The Cambodian government and ruling party on Wednesday rejected Washington’s call to release opposition politicians and human rights workers who have been jailed in a series of arrests over the past few months.
Tom Malinowski, U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights, democracy and labor, wrapped up a two-day visit to the country this week telling reporters on Tuesday “the situation has deteriorated” since the opposition and Prime Minister Hun Sen reached a compromise two years ago known as the “culture of dialogue.”
Officials with the government and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), dismissed those concerns, saying Malinowski misreads the situation.
“We have found no significant issue regarding human rights and democracy,” Sok Eysan, a spokesman for the CPP, told RFA’s Khmer Service on Wednesday. “Our foreign friends appear to have missed the point on that.”
Malinowski told reporters on Tuesday that the recent arrests of government critics is giving Washington pause.
“We have seen a very concerning series of arrests and prosecution: prosecution of members of the opposition party, members of parliament, political activists, human rights activists and even a member of the National Election Commission (NEC),” Malinowski told reporters.
‘It’s pretty plain’
While he emphasized that the U.S. favors neither the CPP nor the CNRP Malinowski said: “It is pretty plain, that over the last several weeks and months in Cambodia, the vast majority of these legal actions have been taken against one side, against people who are seen as critics of the government.”
On May 2, Cambodian authorities arrested ADHOC staffers Ny Sokha, Nay Vanda, Yi Soksan, and Lim Mony and NEC Deputy Secretary-General Ny Chakrya. An arrest warrant was also issued for U.N. staffer Sally Soen.
All are facing bribery or accessory to bribery charges in a sex scandal that has engulfed CNRP acting leader Kem Sokha.
Kem Sokha has been holed up inside CNRP headquarters since heavily-armed police attempted to arrest him in May for ignoring court orders to appear as a witness in a pair of defamation cases related to his alleged affair with a hairdresser.
Malinowski said the U.S. is urging the government to release the activists.
“We have encouraged the government to release and drop charges against people who were defending the rights and freedoms of the Cambodian people,” he said.
“Defense of human rights is sometimes contentious and controversial work, it often involves criticism of the powers that be, but is absolutely necessary to the health and stability of any democracy,” he added.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said he dismissed Malinowski’s concerns, saying the government isn’t the problem.
“It’s nothing political,” he said. “By turning a blind eye to that, he [Tom Malinowski] has a political tendency toward the opposition party.”
Phay Siphan singled out the cases of CNRP leaders Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy.
“What has happened is nothing but a personal issue between Mr. Sam Rainsy and Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong,” he said. “In the case of Mr. Kem Sokha, he has failed to follow the court proceedings.”
Sam Rainsy has been living abroad since he was stripped of his parliamentary immunity in 2015 because of a warrant issued for his arrest in an eight-year-old defamation case in which he accused Hor Namhong of running a prison for the Khmer Rouge.
While Hun Sen and the CPP have ruled Cambodia for more than three decades, they face new elections in 2017 and 2018. Many observers see the recent crackdown on dissent as a CPP effort to weaken its opponent.
Malinowski warned that the world will be watching this election and that military involvement wouldn’t be looked upon with favor in Washington.
Earlier this month, local media reported that Cambodia’s commander-in-chief for the armed forces, General Pol Saroeun, had asked military officers to work with local authorities to prevent “any tendencies to cause instability to the nation or any movements and activities attempting to destroy peace.”
Malinowski stressed the importance of neutrality for the military.
“I think that it is very important to remember that not only under our policies but also under our laws that if the military was to get involved in a political crackdown or human rights abuses of any kind, it would be difficult for the United States to continue all of the forms of cooperation that we think are in our mutual interest,” he said.
Call for a coup
The government and the CPP’s claims that Cambodia isn’t in a state of turmoil are belied somewhat by what may have been a coup attempt.
Chhum Socheat, spokesman for Cambodian Ministry of Defense, identified the man who announced a plan to topple Hun Sen’s government as Vichea Som. It’s unclear how serious the threat is.
Vichea Som is seen in the four-and-a-half minute YouTube clip that went viral on Facebook. In the clip he claims to be a member of the military’s Southwest Unit. He calls on the armed forces to join his coup plot to liberate Cambodia from Hun Sen in the near future.
He claims his unit does not recognize the government led by the CPP because it has killed numerous Cambodians, and that the government is also behind the recent killings of Sam Bunthoeun, Chhut Wutty and Kem Ley.
Sam Bunthoeun, the president of the country’s Buddhist Meditation Center of Odong, was gunned down in front of a house in the Wat Langka complex by two men on a motorcycle in 2003.
Chut Wutty was a vocal critic of the military's alleged role in illegal logging conducted by companies granted land concessions in protected forests and related government corruption. He was killed in 2012.
Kem Ley, a popular government critic, was killed on July 10 by a man police identified as Oeuth Ang. Authorities charged him premeditated murder on July 13 for the execution-style killing. Authorities have said that Kem Ley was killed over an outstanding $3,000 debt to Oueth Ang, but many in Cambodia question that explanation.
A pair of witnesses to the crime are seeking asylum in a third country because they fear for their safety, one of the witnesses told RFA.
Malinowski met with Kem Ley’s family in what he said was a “very normal practice.”
Still, he called for the Cambodian government to invite independent experts to aid in the investigation into Kem Ley’s killing.
“While the government of Cambodia has every right to conduct such an investigation on its own; given the inevitable suspicions that are swirling around this case, I think that the government would benefit from the involvement of independent experts in that investigation,” he said.
Reported by Sel San, Chandara Yang and Tha Thai for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muomg. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.