The warm hug on Sept 7 between Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Thai counterpart, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, said it all. Authoritarian rule is ascendant in Southeast Asia. It now poses an existential challenge to human rights and democratisation all over the region. And Cambodia is leading Southeast Asia's authoritarian ways, followed not far behind by neighbours, such as Thailand.
For a time, Cambodia showed signs of democratic promise. A United Nations intervention in 1993 turned the country around with an election. It has been topsy-turvy in Cambodia since but there has been a semblance of electoral legitimacy and democratic guises. But much of the progress over more than two decades has been halted and gone into reverse.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, the country's elected civilian strongman, has taken his gloves off and done away with all pretences of a free and fair body politic. He has arranged for the opposition leader, Kem Sokha of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, to be arrested and taken away arbitrarily on a trumped-up charge of "treason", linked to a pro-democracy speech delivered in Melbourne in 2013. Kem Sokha has not been allowed to see his party members.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.
In addition, the Cambodian prime minister has gone ballistic by closing a slew of radio stations deemed critical of the government, expelling the United States-based non-governmental organisation National Democratic Institute, and effectively bankrupted The Cambodia Daily, a leading newspaper that has operated for 24 years, with back taxes amounting to US$6.3 million (209 million baht).
Opposition figures are systematically harassed, even beaten up in the recent past. Hun Sen has basically declared that, no matter what happens, he will remain prime minister for the foreseeable future. It is thuggish behaviour reminiscent of North Korea's Kim Jong-un, except the Cambodian prime minister has China's full support and more or less acquiescence from Asean.
At issue is Cambodia's electoral landscape. Kem Sokha's CNRP is gaining electoral ground and on course to triumph over Hun Sen's long-ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP). In the local commune elections in June, for example, the CPP garnered just over 50% of the popular vote, compared to CNRP's nearly 44%, an impressive tally for an opposition party that came into its own just five years ago. This electoral portent is alarming for Hun Sen. It could well mean an overall loss of power for the CPP in the next national poll in July 2018.
Although its leader is incarcerated, the CNRP remains undaunted and determined. A senior CNRP figure recently made a chilling acknowledgement at a conference of academics, activists and elected representatives by suggesting that the party's responsibility to the electorate is for its members to "stay alive". The legitimacy of the July 2018 election in Cambodia is now in doubt.
That Hun Sen is leading the race to Southeast Asia's authoritarian bottom bodes ill for the prospects of human rights and democratisation in the region. He makes other authoritarian leaders, such as Gen Prayut, pale in comparison. Even President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines uses budgetary and congressional processes to try to starve the country's Commission on Human Rights of funding, notwithstanding a plethora of rights abuses and extra-judicial killings in his war on drugs.
Not long ago, Asean could be grouped into three main categories. Democratising countries making and consolidating gains were Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar. Countries that went into democratic reversal and or erosion were Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia. The three main holdouts were Brunei as an absolute monarchy, and Laos and Vietnam as entrenched communist one-party regimes. Singapore was and is the exception for staying steady with its brand of one-party rule with electoral legitimacy. This ledger has now degenerated in favour of authoritarianism. Cambodia and the Philippines are firmly back on an authoritarian course, whereas Thailand is still under military government after more than three years since its last coup. Myanmar, too, has faced global isolation for its poor handling of the Rakhine crisis involving Rohingya Muslims. Only Indonesia remains at the forefront of regional democratisation.
Indonesia should then lead the way for Asean by making small noises in favour of open societies with basic rights and fundamental freedoms. This posture involves risks but comes with regional leadership. The international community should chime in, especially the European Union and United States, although the latter has to behave more like the bastion of democracy it used to be before being taken seriously in Southeast Asia.
China should also be told that what Cambodia is doing makes a bad name for China. Sanctioning thuggish rule undermines China's aspiration to be a responsible superpower with global leadership. China can rein in Cambodia much more than it can North Korea. China should do so to show the world that it has respect and goodwill for persecuted peoples in the region. Finally, regimes like Hun Sen's should know that they risk radicalising their own people with sustained oppression. If people are systematically disenfranchised and abused without end, they will eventually have no choice but to rise up and fight back to regain their voice and to win back their basic rights.