The Committee on Foreign Affairs for the U.S. House of Representatives has called for a list of individuals and businesses in Cambodia who should be subject to sanctions and plans to review trade agreements with the country as part of a bid to pressure its government to reverse restrictions on democracy ahead of a general election next year.
At a subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, lawmakers heard testimony concerning policies to support democracy and human rights in Cambodia from Kem Monovithya, the daughter of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Kem Sokha, who was arrested in September for allegedly collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
Kem Monovithya, who is also a member of the CNRP’s permanent committee, noted that as a signatory to the Paris Peace Accords of 1991, which ended civil war and guaranteed free and fair elections in Cambodia, the U.S. “has a legal and moral responsibility to ensure that Cambodia does not fall back into an outright dictatorship,” citing the charges facing her father, the dissolution of the CNRP last month, and a months-long crackdown on NGOs and the media.
In addition to recent announcements by Washington that it was enacting visa bans on individuals in Hun Sen’s government responsible for limiting democracy and withdrawing financial support for the July 2018 elections, she called on the U.S. to place “targeted financial sanctions” on government officials through the Specially Designated Nations (SDN) list and through the Global Magnitsky Act.
By placing Cambodian officials on the SDN list, the U.S. State Department and Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) under the Treasury Department would block their assets and prevent U.S. nationals from doing business with them.
The Magnitsky act, passed by Congress in 2012, was initially intended to punish Russian officials responsible for the death of Russian tax accountant Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009 by prohibiting their entrance to the U.S. and their use of its banking system, but the scope of the act was expanded in 2016 to allow sanctions for foreign government officials implicated in human rights abuses throughout the globe.
Kem Monovithya also called for the suspension of all aid to Cambodia’s government, the continuance of democracy assistance programs for civil society, a review of Cambodia’s eligibility for preferential trade status, coordination with other importers of Cambodian goods to pressure Hun Sen to reverse course, and the convening of signatories of the Paris Peace Accords to review Cambodia’s violations of the treaty.
“The current oppression, if allowed to continue, will generate political instability as repressed dissent boils over; this will eventually trigger economic instability that will take the country backwards,” she said.
Without an effective response, Cambodia’s government will believe that “international assistance and trade relationships are a one-way obligation, where [it] is entitled to foreign aid and investment but not obligated to fulfill any responsibility to defending its democratic stability and the rights and freedoms of its people.”
Following Kem Monovithya’s testimony, Subcommittee Chairman Ted Yoho noted that the European Union, the U.S., Canada, and Japan account for more than 70 percent of Cambodia’s exports, and suggested that the countries could work together to pressure Hun Sen to end restrictions on democracy.
“We’ll also send the information to the Cambodian government that you either choose to do business with the United States of America following these principles that we’ve all signed on to [as Paris Peace Accord signatories], or you do business with somebody else,” he said.
The Florida congressman noted that Hun Sen had recently been courting Chinese aid and investment, which Beijing generally offers without prerequisites, saying “I think it’s time we start playing that hand because we see the hand that China is forcing and it’s not in the favor of democracy.”
After the hearing was adjourned, California Congressman Alan Lowenthal told RFA’s Khmer Service that the recent actions of Cambodia’s government were seen as “very troubling.”
“The situation is deteriorating rapidly and there must be responses now to Hun Sen or else democracy will be lost in Cambodia,” he said.
“I think that out of today's hearing we will begin that discussion about what ... kinds of sanctions we can put on Cambodia. We need to talk to our friends in both Europe and also in Asia to see whether we can all work together. It’s not just the United States, but we’ve seen that when sanctions have worked … it was because the world all spoke with one voice.”
Lowenthal said that Hun Sen’s recent crackdown was part of a bid by the strongman, who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades, to eliminate free and fair elections next year “because he’s concerned with the outcome” following a strong showing by the CNRP during the country’s June commune elections.
“We must work with other nations to support the reestablishment of the opposition party, and we must send [election] observers, and we must hold Hun Sen’s feet to the fire that he agreed to free and fair elections, and now he doesn’t want to hold [them],” he said.
“What happens in Cambodia must be decided by the Cambodian people and … right now the Cambodian people are being held hostage by the prime minister and the world must speak out.”
The European Union recently followed the U.S. in withdrawing funding for next year’s election.
On Wednesday, Patrick Murphy, deputy assistant secretary of state for Southeast Asia, told reporters in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh that the U.S. is “advising that these steps that have taken place here that have backtracked on democracy could be reversed,” according to a report by Reuters news agency.
The most senior U.S. official to visit since the CNRP was dissolved warned that Cambodia still had time before next year’s election to “conduct an electoral process that is legitimate.”
During his visit, Murphy met senior officials but no government ministers. He also met civil society groups.
Also on Wednesday, Hun Sen maintained that he does not need the international community to recognize the results of next year’s election, while delivering a speech to more than 10,000 garment workers in Phnom Penh.
“Whether we have the opposition party or not, the next election will proceed as planned,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said, democracy and the principle of pluralism in Cambodia “must not be held hostage by anyone.”
“Be aware that there is no mention in Cambodian laws, including the Constitution, that election results need to be recognized by any president of any foreign country or the Secretary General of the United Nations,” he said.
“Our election is simply enough and legitimate, as long as Cambodian voters turn out to the polling stations and cast their votes.”
Last week, Hun Sen maintained that his country is governed by a multi-party democracy and said elections scheduled for next year would go on as planned, despite the recent dissolution of the only opposition party that posed a serious challenge to his rule.
In addition to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the now-defunct CNRP, around 15 minor political parties are actively registered to participate in the country’s elections, but none have attracted a comparable number of supporters.
Slightly more than 7 million Cambodians, or more than 90 percent of registered voters, turned out for commune council polls in June, which saw the CPP win nearly 51 percent of all votes and the CNRP receive nearly 44 percent, while the rest went to 10 other parties.
Responding to Hun Sen’s speech on Wednesday, Kan Savang, coordinator of election observers for the Committee on Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), said that while a ballot without the main opposition party can proceed, it will lack legitimacy.
“International sanctions have been mounted not only against the government but also the National Election Committee after the U.S. and EU cut assistance to this electoral body,” he said.
“Japan, which is a key donor, I believe will reconsider its assistance as well. Any election conducted under the current political oppression will not be seen as free and fair, nor legitimate in the eyes of the international community.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.