As a response to the dissolution of Cambodia's main opposition party last week, the United States on Friday announced it was ending election funding and would impose other punitive measures against the country. But such sanction threats do not seem to be able to exert pressure on Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Instead, the strongman who has ruled the nation for over three decades, has challenged the US to cut all its aid.
The Supreme Court's ruling, which disbanded the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and banned its 118 CNRP party members including MPs from politics for five years, was made at the request of Hun Sen's government. The CNRP was accused of conspiring with foreign states including the US to stage a colour revolution.
The dissolution is seen as a move by Hun Sen to eliminate his main poll threat ahead of the election next year in a bid to prolong his power. The CNRP had become increasingly popular among voters. In June local election, the CNRP garnered votes from roughly three million Cambodian people or about 44%.
Regardless of whether the treason accusation was true or politically motivated, the CNRP, with its formidable threat to Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) in the upcoming general election, is a thing of the past.
The CPP, which has ruled Cambodia since 1979, may have won a major domestic battle. The CPP-led government's unshaken defiance of the mounting international political pressures, spearheaded by the US and the European Union (EU), gave a strong indication that the ruling party has already calculated the risk of negative reactions and is standing ready to fight back.
The termination of development aid and economic sanctions would hurt the Cambodian government, but they would not necessarily force it to reverse its actions before the general election next year.
First, sanctions rarely work. Effective sanctions require a set of coherent strategies and cooperation with all stakeholders including states and non-state actors. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Cambodia, given its diversified trade and economic relations and its quasi-alliance with China.
The Asean way of non-interference and Cambodia's reinvigorated relations with Russia would also save Cambodia from diplomatic isolation. Two of Russia's Pacific fleet warships including one Ulaloy-class destroyer, for instance, just visited Sihanoukville port and conducted a joint naval drill at Ream Naval Base of Cambodia early this month. If sanctions are really imposed, China, Russia, and even other Asean countries will likely be the spoilers.
Second, sanctions hurt civilians much more than their leaders. US tanks, for example, might not have burst through the gates of Baghdad in 2003 if sanctions had worked against Saddam Hussein. Similarly, North Korea might not have survived until today if US-led international sanctions had worked. Twenty three years after the crisis broke out, North Korea is still standing and becoming even more provocative.
Sanctions may even unintentionally work as motivation and teach the target how to survive and enjoy life under the imposed conditions. Fidel Castro of Cuba, for instance, might not have lived happily and died naturally at 90 if the US had not imposed sanctions against Cuba.
From the CPP's point of view, there were no sanctions more miserable than those it experienced during the 1980s when the then People's Republic of Kampuchea and later State of Cambodia was diplomatically and economically isolated by the West. The CPP, however, managed to survive, and is now confident of surviving once again should sanctions be imposed.
Moreover, the CPP may well have carefully calculated the time frame to the run-up to the 2018 election.
It is true that Cambodia's exports to China are smaller than those to the EU, the United States and Japan. However, the CPP-led government can still depend on its non-Western friends including China for the short to medium term, buying time to clear all of the imminent threats posed by the opposition party and consolidate power after the 2018 election. By then, tensions will likely have subsided, and political negotiations will be possible.
The charges against the former opposition party leader Sam Rainsy, for instance, could be dropped paving the way for him to return home, while the current party leader Kem Sokha could also be released from prison along with some other party activists in exchange for earning legitimacy, better diplomatic relations, and development aid and international trade opportunities. Even though the regrouped opposition may challenge the government, the CPP will be well ahead of the game.
Both the CPP and the CNRP had a clear goal to form a government after the national election next year. The one shaping the outcome is now likely to be the CPP.
While the US, the EU and the opposition party call for sanctions, no one can say how long it will take for sanctions to work. But the time frame envisioned by the CPP is 2018. History shows that as long as the CPP can remain in power, it is willing to negotiate on its time table.
The former opposition party leader Sam Rainsy said: "The moment Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the court to dissolve the CNRP, he started digging his grave for his political life himself." His prediction may be proven correct in the long term. But in the short term, the sanctions are unlikely to reverse an anticipated CPP victory in the poll next year.
Sek Sophal is a researcher at the Democracy Promotion Centre, the Risumeikan Centre for Asia Pacific Studies, Japan.