The U.S. State Department has expressed concern over the detention of political activists in Cambodia and urged Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to lift restrictions on members of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
“The United States is concerned about the Cambodian government's continued repression of former Cambodian National Rescue Party, or CNRP members, including the recent arrests of several former CNRP activists,” spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a video posted to the U.S. State Department’s Twitter feed on Wednesday, after six were detained over the weekend.
“We continue to urge the Cambodian government to remove undue political restrictions on all persons in Cambodia and to release those prisoners who have been arbitrarily or unlawfully detained, including Kem Sokha,” she said, referring to the CNRP’s president, who was arrested in September 2017 and is currently being held under de facto house arrest awaiting a trial for allegedly planning a coup.
Kem Sokha’s arrest came two months prior to a November 2017 ruling by Cambodia’s Supreme Court that dissolved the CNRP and banned all political activities by 118 of its officials. The opposition leader faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of treason, but no date has been set for his trial.
The moves against the political opposition, along with a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Cambodia drew condemnation from Western governments following the ballot, with the U.S. imposing visa sanctions on officials seen as limiting democracy in the country and the EU launching a six-month monitoring period that ended last month to determine whether Cambodia should continue to qualify for tax-free access to the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme.
“We have consistently urged the Cambodian government to restore a genuine multi-party democracy and to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” Ortagus said Wednesday.
“This includes removing any undue restrictions on the political activities of all 118 opposition leaders.”
In Kem Sokha’s absence, acting president Sam Rainsy has run the CNRP from self-imposed exile and recently vowed to travel to Cambodia on Nov. 9 to lead a “restoration of democracy” in the country, despite facing a string of convictions and arrest warrants he says are politically motivated.
Authorities have stepped up harassment of CNRP activists and supporters since Sam Rainsy announced his plans to return to Cambodia, detaining 27 since the beginning of the year and subjecting at least 156 to interrogation over the same period.
Ortagus’ comments came on the same day that recently appointed U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, W. Patrick Murphy, arrived in Phnom Penh to take up his new post, writing on Twitter that “I look forward to strengthening the U.S.-#Cambodia relationship.”
In December 2017, while visiting Cambodia as then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in charge of Southeast Asia, Murphy had expressed concern over Hun Sen’s crackdown, noting that the U.S. “would be required to take measures if there were further backtracking of democracy” in the country.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday, Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin called Ortagus’ comments “politically motivated,” and suggested that the U.S. State Department “doesn’t understand Cambodia’s laws” because the arrests of CNRP activists were carried out to “restore social order and security.”
“The authorities’ actions were not made to restrict political freedoms, but to prevent anarchy,” he said, adding that “only the courts can decide” the fates of the activists.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan told reporters at a press conference on Thursday that Cambodia is “fed up” with Washington refusing to arrest Sam Rainsy who, along with the CNRP’s activists, he labeled “terrorists.”
Phay Siphan did not say what alleged crimes the opposition members had committed that would be recognized outside of Hun Sen-controlled Cambodia.
Sam Rainsy traveled to the U.S. on Wednesday and met with officials from the Department of Defense and State Department, as well as lawmakers from the U.S. Senate, to enlist their help as he prepares to reenter Cambodia in November.
Phay Siphan’s comments came as CPP spokesman Sok Ey San expressed hope that Ambassador Murphy would help to repair ties between the U.S. and Cambodia during his tenure.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of Cambodian rights group LICADHO, told RFA Thursday that Washington wants Cambodia to return to the path of democracy, and urged Hun Sen’s government to resolve the country’s political deadlock and protect human rights to avoid sanctions from the international community.
He also questioned the legitimacy of the government’s recent arrests of CNRP activists, warning that if they are shown to be politically motivated, “it will affect the basic freedoms of the people.”
Fear of arrest
Meanwhile, opposition members on Cambodia’s Battambang on Thursday reported that they are being monitored by authorities and said they are reluctant to celebrate the 15-day Pchum Ben religious festival, beginning on Sept. 27, because they fear arrest at local Buddhist pagodas.
CNRP activist Dy Sokun said that groups of “20-30 police officers” are being stationed at pagodas in the province where CNRP members are known to gather, and that the presence of authorities had led them to cancel many of the events they had planned to mark the festival.
“We are not in breach of any laws,” he said, adding, “We are Buddhist and simply want to celebrate the festival.”
Another activist named Dim Saroeun echoed Dy Sokun’s concerns, saying police had been following him and other CNRP members in the lead up to the holiday.
“The police deployment is negatively impacting our freedom,” he said.
“The police follow us everywhere, including to restaurants and cafes, and take our pictures. We don’t have any freedom at all.”
The claims by the Battambang activists came amid the recent leak of an audio recording that purportedly reveals Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng ordered local authorities to monitor CNRP members in the province, who he accused of “hatching black plans.”
RFA was unable to reach Battambang’s Deputy Police Chief Chet Vanny for comment on Thursday, but National Police Commission spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun told reporters earlier this week that officers had been deployed at pagodas to “provide security” for festival goers and to prevent against any groups who want to orchestrate a coup.
“Cambodia is at peace, but recently there are rebel groups that have been attempted to provoke chaos and topple the legitimate government,” he said.
Soeung Sen Karuna, a spokesman for local rights group Adhoc, said the excessive deployment of police is “a threat to the freedom of assembly and religion.”
“In the past, there were never that many police officers at the pagodas,” he said, adding that the government should take action against any members of the security forces who violate the freedoms of the people.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.