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    Southeast Asia
     Oct 17, 2012


A royal check removed in Cambodia
By Richard S Ehrlich

BANGKOK - The death of Cambodia's former king Norodom Sihanouk in Beijing on Monday symbolized how China had sheltered the monarch in a mansion with personal medical, diplomatic and financial assistance throughout much of his often bloody reign.

Beijing benefited, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, from its supportive relationship with Sihanouk. But his death at the age of 89 is not expected to slow China's current rapidly expanding political and economic influence in Cambodia.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, meanwhile, will no longer have to engage in a convoluted relationship with the often volatile, moody monarch, and may be able to similarly increase his

 

already strong authoritarian power in the country.

Hun Sen has ruled for 27 consecutive years, Asia's longest-serving national leader, and could benefit politically by regaling the late Sihanouk with respect during the upcoming funeral and afterwards while muting details of Sihanouk's treacherous past.

"China enjoyed a degree of appreciation from many Cambodians through its long association with Sihanouk," said Rich Garella, a Philadelphia-based film producer and political consultant and former managing editor of The Cambodia Daily newspaper, in an email interview hours after Sihanouk's death.

"Though Sihanouk's influence diminished greatly over the past 10 years, his passing will be a loss for the opposition parties who counted on him as a moderating influence on Hun Sen's repressive policies," Garella said. "Hun Sen has already replicated Sihanouk's implicit acknowledgment of China's primacy in the region, and developed a close relationship with Beijing."

China promised US$1.2 billion in assistance in 2010 to Cambodia after Phnom Penh agreed to deport 20 minority ethnic Uighur-Chinese "terrorist" asylum seekers back to China.

"Hun Sen will now appear to be free to negotiate with China unilaterally, and will be seen to bear the entire responsibility for that relationship," said Garella. "He may now have to put on the occasional show of mild resistance to Chinese influence. Beijing can be expected to be his willing partner in putting on that show."

Cambodia is "the hard forward theater for China in Southeast Asia" where Beijing can influence a vulnerable country bordered by Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, and utilize Cambodia's southern coast along the Gulf of Thailand, said Nate Thayer, an award winning journalist who has reported extensively on Cambodia, including exclusive interviews with Pol Pot just before the Khmer Rouge leader died in the jungle in 1997.

"The amount of political and economic influence and control they [China] have achieved in recent years is phenomenal, and has the US alarmed," Thayer, now based in Washington, said in an email hours after Sihanouk's death. "The amount of land, mineral, and natural resource concessions they [China] have taken is staggering."

International environmental groups have drawn attention to the influx of Chinese funds amid allegations of human rights abuses against Cambodians who protest against the rapid ecological degradation of their country. Chinese companies have also been implicated in a recent rash of state-supported land grabbing.

"Sihanouk, alone, could speak his mind on the internal shenanigans in Cambodia without retribution, but that role had flickered dim in recent years," Thayer said. Without Sihanouk, Cambodia "will become a refuse for financial bad actors, international mafia, and petty criminals," who can "operate without interference", he said.

They may partner with, or compete against, China's vast financial interests in Cambodia's infrastructure and other big ticket development projects, which have also recently attracted investors from South Korea, Thailand, Japan, America and others. Last year, China reportedly invested more than $2 billion in Cambodia.

China's recent acquisitions and construction deals did not rely on Sihanouk, and the real value of their relationship peaked in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Cambodia's reigning King Sihamoni, Sihanouk's eldest son, who took the throne in 2004, is not perceived to have the same powerful influence or charisma that his father possessed.

"I don't think China loses anything from Sihanouk's death," said Bangkok-based Bradley Cox, who made two investigative documentary films in Cambodia. "China and Cambodia are basically in business together. China gets influence and investment, and Cambodia's elite get paid off."

"The only 'unofficial' check and balance to Hun Sen's power was Sihanouk. Sihanouk was loved by the people, so he could really throw a spanner into the works if he chose to. So Hun Sen often sought out his approval and tread lightly around him," Cox said. "With Sihanouk gone, there is nobody to keep Hun Sen in check."
Sihanouk was crowned in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, by the Nazi-backed Vichy French colonial regime in 1941. In his book titled Sihanouk Reminisces, he described how he "ordered" his "army to transport Chinese and Soviet arms" from Cambodia's port to anti-US Vietnamese guerrillas in "safe holds on the Cambodia-South Vietnam border".

In 1970, Washington supported a coup that toppled then-Prince Sihanouk, who was head of state. Sihanouk then supported anti-US Khmer Rouge guerrillas and helped pave the way for Pol Pot's 1975-1979 "killing fields" regime, which killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians. Sihanouk supported the radical Maoist group again during the 1980s in a loose alliance against Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia.

Sihanouk frequently used China as a sanctuary and power base, which gave China's ruling communists a vital link to Pol Pot's communists and continued China's special access to Cambodia.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. His websites are http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com and http://www.flickr.com/photos/animists/sets

(Copyright 2012 Richard S Ehrlich)


Norodom Sihanouk dies (Oct 15, '12)

 

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