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Cambodian Election Turmoil Spells Trouble for China

628px-Hue_Sen_1_(cropped)Cambodians went to the polls this weekend, and a surprisingly large number of them voted against the party of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for 28 years and is a former junior commander in the Khmer Rouge. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, led by Sam Rainsy, a human rights activist who recently returned to his country after almost a decade in exile, more than doubled its number of seats in parliament from 26 to 55, while Hun Sen’s party lost 22 seats, its worst defeat to date.

It could have been even worse for Hun Sen. His party ended up with 68 seats to the opposition’s 55 and, as the WSJ reports, had to rig the vote just to get that far. The opposition asserts that the election was stolen.

Why does Cambodia’s election matter? Because of regional politics: Hun Sen’s government has been one of Beijing’s closest friends in recent years. At an ASEAN summit last summer, for example, Cambodia blocked a joint statement that would have criticized China’s conduct in the South China Sea. It was the first time the group had failed to agree on a draft of the typically banal announcements that follow annual meetings. Cambodia scuttled 18 drafts of the communique until no mention of China or territorial disputes remained. “Our two sides maintain high political mutual trust, conduct productive practical cooperation in all areas and render each other support in international and regional issues,” Chinese President Xi Jinping told the King of Cambodia in a letter yesterday. “Cambodia’s social and economic development could not be cut off from China’s generous assistance,” Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong responded. In February two Chinese companies announced an $11 billion plan to mine iron ore in remote central Cambodia. Add that to the $9.1 billion China has invested since 1994.

The Cambodian elections, though flawed, will probably stick. But Hun Sen’s coalition will be weakened, and this may be the beginning of the end for him and his party. The opposition finds a lot of support among disaffected Cambodian voters who believe that their political leaders’ corruption is fueled in part by Chinese investment. That’s bad news for Beijing, which not too long ago saw former client state Burma escape its clutches. Will another ally now grow cold and distant?

[Updated version] [Hun Sen image courtesy Wikimedia]

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