rife in Cambodia—and China, too. As Hun Sen once put it: “China respects the political decisions of Cambodia. They build bridges and roads, and there are no complicated conditions,” adding that “China talks less but does a lot.”
That’s a 180-degree change of view for Hun Sen, who once called China “the root of everything that is evil” in Cambodia because of Beijing’s longtime support of the Khmer Rouge.
But it seems that, for the prime minister and the other officers in his dictatorship now, it’s all about the money.