Cambodian ambassador to the U.S. Keo Chhea speaks during a news conference in New York, Aug. 8, 2022. | Seth Wenig/AP Photo

A plug is due to Politico for its expanding global political coverage.

Politico Insider has an interview with Cambodian ambassador to the U.S., Keo Chhea. Canadian journalist gets him to open up on big questions.

This week, D.C.-based China Correspondent Phelim Kine talks to Cambodia’s diplomatic power couple in the U.S. about their roles representing a one-party authoritarian country at a time when the Biden administration is rallying allies and partners in a global pro-democracy face-off with China and Russia.

The Cambodian government has banned the main opposition party from competing in the general election in July, sentenced its leader Kem Sokha to 27 years in prison on what the U.S. says are politically motivated treason charges and has shuttered most of the country’s independent media outlets. How do you defend that record?

EAT: I’ve lived in this world for nearly six decades and gone through many different regime changes and lots of suffering, including genocide. I have gone through times when we did not have human rights at all during the Khmer Rouge time. So look around to see if there is anyone better than Hun Sen right now. I would vote for anyone who could do better than him.

But we are careful about drastic change. And Cambodia is not led by just one man.

Cambodia’s status as a one-party authoritarian state puts it on the wrong side of Biden’s narrative of a global “battle between democracy and autocracy.” How do you navigate that as Cambodia’s official representatives in the U.S.?

EAT: If you look at Cambodia compared to the U.S. or Sweden, Cambodia may not have the best record in terms of democracy. But if you compare Cambodia to other countries in the region, we’re not so bad.

KEO: We are moving toward democracy. We still make mistakes. There are still some rough issues. It looks authoritarian to you, but we need to educate our people first.

People understand about their own rights, but they forget about their neighbors’ rights, that by accessing their own rights, they are encroaching on their neighbors rights. So we have to implement a law to stop that. Does that mean we are authoritarian?

[Some journalists] use their media identity to blackmail traders along the road. That’s why the government says “You are not policemen — you are media. You can write whatever you want, but don’t ask people for money.” That’s why we stopped that kind of media.

Prime Minister Hun Sen warned foreign diplomats in April that if they have contacts with Cambodia’s now-banned oppositionCambodia National Rescue Party that they should “break diplomatic relations” with Cambodia. And he declared last month that such contacts “insult me, insult my sovereignty.” As career diplomats, how do you feel about Hun Sen’s hostility toward foreign diplomats?

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KEO: He’s a man of the people. And he speaks the people’s language. He doesn’t speak politicians’ language. That’s how he connects with the people.

It appears that Hun Sen is prepping his son Hun Manet to succeed him, putting Cambodia on a path to becoming a North Korea-like dynastic authoritarian state. How healthy is that for Cambodia?

EAT: If Hun Manet does well, if he can win the support of the people, why can’t he become prime minister? Like children of other leaders around the world — I believe the U.S. had a leader whose father was a leader called Bush. We may have President Biden’s children becoming president of the U.S. someday, who knows? Just because Hun Manet is the son of the leader and may become the future leader, I don’t say this is wrong.