On June 12, the U.S. Treasury took a notable step: sanctioning Cambodian General Hing Bun Hiengfor his complicity in serious human rights abuses. It was the first time that a Cambodian official has been sanctioned under America’s Global Magnitsky Act.
Bun Hieng’s designation came just prior to the Cambodian elections, slated for July 29. Those elections are expected to usher in another five-year term for Cambodia’s ruling leader Prime Minister Hun Sen, the head of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
The CPP has been quite active in the run up to the elections. Over the last few months, it has: imprisoned the main opposition leader, Kem Sokha; outlawed the existence of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and forbade the CNRP from registering as a political party. Since the opposition party was banned, more than 100 CNRP parliamentarians have fled the country, leaving behind no legitimate opposition to challenge Hun Sen’s nearly 40-year reign as prime minister.
Cambodia’s democracy has been faltering for quite some time, but these latest actions represent a distinct turn toward authoritarian rule.
Bun Hieng is a key figure in the regime. One of the most brutal men in Cambodia, he heads the bodyguard unit that effectively operates as Hun Sen’s personal army. During his reign, Hun Sen’s bodyguard has routinely beaten up, gunned down, and arrested those who opposed him. An especially egregious episode occurred in 1997, when the unit killed 16 men and wounded 100 others, including an American, in a grenade attack.
Bun Hieng played a role in that attack, and has been implicated in many more. In 2013, he attacked unarmed protestors at Wat Phnom. In 2015, he instigated an attack on lawmakers in front of the National Assembly.
The sanctions announced last month signal to Hun Sen and party henchmen like Bun Hieng that the U.S. will no longer tolerate serious human rights violations nor will it accept what is almost certain to be a rigged 2018 election. State’s “warning shot” serves notice that there will be consequences—even personal ones—for party officials if they allow elections to proceed without the participation of the opposition.
Mona Kem, CNRP’s deputy director general of public affairs, hailed Bun Hieng’s designation is an important first step:
The use of targeted financial measures like Global Magnitsky are probably the most effective tool the international community can use to push the authoritarian Cambodian regime to reconsider its crackdown on democracy in Cambodia. Hun Sen operates on a patronage system to consolidate power within his own ranks. Once individuals around him are adversely affected due to his actions, they may pressure him to reverse course in order to protect themselves. More than one name needs to go on the SDN list to have this effect.
The U.S. should continue to make strategic use of Global Magnitsky authorities to address human rights threats in Cambodia, particularly if elections go south next month. Moreover, the U.S. shouldalso: continue to press, publically and privately, for the release of Kem Sokha; consider conditioning assistance to Cambodia due to democratic backslides, and push to give outside election monitors access to polling places during the elections.
Cambodia is at a critical juncture. If July 2018 elections go poorly and the regime pays no price for its misconduct, the future of Cambodian democracy may be more permanently jeopardized.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/oliviaenos/2018/07/05/cambodias-democracy-in-shambles-ahead-of-july-elections/#5bf9ab9f571a