US Senator Dismisses Cambodia’s Defense of Decision to Jail Opposition Chief

Ted Cruz reiterates a threat to ban Cambodian officials from the US if Kem Sokha is not released.

Senator Ted Cruz arrives for a meeting in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Nov. 9, 2017.

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz has rejected the Cambodian government’s defense of its decision to imprison opposition leader Kem Sokha ahead of his trial on charges of “treason,” and vowed to uphold a threat of banning Cambodian officials from traveling to America if he is not freed “immediately.”

In a letter to Cambodia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Chum Bun Rong dated Oct. 23, Cruz had expressed “deep concern” regarding the Sept. 3 arrest of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha for allegedly collaborating with Washington to overthrow the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), calling it an “attempt to undermine the Cambodian people’s faith in their democratic process.”

Cruz said at the time that if Prime Minister Hun Sen did not release Kem Sokha by Nov. 9—the voter registration deadline for Cambodia’s July 2018 general elections—he would push for sanctions banning Cambodian government officials from travelling to the U.S.

The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power with the help of U.S. experts, though the U.S. embassy has rejected any suggestion that Washington is interfering in Cambodian politics. The Supreme Court plans to rule on whether to dissolve the CNRP for its alleged involvement in the “conspiracy” on Nov. 16.

On Tuesday, two days before Cruz’s ultimatum expired, Chum Bun Rong responded to the senator urging him to “view the current situation in Cambodia from our perspective,” adding that the democratic process in his country could only be preserved if “the rule of law is maintained and fully implemented” for the sake of stability.

The ambassador explained that Kem Sokha had been arrested in accordance with Cambodia’s Criminal Code and suggested his actions would evoke a similar response under U.S. law, pointing to the example of Paul Manafort—the former campaign manager of U.S. President Donald Trump who was indicted last month on conspiracy charges related to money laundering.

He also defended the government’s right to “uphold the law” when it forced the closure of English language newspaper The Cambodia Daily over a sudden tax debt and several local radio stations that had relayed content from Radio Free Asia and other U.S. broadcasters for allegedly failing to report their activities to the Information Ministry in recent months.

“It is not fair that the Cambodian Government is criticized and threatened with punitive action for taking legal action to protect its own security, peace, independence and sovereignty, just as any other nations would do,” Chum Bun Rong wrote at the time, adding that “it does not bode well … for Cambodia and its future if we are forced to make choices that go against our national strategic interests.”

The following day, Cruz said in a statement that the ambassador’s response amounted to “dismissive excuses and empty platitudes,” calling the Cambodian government’s bid to assuage the U.S. “deeply concerning” and vowing to act on his threat of a travel ban if Kem Sokha was not released by Thursday.

“If specific conditions are not met, including releasing Kem Sokha, allowing radio stations to resume broadcasting at their discretion, and allowing democratic organizations to operate within Cambodia, it will be impossible for the United States and our allies to recognize the legitimacy of [the 2018] elections,” he wrote.

“Hun Sen must take the first step toward meeting these conditions by freeing Kem Sokha. And he must do so immediately,” added the Texas lawmaker—who is a member of the Senate’s Judiciary, Commerce, and Joint Economic committees.

“Otherwise, I will work with my colleagues in Congress and in the administration to see that, as an initial response, specified government officials responsible for these actions are prevented from traveling to the United States.”

The correspondence between Cruz and Chum Bun Rong came as a panel of experts—including recently nominated Assistant US Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Randy Schriver, analysts, and Kem Sokha’s daughter Kem Monovithya—convened on Tuesday in Washington and called on America and other world powers to impose sanctions against Hun Sen’s government.

Cambodia reactions

On Thursday, Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan suggested Cruz’s proposed sanctions would constitute interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs, but would have no effect on his government.

“This is simply an empty threat by the U.S. side,” he said, speaking to reporters in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.

“Cambodia is implementing its own laws. We won’t bow down or beg anything from Senator Ted Cruz, who is acting only to benefit himself.”

But Yoeurng Sotheara, legal and investigative officer for electoral watchdog Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), told RFA’s Khmer Service Thursday that pressure from abroad could have a devastating effect on an impoverished country like Cambodia, which he said cannot afford to be isolated from the international community it relies on for aid.

He urged Cambodia’s government to reconsider the measures it had taken against the CNRP and the country’s media outlets in order to reduce political tension and ensure a free and fair election next year.

“Do we want live like an isolated country or do we want to live freely so our people enjoy rights and prosperity, as well as long-term political stability,” he asked.

“We will regret that democracy had been built for more than 20 years [since Cambodia implemented democratic elections following the Khmer Rouge era] but was destroyed in a blink of the eye, leaving all of our progress returned to zero.” 

Asia summits

Senator Cruz’s deadline came as New York-based Human Rights Watch called on world leaders to press Hun Sen to drop his government’s “baseless legal attacks” on the CNRP and free Kem Sokha and other opposition politicians jailed on “trumped-up charges” ahead of summits in Asia scheduled for Nov. 10-14.

Heads of government from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)—including the United States, China, Japan, Russia, Canada, Australia, and Mexico—will be meeting in Da Nang, Vietnam, on Friday, while leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be meeting in Manila, Philippines, on Nov. 12, along with ASEAN side-summits involving the U.S., E.U., Japan, and South Korea.

Most of the leaders plan to then attend the annual East Asia Summit in Angeles, north of Manila, on Nov. 13-14.

In a statement Thursday, Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, urged the international community to speak out against Hun Sen’s bid to eliminate his opposition and maintain political control of the country he has ruled for nearly 33 years.

“As ASEAN meets, democracy is failing in Cambodia,” Adams said.

“Cambodia’s friends should denounce Hun Sen’s efforts to reinstate one-party rule and demand that he drop the bogus legal cases against the political opposition and its leaders.”

Reported by Nareth Muong and Sovannarith Keo. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.