Cambodian Opposition Chief Warns Against China’s Growing Dominance, Military Presence

khmer-xisihamoni2-072319.jpg Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni (L) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, May 14, 2019.

Exiled Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy called on Cambodians in a statement on Tuesday to oppose what he called China’s colonization of the Southeast Asian country, warning especially against the use of Cambodia as a base for a growing Chinese military presence.

China understandably wants to turn Cambodia into an outpost to implement its expansionist strategy which implies the building of military facilities such as the ones under construction in Cambodia,” the acting leader of the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) said.

“This will have far-reaching implications because it potentially jeopardizes peace and stability in the region,” Sam Rainsy said.

Also of concern, Sam Rainsy said, are the growing number in Cambodia of  “Chinese tourists, investors, traders and settlers, and the multiplication of all kinds of facilities exclusively serving Chinese needs and interests.”

“Such open subservience to Beijing comes in exchange for massive and unprecedented financial assistance in various forms with no transparency and no consideration whatsoever for democracy, human rights and the environment,” Sam Rainsy said.

“Such unique financial support is essential for the corrupt and authoritarian Hun Sen regime to survive and for its elite to continue to thrive."

Regional instability concerns

Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Tuesday, Sam Rainsy said again that China should never use Cambodia as a base from which to attack other countries, adding that a Chinese military presence in the country would put Cambodia at risk.

“And other countries in the region will also face instability,” he said.

On July 22, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen dismissed reports that China had signed a secret agreement to use a naval base on the outskirts of the Cambodian port city of Sihanoukville, saying such an arrangement had never been discussed as it would be in violation of Cambodia’s constitution.

Meanwhile, a July 21 report in The Wall Street Journal cited U.S. and allied officials as saying that Phnom Penh and Beijing had signed a deal in the spring granting China access to part of Cambodia’s Ream Navy Base, near a large airport a Chinese firm is building.

If confirmed, the deal would provide China with its first naval staging facility in Southeast Asia, allowing it to significantly expand patrols in the South China Sea, where an ongoing standoff between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels in disputed waters led to two tense encounters earlier this month.

'A stupid idea'

Also speaking to RFA on Tuesday, Cambodian government spokesperson Phay Siphan called Sam Rainsy’s public pledge to return to Cambodia sometime this year to remove Hun Sen from power “a stupid idea.”

Sam Rainsy left Cambodia in late 2015 to avoid what were widely seen as politically motivated convictions on defamation and other charges, and Hun Sen has vowed to have him arrested if he returns.

Cambodia will never give up its sovereignty over debts it owes to China, Phay Siphan said, adding, “Hun Sen maintains his rule through elections, and not because of help from any foreign power. It is only Sam Rainsy who is always asking foreigners for help.”

In November 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court banned the Cambodia National Rescue Party two months after its president, Kem Sokha, was arrested for an alleged plot to overthrow the government.

The dissolution of the CNRP came amid a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the opposition, NGOs, and the independent media, which paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.

Relations with the West have increasingly soured in the aftermath of the ballot, which was widely seen as a rollback of democratic freedoms, and Cambodia’s government has since moved increasingly toward closer ties with China, which typically offers financial aid without many of the prerequisites that the U.S. and EU place on donations, such as improvements in human rights and rule of law.

Chinese investment now flows into Cambodian real estate, agriculture, and entertainmen—and particularly to the port city of Sihanoukville—but Cambodians regularly chafe at they say are unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese residents, and worry that their country is increasingly bending to Beijing’s will.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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