Updated at 12:30 p.m. EST on 2012-06-14
Rights groups have highlighted deteriorating human rights, government intimidation of the opposition, and land grabs in Cambodia on the eve of a visit by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong to Washington for talks with his counterpart U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The one-day visit will take place on Tuesday, during which Hor Namhong is expected to discuss with Clinton and other senior U.S. officials issues related to security in Asia, regional use of the Mekong River, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which Cambodia is chairing this year.
He will also request the U.S. to cancel Cambodia’s debt of around U.S. $440 million, including interest, which it incurred through agricultural aid during the Lon Nol era of the 1970s. Prime Minister Hun Sen has called the loan Cambodia’s “dirty debt.”
In a petition addressed to Clinton, Cambodian Americans for Human Rights and Democracy and Khmer People’s Network for Cambodia wrote that human rights conditions in Cambodia have gone “from bad to worse” over the last two decades.
“Initially, the victims of human rights violations had mostly been people who Prime Minister Hun Sen, his wife, and his associates considered potential opponents, competitors, detractors, environmentalists, unionists, and human rights defenders,” the statement read.
“Now, they have widened their focus to include land owners, members of their families, and those who sympathize with their causes.”
The groups requested Clinton push the Cambodian government to reinstate parliamentary immunity to three opposition lawmakers from the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), to allow the return of self-exiled party leader Sam Rainsy, and to reform the National Election Committee ahead of parliamentary polls slated for mid-2013.
Sam Rainsy currently lives in exile in France and is facing a two-year jail sentence for uprooting markers at the border with Vietnam in 2009, if he returns. He has said that he plans to return for the elections to lead the opposition against the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Hor Namhong said Sunday that the government is considering revoking Sam Rainsy’s passport, though an SRP spokesperson said that as a legal citizen of France, the opposition leader can travel on his French passport and his overseas plans should not be affected.
The U.S.-rights groups also pointed to a longstanding dispute between tens of thousands of residents of capital Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake district who were evicted from their homes, or are in risk of losing them, and developers looking to turn the area into a luxury residential and shopping center.
Last month, a Phnom Penh court ordered 13 women jailed for between one year and two and a half years for their part in protests which authorities said “encroached on private property” on the site. The rights groups called in the petition to Clinton for their release and the release of two others detained on similar charges.
The rights groups have also asked for U.S. assistance to “ensure the full independence of the judiciary branch of the government,” which opposition lawmakers have called a “political tool” of the CPP. The top officials of Cambodia’s Supreme Court are CPP members.
The visit has brought criticism from Cambodian rights groups who say they will hold protests in front of the U.S. State Department on Tuesday during the meeting between the two diplomats.
SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who is visiting the U.S., said she held talks with Clinton Monday in Boston, Massachusetts, at the inauguration of a two-week women’s leadership conference.
She said in her talks, she asked Washington to suspend any military aid to Cambodia as the authorities in Phnom Penh had used the armed forces to evict people in land disputes.
Mu Sochua also sought Clinton’s help to bring about the release of the 15 Boeung Kak villagers being held at Prey Sar prison.
“I requested her [Clinton] to suspend military aid to Cambodia,” she told RFA after the talks.
“Madame Hillary Clinton has promised me that she would seek a solution to make sure women’s rights will be respected and put an end to violence.”
Cambodian Americans for Human Rights and Democracy coordinator Saunora Prom said he believes pressure by the U.S. could help to influence Cambodia on the issues.
“I am confident that the U.S. will resolve these issues because they are in the U.S. interest,” he said.
Speaking to reporters before he left Phnom Penh Sunday, Hor Namhong said that besides raising Cambodian issues with Clinton, he will also discuss issues linked to ASEAN and the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI).
The LMI was created following a 2009 meeting between Clinton and the foreign ministers of the Lower Mekong countries, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, in order to enhance cooperation in the areas of environment, health, education, and infrastructure development.
Hor Namhong said Sunday that he expects Tuesday’s meeting with Clinton to yield improved relations between the two nations and their role in the Asian region.
“The U.S. and Cambodia, we have many cooperation forums … we will also talk about regional issues,” he said.
He said he hoped that the U.S. would consider cancelation of Cambodia’s debt, despite earlier talks where the two sides had failed to see eye-to-eye.
“We have negotiated many times already, and we hope that we will do whatever we can for the two parties [U.S. and Cambodia] to reach an agreement,” he said.
Clinton is due to visit Phnom Penh in mid-July to participate in the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting.
Reported by Samean Yun and Sok Serey for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.