Cambodian officials have rebuffed calls for the US Department of State and Treasury to impose sanctions on certain individuals in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the security forces over alleged rights abuses in the Kingdom.
In rejecting the claims, officials urged the US to respect the principles of mutual respect, independence, sovereignty and non-interference, while political analysts said the human rights situations had been inflated for geo-political reasons.
In a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, four US House of Representatives members and four senators urged him to address what they described as the “alarming deterioration in human rights protection and democratic rule in Cambodia”.
They accused Prime Minister Hun Sen of having a long record of intimidation, censorship, and corruption to maintain his rule. Since the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2017, they said, many party members were arrested while the government has made laws to restrict freedom.
Citing a Human Rights Watch report, the US lawmakers said 55 people, including environmental activists, opposition activists and journalists, were arrested for exercising their freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.
They urged the US and its allies to send a strong message to Hun Sen that any crackdown on opposition parties and freedom of speech is unacceptable.
“It is vital that even as our government prepares for the transition to a new administration that we are clear and consistent in our condemnation of Hun Sen and his party’s crackdown on free speech, association, and assembly,” the letter reads.
They urged Pompeo to work with Department of Treasury to impose targeted sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act or apply other measures against the senior leadership of the ruling CPP and the top leadership of the police, whom they said had been involved in the arrests.
“We also call on you [Pompeo] to coordinate with other governments and urge them to do the same,” they wrote.
The lawmakers also called on the US Trade Representative to undertake an immediate review of Cambodia’s tariff privileges in response to “a worsening environment for labour leaders and unions”.
In a Facebook post on November 17, the US embassy in Phnom Penh said the US was closely following a growing number of court cases targeting civil society activists, journalists, and supporters of the Supreme Court-dissolved CNRP.
“We urge the authorities to protect these freedoms as enshrined in Cambodia’s constitution and to take meaningful steps to reopen civic and political space in the lead up to 2022 commune elections and the 2023 national elections,” it said.
Embassy spokesman Chad Roedemeier said: “US officials have consistently raised democracy and human rights concerns with the Cambodian authorities. We support the Cambodian people and their constitutional right to democracy and fundamental freedoms.”
When asked about the letter to Pompeo, the spokesman said it merely expressed the views of certain US lawmakers from both parties. The US executive and legislative bodies, he said, are independent from each other.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan referred reporters to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation when asked about the letter. The Post could not reach ministry spokesman Koy Kuong for comment on November 18.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin said from a legal perspective, whether it is in Cambodia, the US or other democratic countries, criminal cases must be handled by the courts.
He said the letter reflects the personal views of certain US lawmakers who either merely expressed their thoughts or did so because they had connections with the opposition group.
“In principle, Cambodia works with the US on a state-to-state relationship. We hope the US respects international principles and the UN Charter, especially the principle of mutual respect, independence, sovereignty, and non-interference in a sovereign state’s affairs,” Malin said.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said suspending tariff privileges for Cambodia would not have any impact on the government, but it would impact workers and their dependents. Therefore, he said, it is the US who should be held accountable.
“Who violates human rights? They accuse Cambodia of violating human rights and freedom, but when they cause harm to workers and their dependants they are actually the ones who violate human rights.
“They [US] have imposed sanctions on a dozen Cambodian officials, but have the officials been affected? Not at all. Banning their travel to the US won’t make them die; they want to live in Cambodia happily,” he said.
US-based political analyst James Sok said in the short US presidential transition period, nothing from the letter could happen. It depended, he said, on the foreign policy of incoming US President Joe Biden.
“The human rights situations in Cambodia have been inflated. They [foreigners] criticised and exert pressure [on Cambodia]. But the problem is not human rights, it’s actually geopolitical contest in the region,” he said.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said the efforts by US Senators and House members to protect human rights in Cambodia should be very much appreciated. However, it is very doubtful Pompeo could meet their request for sanctions in this transitional period, he said.