On February 2, three political activists, including Lim Sokha, a senior member of the Candlelight Party, the once fledgling opposition party that was banned from participation in Cambodia’s sham July 2023 elections, were arrested in Thailand after seeking asylum and being granted refugee status.
Fears were that the three outspoken activists, who planned to hold a protest during Hun Manet’s visit to Thailand on February 7, were rounded up because the two governments were working in concert to prevent “interference in Cambodian internal politics” on Thai soil.
After being arrested, Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin assured his Cambodian counterpart, Hun Manet, that it is Thailand’s policy not to allow anyone to use Thai soil “as a platform to interfere in internal affairs or conduct harmful activities against our neighboring countries.”
While the three were eventually processed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and allowed to depart to another country, recent cooperation between Thailand, partially billed now as a “semi-democratic” state, and the repressive one-party Cambodian autocracy signals a broader move in the wrong direction – and it’s not Thailand that started it. Others have made the same critical mistakes.
While there are the usual nationalist flare-ups in tensions among populations, recently demonstrated in the Southeast Asia Games, where the Cambodia Boxing Federation renamed the kickboxing event “Kun Khmer” as opposed to “Muay Thai,” which provoked a stern reaction among Thais, where Muay Thai has recently been tagged as a form of Thai soft power.
And in the past, tensions over the Preah Vihear temple, a UNESCO heritage site, stirred tensions to the point of border skirmishes in 2011.
Instead, the danger lies in a much wider global pragmatic turn, where relations are justified under the guise of a strategic reset under Hun Manet.
Thailand wasn’t the country to host the newly minted Khmer leader, as French President Emmanuel Macron greeted Hun Manet in Paris, pledging US$235 million in development agreements from energy to water infrastructure and voicing support for a strategic partnership.
That was enough for government-controlled or -aligned media to herald the trip as an upgrade to relations to the level of “equal partners.” The move in essence handed Cambodia more undeserved legitimacy than a deeply flawed election ever could.
As many have noted, the chance for a foreign-policy reset under Hun Manet has been too good to pass up, where Macron’s visit was an opportunity to reframe French-Cambodia ties, which are stained by its colonial past.
Even the United States, who once criticized Cambodia’s election as having a “pattern of threats and harassment” leading to a neither free nor fair declaration, reversed its withholding of $18 million in foreign aid after a sideline meeting between Hun Manet and Victoria Nuland, the acting US deputy secretary of state, during the United Nations General Assembly in September, but without saying specifically why.
The reality is that very few countries can repair their relationships with Cambodia without compromising normative positions on human rights and democratization.
Japan, one of the few exceptions, has maintained a consistent position on Cambodia largely on the strength of its diplomatic track record dating back to the 1991 Paris Agreements, the 1992 UNTAC peacekeeping mission, and the volume of its official development assistance, which has reached nearly $3 billion since the early 1990s.
In short, Japan never looked for a reset, but has been playing a long game and serving as a reliable alternative to Chinese dependence.
The European Union on the other hand, which is in the process of negotiating a free-trade agreement with Thailand, has compromised its normative position because of a desire for closer ties with Southeast Asia – the same error made by Macron with Hun Manet.
Worse, the message that Western countries are sending by prioritizing Indo-Pacific economic ties while abandoning normative positions is that it gives license to semi-democratic regimes like Thailand to continue a business-as-usual approach to relations with Cambodia.
Even during military rule under Prayut Chan-o-cha, Thai-Cambodian relations had markedly improved and both were working in lockstep, and under Srettha, little work has been done to investigate the August 2023 beating of Cambodian opposition activist Phorn Phanna in Rayong province by three men on Thai soil.
While it is a delicate balance between criticism and engagement, as many wish to prevent a recurrence of the past, which sent Cambodia firmly into the arms of China, there is scant evidence that backing sharply away from human rights and democratization will have much effect on diplomatic relations.
It merely means that a Western-educated son of a dictator who ruled over Cambodia for three decades gains another much-needed upper hand – development and investment without the pesky pressures of the past.