Cambodia on Tuesday slammed a decision by the U.S. to sanction a business tycoon and a government official accused of graft and illegal logging, calling the move an attack on its national sovereignty and interference in its internal affairs.
On Monday, International Corruption Day, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that it had leveled sanctions against Try Pheap and 11 companies he controls, saying he had established a network of government officials and members of the military who assisted him in smuggling timber out of the country for export in exchange for bribes.
The Treasury also sanctioned former joint chief of staff of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) Kun Kim, who is now Cambodia’s senior minister for veterans’ affairs, three of his family members, and their businesses over alleged graft and the illegal extraction of natural resources.
The sanctions freeze the U.S.-based assets of both men and ban U.S. companies from doing business with them.
On Tuesday, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement expressing disappointment over the decision and accusing the Treasury of trying to sabotage a restoration of relations between Washington and Phnom Penh, which have suffered amid an ongoing crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on Cambodia’s political opposition, NGOs and the independent media.
“We are disappointed … because the accusations are groundless and without respect for local law and justice,” the ministry said.
“[The sanctions are] a serious violation on international principles respecting sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs. It is an attack on efforts to restore trust between the U.S. and Cambodia.”
The ministry statement also defended Kun Kim as “nationally recognized for his efforts to protect and defend the country” and Try Pheap for “actively contributing to Cambodia’s economic development.”
Kun Kim’s wife, Kim Chandy, told RFA’s Khmer Service on Tuesday that the sanctions “won’t have an impact” on her family.
“If they want to freeze my assets they can do that, if I even have assets in the U.S.,” she said, adding that Kun Kim has no interest in appealing to the U.S. government over the sanctions.
She said that while she used to own the companies listed by the Treasury Department, all have since been shut down. The businesses were operated legally and paid taxes to the government, she added.
Attempts by RFA to reach Kun Kim and Try Pheap for comment went unanswered on Tuesday.
Reuters news agency quoted ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesperson Sok Eysan as saying that the sanctions were ineffective and only served as support for opposition.
Kun Kim and Try Pheap “don't have assets abroad and if they are stupid to keep assets outside, let them freeze,” he said.
The United States "did this just to support their puppets, it's not effective," he said, referring to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved in November 2017 over its role in an alleged plot to topple the government.
The ban on the political opposition in forced CNRP officials to relinquish their elected positions and, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election. Hun Sen has been in power since 1985.
On Monday, the Treasury Department’s announcement was welcomed by the rights group Global Witness, which said that Try Pheap and Kun Kim are believed to have committed rights abuses and environmental destruction.
“As Hun Sen's supporters have accumulated more and more wealth and impunity, their incentive to help him cling to power has increased," Patrick Alley, director of Global Witness, said in a statement.
“Accountability for those sustaining the corrupt dictatorship that is oppressing Cambodians on a daily basis is long overdue."
In addition to sanctions leveled against Cambodia by Western nations amid democratic rollbacks during its 2018 general election, the European Union is currently considering withdrawal of the country’s Everything But Arms (EBA) status—which gives developing nations tariff-free access to the EU’s markets for all products except arms.
In a Nov. 12 preliminary report, the EU warned Cambodia that it has not taken enough measures to prevent a loss of its special trade privileges, noting the country’s further deterioration of civil, political, labor, social, and cultural rights since the launch of a review process in February.
Cambodia has until Thursday to respond to the report, at which point the EU will finalize it and make a decision in February 2020 on whether to withdraw EBA status.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.