The outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia on Tuesday called on the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen to free his country’s opposition chief Kem Sokha and foster political reconciliation in the Southeast Asian nation, following a contentious general election widely dismissed as unfree and unfair.
According to a statement posted by the U.S. Embassy’s to its Facebook account, U.S. Ambassador William Heidt held a farewell meeting with Hun Sen, during which he welcomed efforts by the prime minister in “furthering a productive relationship” between Washington and Phnom Penh.
But Heidt urged Cambodia’s government to improve ties with the U.S. by rolling back a months-long crackdown on the opposition, NGOs and the independent media that saw Kem Sokha arrested for “treason” in September last year and his opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) banned two months later, leading Washington to withdraw election aid in the lead up to the July 29 ballot.
“The Ambassador … encouraged the Cambodian government to take further actions to improve bilateral ties, including by promoting national reconciliation, freeing Kem Sokha and other political prisoners, and loosening restrictions on civil society and the media,” the U.S. Embassy statement said of the farewell meeting.
Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won the July election by a landslide with no viable challenger, drawing criticism from several Western governments. And while Kem Sokha has been granted bail, he remains under house arrest, is barred from meeting with CNRP officials or foreigners, and cannot speak at or host any rallies or political activities.
Heidt has not shied away from challenging Hun Sen during his time as U.S. envoy, including in September last year, when he called allegations that Washington had plotted with Kem Sokha to overthrow Cambodia’s government “inaccurate, misleading and baseless.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA’s Khmer Service Tuesday that Heidt’s comments about freeing Kem Sokha were an attempt to “interfere with Cambodia’s judicial system and the rule of law.”
“[The request] is what he wants, but the government cannot do it because we are a nation that follows the rule of law,” he said.
But analyst Meas Ny told RFA that Heidt’s comments had nothing to do with interfering in Cambodia’s internal affairs.
“He raised his concerns about Cambodia’s politics,” he said, adding that Heidt “wants Cambodia to find peace and a political resolution speed up development.”
In August, U.S. President Donald Trump appointed W. Patrick Murphy as the new U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia in a move Phay Siphan said affirmed that Washington accepted the country’s new CPP-led government and signaled improved relations between the two nations.
Heidt’s comments came days after U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan met with Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn on the margins of the East Asia Summit in Singapore and called on Cambodia’s government to “take tangible actions to promote national reconciliation, including freeing political prisoners, ending the ban on the political opposition, and allowing civil society and media to operate freely,” according to a statement by U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert.
The comments also came a day after Hun Sen’s eldest son Hun Manet, who is Infantry Commander in Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, told his troops that they “must fight back against any foreign interference and foreign collusion to destroy the country.”
“We must implement Samdech Hun Sen’s words at all cost,” Hun Manet said, using his father’s honorific title while speaking at a ceremony in the capital.
“Cambodia must protect its peace, stability and development … We must not succumb to foreigners in exchange for aid or threats.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.