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Western Influence Waning in Cambodia, Author Says

Cambodia Reduces Western Influence, Tilts Towards Local
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Cambodia’s political balance has turned away from the international community, especially as the impoverished nation receives increasing assistance from China, an author says.

“With the shift towards China, Cambodia tilts towards China and its acceptance of more and more Chinese aid, I think that the influence of international donors who had sought to push Cambodia towards more democratic form of governance has begun to wane,” Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” told a gathering of scholars, researchers and think tanks at the Brookings Institution on Thursday.

“I think the balance between local interest and international interest in Cambodia is beginning to tilt much more in the direction of the local,” he said. “Cambodia’s local conditions are beginning to influence the country’s development much more than they have in the past, when the internationals had more influence.”

Over the last three years, Cambodia has received more than $1.3 billion annually in official development assistance, loans and grants, according to the Ministry of Planning. China has emerged as a major donor and investor.

It’s not the Chinese assistance alone that shapes the new paradigm. It’s demography, as well. Young people aged 30 and under represent nearly 70 percent of the population. Most of them don’t look to the Khmer Rouge period as a benchmark, but rather to neighboring countries like Vietnam and Thailand.

This became clear after Cambodia’s general elections in July 2013, according to Strangio.

“What the election showed is that ordinary people are less afraid than they were previously to stand up and challenge the system and to make demands for change,” he said. “And I think that this is a sign of local movement calling for, if not democracy in the abstract, then for a system that treats them with more respect and with more dignity and offers them more opportunity for prosperity and education, healthcare, etc.”

In the 2013 election, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party lost popular support, giving up 22 parliamentary seats to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

Joseph Liow, a senior fellow at Brookings, said people in Washington need more information about the reality on the ground in Cambodia.

“Within the context of Washington, I think that there’s certainly room for improvement, as far as understanding Cambodia in terms of political, social and cultural dynamics at play in that country,” he said. “Mr. Strangio has done a fantastic job in bringing to the Washington community not just information, but analysis and interpretation of recent events in Cambodia.”