Some 1,000 protesters descended on Brussels Friday demanding that the European Union push for a return of democracy to Cambodia, as Prime Minister Hun Sen gathered with heads of state and business leaders from Asia and Europe in the wake of his controversial election victory.
Friday marked the second day of the Oct. 18-19 Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM), where top stakeholders from the two continents gathered to provide a forum for political discussions among the 53-member group.
In a move aimed at countering European criticism of his rule, Hun Sen has worked to persuade leaders from the bloc to forgo threatened sanctions against his government following July 29 national elections widely regarded as rigged.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in September for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government amid a months-long crackdown that also targeted NGOs and the independent media—virtually ensuring that Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) emerged victorious from the July ballot.
On Friday, protesters urged the EU to sanction Hun Sen’s government as part of a bid to pressure him to restore democracy to Cambodia—two weeks after the bloc informed Phnom Penh that it will lose preferential trade status unless it makes “clear and demonstrable improvements” to its rights record.
Yos Hut, a monk protester, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the people of Cambodia are being held hostage by Hun Sen’s regime.
“There is no peace when people are being pressured and intimidated,” he said, adding that additional protests against Hun Sen are planned in Turkey and Switzerland, where the prime minister will meet with leaders following the conclusion of the ASEM gathering.
A protester named Thai Makara said organizers had appealed to members of the Cambodian diaspora to take part on Friday, and that the ranks of the rally had exceeded expectations.
“We had a very good turnout by protestors—the numbers were more than what we had expected,” he said.
“The protest happened close to the building where Hun Sen is attending the meeting—it’s just across the street. I do hope Hun Sen has seen the gathering … [but I believe that] even if we protested right in front of him, he would still pretend not to have seen it.”
Thai Makara said that “scores” of Hun Sen supporters had also gathered near the building on Friday, but that “only four or five” attempted to disturb the protest.
“They either came to observe or investigate on us, but [in Brussels] they can’t do anything to us—not like they could do in Cambodia,” he said.
Another monk named Ros Bunthorn said that the protesters decided to gather on Friday because “they love justice, peace, democracy and human rights,” adding that “the movement here is getting bigger and is really pushing the EU to help the people of Cambodia.”
Meanwhile, Hun Sen posted a message to his Facebook account thanking who he said were his supporters that came from as far away as Germany, Switzerland, England and France to welcome him in Brussels.
“This shows that Cambodians overseas support and respect the prime minister, who has led the country to its current prosperity,” he wrote.
“It also reflects the pride Cambodians have that their prime minister has joined an EU summit.”
According to a report by the Phnom Penh Post, Hun Sen was also set to hold separate bilateral meetings with leaders including Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev during the ASEM meeting.
The Post quoted political analyst Hang Vitou as saying that the bilateral meeting with Li was likely to discuss how China could provide Cambodia with assistance on “internal political, economic and diplomatic issues because the government seems to have issues with the liberal world."
“Therefore, Cambodia, like it or not, has to further strengthen its relations with China at this bilateral meeting,” he said.
Hun Sen has repeatedly stressed that his country does not need foreign governments to recognize the legitimacy of Cambodia’s elections, saying acceptance by Cambodians is sufficient.
He has also said that he will continue to welcome aid from China, which is poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s top foreign donor, and which is currently Cambodia’s largest international aid provider.
China, which typically offers aid to countries without many of the prerequisites that the U.S. and EU place on donations, such as improvements to human rights, offered “sincere congratulations” to Hun Sen’s party for its showing in July’s polls.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.