The U.S. House of Representatives’ has passed legislation that would allow Washington to impose sanctions on Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen and members of his inner circle for their role in undermining democracy in the country and committing human rights violations.
The Cambodia Democracy Act of 2018 was passed late on Wednesday evening—days before a July 29 general election that has been widely derided as unfree and unfair amid an ongoing political crackdown in the country—and will next head to the Senate for approval.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November over allegations it was involved in a plot to topple the government, stripping the party’s officials of their posts and banning many lawmakers from politics for five years.
The dissolution of the CNRP and the arrest of its president, Kem Sokha, as well as a months-long crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, are measures widely seen as part of a bid by Hun Sen to ensure that his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) stays in power in Cambodia following the election.
In remarks submitted ahead of Wednesday’s vote, House Committee on Foreign Affairs chairman Ed Royce suggested that Cambodia’s upcoming election “will not be legitimate in any way” because “Hun Sen and his thugs long ago decided the outcome, by marginalizing, beating and imprisoning members of the opposition.”
Royce said that since Cambodia’s last general election in 2013, which he called “deeply flawed,” Cambodians peacefully opposing their government have faced intensifying attacks, as Hun Sen’s regime continues to crack down on those critical of his rule.
Over the last year, Hun Sen has “dispatched any notions of democracy in Cambodia … and completely dismembered the political system” in the country, Royce added, pointing to the prime minister’s authoring of the ban on the CNRP and Kem Sokha’s arrest.
The Cambodia Democracy Act specifically bars Cambodian officials deemed responsible for limiting democracy in the country from entering the U.S. and blocks any assets or property they possess.
While Royce acknowledged that U.S. President Donald Trump would have the final say in who should be designated for the sanctions, he suggested that Washington start by targeting Hun Sen, Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng, Minister of Defense Tea Banh, Minister for Economy Aun Pornmoniroth, Secretary of State of Ministry of Justice Koeut Rith, Minister of Public Works Sun Chanthol, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhonn, as well as the president of the Anti-Corruption Unit Om Yentieng.
He also called for sanctions against commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) Pol Saroeun; director-general of the National Police Neth Savoeun; deputy commanders-in-chief of the RCAF Kun Kim, Sao Sokha, and Hing Bunheang; and deputy chief of the National Police Choun Sovann.
Royce singled out three of Hun Sen’s relatives—his son Hun Manet, who is deputy chief of RCAF Joint General Staff; his son-in-law Sok Puthyvuth, CEO of the SOMA Group conglomerate; and his daughter Hun Mana, chair of Bayon Height Media System.
“The people of Cambodia deserve far better than Hun Sen’s despotism,” Royce said.
“Political pluralism will soon reach Cambodia, and this legislation will not only help Cambodians attain that goal, but will also send a strong signal that Congress will not tolerate these human rights abuses.”
The passage of the act marked a strong new response to Hun Sen’s political crackdown by the U.S., which along with the European Union has withdrawn aid for Cambodia’s election, citing actions limiting democracy. The U.S. and EU have stopped short, however, of ending preferential trade schemes for Cambodian exports from its lucrative garment industry.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan on Thursday slammed the legislation, which he said was “aimed at attacking and defaming individuals that Cambodians regard as heroes” for liberating Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge and rebuilding the country.
He called the act “politically motivated,” and suggested it would have little impact because “Cambodia is an independent state.”
“Cambodia’s election is for voters to freely elect their representatives to protect their future and is not meant to serve U.S. interests,” he added.
Washington-based rights group Global Witness welcomed passage of the act in a statement on Thursday, calling it a “major step in holding those bent on destroying Cambodia’s democracy to account.”
The anti-corruption watchdog group called on the U.S. Senate to follow suit in passing the act, and urged Washington to include on any sanctions list “the members of Cambodia’s corrupt business elite—who have helped keep Prime Minister Hun Sen in power for 33 years through a corrupt system of patronage and state looting.”
Global Witness campaigner Emma Burnett called Sunday’s election a “sham” and “the logical conclusion of a decades-long power grab by the ruling elite.”
She said that under Hun Sen’s rule, a small group of politicians, military chiefs and business tycoons have looted state assets to enrich themselves and consolidate their hold on power, at great cost to the Cambodian people.
“The Cambodia Democracy Act is the first big move towards tackling the damage that has been done to Cambodian people—but the Senate must follow suit and hold to account all members of the elite that have driven this corruption and exploitation,” Burnett said.
Global Witness’ statement came a week after the group launched a campaign to expose members of Cambodia’s business elite it said have “profited hugely from the system of grand corruption instituted during Hun Sen’s reign, and would have a lot to lose from a change in government.”
The group pointed to four tycoons—senators Mong Reththy, Ly Yong Phat and Lao Meng Khin, as well as Hun Sen’s former personal advisor Try Pheap—as having particularly benefitted from Hun Sen’s more than three decades in power, and called for sanctions against them.
On Thursday, Global Witness reiterated its call to include the four, with Burnett saying that “any international efforts to return freedoms and democracy to Cambodia must also take aim at those who bankroll [Hun Sen’s] regime.”
Call to reject results
Also on Thursday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement dismissing Cambodia’s “fundamentally flawed national elections,” which it said “deny the Cambodian people their internationally protected right to choose their government.”
The group said the country’s electoral process had been hindered by the arbitrary dissolution of the CNRP and harassment of key opposition members, as well as the crackdown on independent media, a lack of fair and equal access to the media, and repressive laws restricting speech, association, and assembly.
HRW also highlighted the lack of independence of the National Election Committee (NEC)—the country’s top electoral body—and campaigning by security forces for the CPP.
“The Cambodian government over the past year has systematically cracked down on independent and opposition voices to ensure that the ruling party faces no obstacles to total political control,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director.
“Dissolving the main opposition party and banning many of its senior members from politics means this election cannot possibly reflect the will of the Cambodian people.”
Adams called on the international community to denounce the election as “a cruel fraud” against the Cambodian people, saying it was a “mockery of democracy” and little more than a “preordained victory for the ruling party.”
“Now it’s up to the countries that committed so much to the 1991 Paris Peace Accords to help restore genuine democracy to Cambodia or accept the human rights consequences of an effectively one-party state,” he said.
HRW’s concerns were echoed in a statement from Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), which said the results of Sunday’s election “are the foregone conclusion of a sham process” that will “pave the way” for five more years of Hun Sen’s rule.
“Hun Sen’s repression of any peaceful criticism, his obliteration of independent media, and the dissolution of the main opposition party have ensured that the election will not be credible,” said FIDH secretary-general Debbie Stothard.
“Cambodia’s election is a sham process that is designed to prolong Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule and will plunge the country into further misery and repression.”
FIDH urged the international community to “unequivocally reject” the July 29 election results, demand the immediate reinstatement of the CNRP and the release of Kem Sokha and all other members and supporters, and call on the government to create conditions enabling the holding of a fresh election that complies with international standards.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.