From "Sphere of Scrutiny" to "Sphere of Opportunity": The Cambodian People's Party's Vision of International Order.

AuthorTravouillon, Katrin

"[W]hat is the international community? What defines the international community?", Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen asked his audience in May 2018. Hun Sen further pressed the assembled crowd:

[The opposition has] been obsessed with threats of international pressure or unrecognition by the international community. Have they seen how many countries have continued to support and to work with the Royal Government [of Cambodia]? China, India, South Korea, Japan, and countries in ASEAN and others. Are they not international community? There are 1.35 billion people in China, 1.3 billion people in India; in these two countries alone, there are already more than 2.6 billion people. Are they not [the] "international community"? (1) Hun Sen's remarks were prompted by exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy's claim that the "international community" would not recognize the upcoming July 2018 elections. Rainsy was trying to convince the Cambodian people to abstain from the "fake election". (2) In 2017, the Supreme Court had dissolved Rainsy's Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) on trumped-up charges in a move to prevent Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) from being beaten at the polls. Without the CNRP, the CPP was able to sweep all 125 parliamentary seats.

Cambodia's rapid consolidation into a one-party state under the ruling CPP is part of an ongoing transformation of the post-Cold War liberal international order. (3) The prime minister's words, delivered at a crucial juncture in the country's political trajectory, cut across several themes in contemporary debates about the significance of shifting geopolitics for the domestic and international orders. His remarks variously touch upon the future of international and regional organizations, their influence vis-a-vis autocratic leaders and regimes, the role of hegemonic states and other rising powers, the foundations of a rules-based order as well as the place of so-called "legacy cases" of international peacebuilding (such as Cambodia) in the unmaking or remaking of the global order. (4) Considering the audience for his speech--dignitaries, villagers and workers assembled for the ground-breaking ceremony of a provincial road in Cambodia--the prime minister's statement is also indicative of the intimate ways in which Cambodia's domestic and transnational agendas intersect.

This article examines how Hun Sen has negotiated public concerns about the adjustments in international support from Western donor countries and institutions, particularly following the 2018 elections. The international economic and political fallout of those elections include the European Union's (EU) decision to partially withdraw the tariff preferences granted to Cambodia under the EU's "Everything But Arms" (EBA) trade scheme and the closure of the Swedish Embassy in 2020. Cambodia has derived substantial benefits from its long-held status as a democratizing country. The CPP government is conscious that its overt authoritarian turn may induce some international partners to reconsider their commitments to Cambodia, which may then affect the stability and legitimacy of the CPP in the future.

Drawing predominantly on public speeches delivered by Prime Minister Hun Sen between 2002 and 2020, (5) this article identifies six prominent themes that he utilizes to characterize Cambodia's relationships with international organizations and Western democratic governments that have played leading roles in the liberal peacebuilding project in Cambodia since the early 1990s. The article argues that the prime minister draws on these themes to assuage public concerns about Cambodia's supposed break with the West, instead situating the country as emerging into an international "sphere of opportunity" in which Cambodia can determine its relations and engagements autonomously, on the basis of its economic and other interests. This sphere of opportunity contrasts with the international domain as a "sphere of scrutiny", in which Cambodia's actions and developments are constantly subjected to inspection and criticism by its international partners, who are pursuing their own ideological project, and are able and willing to enforce compliance with their norms and values by using their gatekeeping powers to determine access to crucial international institutions and markets.

Importantly, Hun Sen does not suggest that Cambodia has to reposition itself in response to the shift in the global balance of power from one centre of gravity to another. Rather, despite Western criticism of Cambodia's democratic and human rights record, Cambodia's continued membership in key international institutions and its sustained participation in various political and economic arrangements with politically diverse European, American and Asian countries is presented as evidence of a more fundamental trend towards an international order dominated by pragmatic forms of engagements. The possibility for a future Cambodia to pursue such pragmatic engagements--while rejecting cooperation or agreements that are conditional on norm compliance--is presented as a measure of the country's ascent in the global hierarchy. The article concludes that it is likely that this assertive rhetoric will play an increasingly prominent role in Hun Sen's and the CPP's future nationalist and autocratic agendas. It also highlights that the potential for such rhetoric to succeed in forging domestic support for the CPP and further consolidating the country's illiberal trajectory should not be underestimated. Rather than relying on simplistic assumptions about whether Cambodians are "pro-West" or "pro-China", it may be more constructive to systematically analyse the popular appeal of the government's rhetoric and its core themes and use these insights to build transnational partnerships that can effectively counter the country's illiberal trend.

The Intersection between Cambodia's Domestic and International Spheres

To structure the analysis, this article builds on empirical studies that consider the "international community" as an idea borne out of the interplay of rhetoric and practice in a situated political context, which then shapes actors' interactions and expectations. Importantly, these studies do not assume that an actor's legitimacy is strengthened or weakened due to their perceived proximity or distance to the international community. Instead, these studies draw attention to the concrete opportunities that leaders can derive from the particular meaning(s) that actors collaboratively assign to the idea of an "international community" in that specific political context. Of particular relevance here is Berit Bliesemann de Guevara and Florian Kiihn's observation that the centrality of the idea of an "international community" in structuring transnational relations can actually serve to embolden autocratically-minded actors and strengthen their claims to legitimacy over time. They see this as the result of the paradox in which states (or their representatives) can become morally excluded from, yet remain integrated structurally in, international political and economic institutions. Representatives of international human rights organizations, democratic governments and donors often employ rhetoric that frames illiberal actors as being ostracized "from a value-based in-group". (6) Yet this symbolic practice and rhetoric of moral exclusion cannot and does not deprive those illiberal actors of "basic qualities such as statehood and sovereignty". (7) Their continued structural integration into the global political and economic domains suggests that these actors can still reap not only substantial financial benefits, but also symbolic ones, from this arrangement.

This observation is especially salient for Cambodia. While the CPP is often criticized by Western governments and international organizations that are generally identified as belonging to the "international community" for the regime's disrespect of democratic principles and human rights, the moral censure does not preclude or diminish Cambodia's structural and institutional integration in major global organizations or economic markets. As this article will demonstrate, Hun Sen has long seized on the political opportunities provided by this situation to support the Cambodian People's Party's agenda, which is heavily reliant on performance legitimacy. (8) He now employs this rhetorical strategy to publicly counter delegitimizing narratives of Cambodia's impending "break with the West".

Declining International Support for Cambodia and the CPP's Domestic Legitimacy

In governing a country that is highly dependent on foreign aid, the CPP has always had to balance the party's interests with those of Cambodia's international donors. For decades, critics of the Cambodian government have chided democratic donors for their reluctance to exercise their leverage, while simultaneously acknowledging that open political competition and a relatively free media in Cambodia were the direct results of sustained international interest and investment in the country's political transformation. (9) Much of the external monetary support for the country has been intimately tied to the idea that Cambodia was economically developing as well as politically transitioning into a democracy. Doubts about the direction of this trend and a perceived donor fatigue preceded the events of 2017. The open crackdown on the opposition, however, made it all but impossible for many key donors to justify continuing support for a goal that many now judge unattainable: the establishment of a liberal democratic government in Cambodia. In 2018, many democratic governments decided not to send any observers or provide financial support for the parliamentary election. This was followed by the EU's decision in 2020 to partially withdraw the EBA scheme because of persistent human rights violations by the Cambodian government and the subsequent...

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