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Q&A: Sebastian Strangio, Journalist and Author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia

FILE: Sebastian Strangio, journalist and author of "Hun Sen's Cambodia" talks about the effects of international aid on Cambodia's democratic development at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, Thursday, January 29, 2015. (Sophat Soeung/VOA Khmer).
FILE: Sebastian Strangio, journalist and author of "Hun Sen's Cambodia" talks about the effects of international aid on Cambodia's democratic development at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, Thursday, January 29, 2015. (Sophat Soeung/VOA Khmer).

Sebastian Strangio recently wrote an article titled “Welcome to the Post-Human Rights World”.

[Editor’s note: Sebastian Strangio is a journalist focusing on Southeast Asia and the author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia”, published by Yale University Press in 2014. The book takes a critical look at the prime minister’s leadership since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Strangio has also become one of the leading commentators on politics in Cambodia and in Myanmar. He recently wrote an article titled “Welcome to the Post-Human Rights World.” Strangio spoke to VOA Khmer’s Hong Chenda about the human rights situation in Cambodia and the region.]

VOA: What message are you trying to convey when you speak of a ‘post human rights world’?

Well, I guess I’m trying to communicate the ideas that human rights and democratic values are not inevitable. I think that after the cold war, an idea to cope that following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc that liberal democracy, western liberal democracy, ‘free-market’ capitalism, and human rights were somehow poised to spread throughout the world and these ideas had a natural attraction and that they were a representative sort of end point to human evolution. I think there was a lot of complacency of this idea. A lot of people tend to assume that this idea was essentially inevitable and the end point of the logical process of human development it would come about essentially regardless of what anybody chose to actually do. I think that this twenty-year period following the end of the Cold War is not coming to an end with the rise of new global powers who are much more assertive in challenging the international norms and reasserting their rights of sovereign states and trying to put the ideas of national sovereignty back at the center of international relations.

VOA: When you say ‘post human rights world’, do you mean we are going backwards or we are going forwards?

I think that we’re going forward, but we’re going forward into a much more uncertain world. The idea of forward progress as this sort of inevitable characteristic of human development, I think, that idea has come to an end. So in a sense we’re going forward, but we’re also going back.

VOA: In your article you also mentioned “more pragmatic and flexible tactics” to improve human rights. What would you suggest are the tactics?

I think my main point here is to de-emphasize the focus on international laws. In the case of Cambodia, I think whether Cambodia develops in the democratic direction or authoritarian direction depends on its people and its people’s willingness to engage in political action. I think that ultimately what human rights does, it emerges from the power in the 1970s in the moral critics of power and politics. It stood above politics in a way and it provided more language to critique politics. I think human rights always did its best when it was political and when it was politically engaged and I think that ultimately what determines the future of countries like Cambodia will not be a legal marginalization at the international level but it would be the political mobilization of the people. I think that is how human rights becomes an actuality in Cambodia. I think the people stand up and demand those rights.

VOA: What could be the long-term effect of authoritarian governments turning away from the west?

Cambodia is a very good example of how this might go in certain parts of the world. The rise of China; China doesn’t care about the state of democracy or human rights inside Cambodia. China’s concern is the stability of economic development and is concerned above all with Cambodia supporting its own geopolitical claim in the region, particularly in the South China Sea. And so, you have a situation where large amounts of financial backing from China has allowed Hun Sen to wind back further the institution of democracy within Cambodia and increasingly dismiss human rights norms, relevant to Cambodia’s development. You know, Hun Sen always believes in this and Chinese support gives him the ability to openly defy Western demands about good governance and human rights in a way that he hasn’t been able to do before. I think that’s a really good example of what the effect could be.

VOA: The Trump administration has signaled that it wants to slash foreign aid budgets. What can Cambodia do but turn to China if this happens?

I think Cambodia has been quite clever in taking money from whoever is offering it. You know Cambodia has been very keen on investment and aid from Japan over the years. Japan is one of the traditional donors to Cambodia, but the Japanese have never been too hung up about democratic issues. They are more concerned with a clean government and an efficient administration. And so the Japanese are seeking in their own way to counterbalance China’s influence in the region have been pouring money into infrastructure development across mainland Southeast Asia. And I think that Cambodia’s courting of other non-Chinese powers actually has a great benefit to them as well. And I think they’ll continue to do that. And I think if the United States were to turn to Hun Sen and invite him to the White House and express a desire for a close relationship with Cambodia, I think that Cambodia would be very interested in that.

VOA: Where do you see Cambodia heading in terms of freedom of speech and human rights? Do you think young Cambodians are becoming more politically literate?

It’s clear in Cambodia that there is a deep discontent with how the CPP runs the country, and there is a great desire for change among Cambodian people, especially among the young who have not really known civil war or serious instability in their lifetimes. I think, in Cambodia, despite the increasing Chinese presence in Cambodia and the relative decline of Western influence, we are going to see Cambodian people continuously pushing their desire for change. And if the government cannot satisfy those demands for change, the potential for social unrest could be quite serious. The rise of Facebook has given people the ability to share information and to share critical information of the government in a way that they didn’t have five or 10 years ago. But the point I want to emphasize is that a lot of the information that is shared on Facebook and on the internet reflects these old political narratives. So you know the internet does not improve the state of political discussion in Cambodia at all, but simply magnifies it. So we are seeing an increase of political awareness. But a lot of that is happening, a lot is falling very much into the channels carved by generations of political thinking in Cambodia, so I think that more has remained the same. There is more continuity than change in recent years in Cambodia. But one important development I think that is worth emphasizing as well is the fact that the access to the Internet has given people access to information about the outside world and what it has done is to refocus Cambodians’ horizons a bit further afield and to give people an awareness of how far the country lags behind neighboring countries like Vietnam and Thailand.

VOA: Do you think this increased access to information will affect the result of the upcoming commune elections?

Well, if the election is free and fair, then I think that people’s access to this sort of information would definitely help the opposition party. The question is whether the election is going to be free and fair and the Cambodian People’s Party has send the message that they have no interest in a free and fair election. Ordinarily, their definition of free and fair diverges from the internationally accepted standard. So, you have a situation where they are cracking down on the opposition, throwing people in prison, threatening the opposition about the slogan they have chosen for the election, saying that the opposition’s election of vice presidents was illegal and government won’t recognize them. They are producing all sorts of pretext to restrict the activities of the opposition and to ensure that the CPP emerges with a victory. So I think all teams are being equal. The rise of social media communication would help the Cambodia National Rescue Party to disseminate the message and to communicate with the Cambodian electorate. But in the current context, with the CPP seemingly committed to doing everything it can to secure itself a victory, that advantage would seem to be nullified. The bottom line is that it is very hard to say what the actual outcome of this would be.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.