I’ve had the privilege of working on internet freedom issues in a range of foreign countries, but none of my partnerships abroad has meant more to me than my work in Cambodia. Which is what you’d expect when you find out that, in the course of this work over the past three years, I met Sienghom, who just this summer has become my wife.

I’ve written about my internet work in Cambodia here before. And I think Freedom House’s 2015 assessment that the internet “remains the country’s freest medium for sharing information” still holds true. That’s why I’ve generally been optimistic about Cambodia’s prospects for increasing internet freedom and democracy, as well as its increased engagement with the pan-Asian and world economies, which should lead to higher standards of living in the country generally.

It’s also why I was particularly troubled when Sienghom pointed out to me a range of disturbing news items emerging from Phnom Penh, starting just last month and continuing into this past week. The bad news started with the Cambodian government’s decision to shut down the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded National Democratic Institute in late August. NDI has focused on offering training and workshops for Cambodian politicians and would-be public servants—both in the majority Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and in the opposition Cambodia National Reform Party (CNRP)—aimed at enabling stakeholders to function effectively and democratically in a government framework that has been edging (thanks in part to internet engagement) toward a more truly representative parliamentary democracy. In response, USAID expressed its disappointment, as did the U.S. State Department, while Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen—who in other decades has sought to thaw U.S.-Cambodia relations—has ramped up criticism of the United States and USAID in particular.

In August, The Cambodia Daily, an English-language independent newspaper, quoted University of New South Wales professor of politics Carl Thayer about these latest trends, saying “[a]t this point, it looks like the U.S. is losing leadership by default and China’s gaining it by design.” But this past week, The Cambodia Daily itself was shut down, ostensibly for tax reasons. This represents a new wave of government actions designed to quell not just dissent, but any criticism whatsoever. In the same few days, the government has arrested CNRP leader Kem Sokha, who is now charged with treason.

As Thayer remarked to The New York Times, ““The current crackdown is far more extensive than ‘normal’ repression under the Hun Sen regime.”

But what’s been triggering this latest wave of repression in a country that, as a U.S. ally, has been inching, not always steadily, toward democracy in recent years? Longtime observers will point you first to the last round of elections in 2013; as I wrote here in 2015:

It hasn’t helped the current government’s sense of insecurity that the 2013 Assembly election was marked by civil protest, which the government is inclined to blame, along with its slipping majority, on the rise of social media like Facebook, where individual Cambodians have felt free to share their political views.

But there’s another, more recent factor at work—namely, the messages the Trump administration has been sending to Cambodia’s leadership. One obvious message, per a report in the Phnom Penh Post, is the administration signaling its intent to cut foreign aid to Cambodia to zero. Another is President Trump’s often antagonistic relationship with the American press, which Hun Sen interprets as legitimizing his own treatment of the Cambodian press.

President Trump’s relationship with American journalists may not be improved anytime soon, but the president could reconsider whether to cut aid entirely. Understandably, Americans who feel they didn’t adequately benefit from the post-2008 economic recovery may favor the administration’s expressed commitment to disengage from (or at least reduce) the United States’ longstanding commitments to both our allies and to an international order aimed at increasing peace and promoting progress. The current “America First” foreign policy—combining promises of military strength with renegotiated trade deals—certainly resonated with these voters.

But there’s also a risk that disengagement from the role we’ve played in the international framework projects weakness rather than strength. That’s a message that can undercut the administration’s goal of a world that is “more peaceful and more prosperous with a stronger and more respected America.”

We may debate whether North Korea’s current in-your-face attitude about its nuclear weapons program has been improved or worsened by President Trump’s “fire and fury” threat last month. What’s less debatable is that the perception in many foreign countries is that the United States intends, if not to exit the world stage, then to reduce its role to a walk-on part. Whatever else that does, it doesn’t give the impression of a stronger, greater America.

Image by atdr


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