Liberal Cambodians have never had it easy, but this year has robbed many of hope.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power since the 1980s, has jailed an opposition leader, expelled nonprofit workers and shuttered an independent newspaper. “Descent Into Outright Dictatorship,” screamed a headline on its final front page.
For years, these Cambodians have looked to the U.S. both as an example of the virtues of democracy, and — as a major source of aid — a check on their own government’s authoritarian impulses. But they say President Trump’s tirades against the press and apparent fondness for strongmen have left them rudderless.
“Activists in autocratic regimes usually point to the U.S. as a model,” said Virak Ou, a prominent Cambodian human rights activist. “But Trump has almost destroyed that, in a way.”
President Trump set off Friday for a 12-day, five-country visit to Asia, the longest of his presidency. After an initial stop Friday in Hawaii, Trump is traveling to Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea and China — and while he’ll focus mainly on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and U.S. trade imbalances, he’ll also find a region sliding ever further from liberal democracy, with repression, censorship and one-man rule on the rise.
Myanmar has driven more than 600,000 ethnic Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh in a campaign of killing and arson that the United Nations has called a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” has killed thousands of people without due process. And the Chinese Communist Party last week added President Xi Jinping’s ideology — which harbors tacit disdain for “Western-style” democracy — to the party’s constitution, granting him powers unseen in the country since Mao Tse-tung.
Although much of the region’s authoritarian swerve began before Trump took office, experts say his administration has done little to prevent its acceleration.
Trump, in his dealings with Asian leaders, has kept democracy and human rights issues largely off the table. Last month, he hosted Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha — a retired army general who has used draconian lèse-majesté laws to suppress dissent — at the White House. He once called Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, whom the Justice Department is investigating over a corruption scandal, “my favorite prime minister.” (Najib has dismissed reporting on the scandal as “fake news.”)
In his first month in office, Trump scrapped the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which President Obama negotiated in part to counter China’s rising regional influence. Countries including Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar are growing ever closer with Beijing — which unlike the U.S. does not tie its aid and loans to human rights concerns.
“Trump has created a moral vacuum which China has moved to exploit, and to fill,” said Isaac Stone Fish, a senior fellow at the Asia Society. “And they’re just much more sophisticated, and much more coordinated, about their foreign policy messaging than Trump is.”
“Publicly, China’s able to say, ‘We don’t care about your domestic issues, we just want to bring trade and prosperity’ — a Pax Sinica, with Beijing at the center,” he continued. “People who understand China know that it’s a lot more complicated — and one would say devious — than that. But we are losing the ability to say that this comes with a lot of human rights abuses, or moral externalities, so to speak.”
Critics say Obama’s Asia strategy did little to advance the spread of democracy region-wide. They say the former president was premature in lifting sanctions on Myanmar, and they have condemned his decision to lift a five-decade-old arms embargo on Vietnam. (During an Obama state visit, authorities there detained several activists who were on their way to meet him.)
Trump’s populist streak — his bellicose tweets, his tirades against “fake news” — have in some ways been as influential in Asia as his administration’s explicit policies. Several heads of state have, echoing Trump, turned on their own news media and denounced critical reporting as “fake news.”
Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in her first comments on the Rohingya crisis in early September, called allegations of ethnic cleansing “fake news” and a "huge iceberg of misinformation.” (The government has barred journalists and aid workers from areas where the alleged atrocities occurred.)
In February, Cambodian leader Hun Sen expressed sympathy for Trump’s stance toward the press, calling journalists an “anarchic group.” (In 2016, he said he hoped Trump would win the election, claiming it would be good for “world peace.”) In September, his authorities shuttered the English-language Cambodia Daily newspaper, which had been publishing since 1993.
“This fake news thing, it’s being used as an excuse for governments to shut down some of the news and pile on a lot more pressure,” said Virak Ou, the activist. “And pressure, in this context, is fear — it’s creating a lot of fear and self-censorship.”
Last year, Obama canceled a meeting with Philippine President Duterte over his brutal drug war, and the leader shot back by calling him a “son of a whore.” Trump has taken more kindly to the anti-drug campaign. "I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem," he told Duterte in an April phone call, according to leaked transcripts. The White House said this week that the two leaders have a “warm rapport.”
“Over the past two or three months, at the very least since August, we’ve seen a significant shift in terms of how Western powers, especially the U.S. and Australia, have been approaching Duterte,” said Richard Heydarian, the Manila-based author of the forthcoming book "The Rise of Duterte."
“They’ve been raising issues of strategic counter-terror operations, with the rise of ISIS in mind,” he continued, referencing a battle between Philippine forces and Islamic State-affiliated fighters on the southern island Mindanao. “Duterte has made a big point out of this — when he meets major Western officials, from [Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson to [Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister] Julie Bishop, issues of human rights and democracy are barely at the center of the discussion, if raised at all.”
Chinese authorities have framed Trump’s rise — and, by extension, the growing divisions in American society — as a symptom of democracy’s inherent flaws. A commentary in the state-run New China News Agency last month decried the “crises and chaos” of democratic systems.
“Endless political backbiting, bickering and policy reversals, which make the hallmarks of liberal democracy, have retarded economic and social progress and ignore the interests of most citizens,” it said.
Xi has cast himself as a champion of globalization and free trade — sort of an anti-Trump figure — while deepening repression at home. “No country can retreat to their own island. We live in a shared world and face a shared destiny,” he said in a three-and-a-half hour speech last month to open the 19th Party Congress, a top-level meeting at which he amassed extraordinary power. He also called for deepening Communist Party control. “Government, the military, society and schools, north, south, east and west — the party leads them all,” he said.