Hun Sen without royal check good news for China
King Norodom Sihanouk, who died last week, was a moderating influence in the 27-year rule of the prime minister, who is now free to tighten his grip and bend national policy even more towards suiting commercial interests, including those of Beijing
The death of Cambodia's Norodom Sihanouk last Monday in Beijing symbolised how China had sheltered him in a mansion with personal medical, diplomatic and financial assistance throughout much of his often bloody reign.
Beijing benefited, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, from its supportive relationship with Sihanouk. But his death at age 89 will not slow China's current rapidly expanding political and economic influence in Cambodia.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, meanwhile, will no longer have to engage in a convoluted relationship with Sihanouk, and may be able to similarly increase his authoritarian power in Cambodia.
Hun Sen has ruled for 27 years, and could benefit by regaling the late Sihanouk with respect during the upcoming funeral and afterwards, while muting details of Sihanouk's treacherous past.
"China enjoyed a degree of appreciation from many Cambodians through its long association with Sihanouk," said long-time Cambodia watcher Rich Garella in an email interview hours after Sihanouk's death.
Mr Garella, 46, is a Philadelphia-based film producer and political consultant, and was managing editor of The Cambodia Daily newspaper in the 1990s, press secretary for opposition candidate Sam Rainsy in 1998-1999 and a consultant for the US-funded International Republican Institute in 2003 in Cambodia.
"Though Sihanouk's influence diminished greatly over the past 10 years, his passing will be a loss for the opposition parties who counted on him as a moderating influence on Hun Sen's repressive policies," Mr Garella said.
"Hun Sen has already replicated Sihanouk's implicit acknowledgment of China's primacy in the region, and developed a close relationship with Beijing," he said.
For example, China promised $1.2 billion in assistance in 2010 to Cambodia after Phnom Penh agreed to deport 20 minority ethnic Uighur-Chinese "terrorist" asylum seekers back to China.
"Hun Sen will now appear to be free to negotiate with China unilaterally, and will be seen to bear the entire responsibility for that relationship. He may now have to put on the occasional show of mild resistance to Chinese influence. Beijing can be expected to be his willing partner in putting on that show," Mr Garella said.
Today, Cambodia is "the hard forward theatre for China in Southeast Asia", where Beijing can influence a vulnerable country bordered by Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, and utilise Cambodia's southern coast along the Gulf of Thailand, said Nate Thayer in an email interview after Sihanouk's death.
"The amount of political and economic influence and control they [China] have achieved in recent years is phenomenal, and has the US alarmed," Mr Thayer said.
Mr Thayer, now based in Washington, is a former visiting scholar in residence at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. As an award-winning journalist, he previously reported extensively from Cambodia, including exclusive interviews with Pol Pot in the jungle in 1997 just before the Khmer Rouge leader died.
"The amount of land, mineral and natural resource concessions they [China] have taken is staggering," he said.
International environmental groups have cited the problem, amid allegations of human rights abuses against Cambodians who protest against the rapid ecological degradation of their country.
"Sihanouk, alone, could speak his mind on the internal shenanigans in Cambodia without retribution, but that role had flickered dim in recent years," Mr Thayer said.
Without Sihanouk, Cambodia "will become a refuse for financial bad actors, international mafia and petty criminals", who can "operate without interference", he said.
They may partner with, or compete against, China's vast financial interests in Cambodia's infrastructure and other development, which has also attracted investors from South Korea, Thailand, Japan, America and elsewhere.
Last year, China reportedly invested more than US$2 billion (61.2 billion baht) in Cambodia.
China's recent acquisitions did not rely on Sihanouk, and the real value of their relationship peaked in the 1970s and 1980s.
Cambodia's current King Sihamoni is not perceived to have the same powerful influence that Sihanouk possessed.
"I don't think China loses anything from Sihanouk's death," said Bangkok-based Bradley Cox, 55, who made two investigative documentary films in Cambodia.
"China and Cambodia are basically in business together, China gets influence and investment, and Cambodia's elite get paid off," Cox said. "The only 'unofficial' check and balance to Hun Sen's power was Sihanouk. Sihanouk was loved by the people, so he could really throw a spanner into the works if he chose to.
"So Hun Sen often sought out his approval and tread lightly around him," he said.
"With Sihanouk gone, there is nobody to keep Hun Sen in check," Cox said.
Sihanouk was crowned in Phnom Penh by the Nazi-backed Vichy French colonial regime in 1941.
During the widening US-Vietnam war, Sihanouk collaborated with America's communist enemies in Vietnam.
"My own militant support for the Viet Cong was ... no mere gesture," Sihanouk wrote in his book titled Sihanouk Reminisces.
"I granted them safe holds on the Cambodia-South Vietnam border, and ordered my army to transport Chinese and Soviet arms from [Cambodia's] Sihanoukville to the Viet Cong bases."
In 1970, Washington supported a coup which toppled then Prince Sihanouk, who was head of state.
Sihanouk then supported anti-US Khmer Rouge guerrillas and helped pave the way for Pol Pot's 1975-1979 "killing fields" regime, which killed more than one million citizens.
Sihanouk supported them again during the 1980s in a loose alliance against Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia.
Sihanouk frequently used China as a sanctuary and power base, which gave China's ruling communists a vital link to Pol Pot's communists and continued China's special access to Cambodia.
About the author
Writer: Richard S Ehrlich