U.S. Senator Ted Cruz has threatened to ban Cambodian officials from traveling to America if Cambodia’s government does not release opposition chief Kem Sokha from pre-trial detention ahead of a voter registration deadline for the country’s July 2018 general elections.
In a letter to Cambodia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Chum Bun Rong dated Oct. 23, Cruz expressed “deep concern” regarding the Sept. 3 arrest of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha on charges of “treason” for allegedly collaborating with Washington to overthrow the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and demanded that he be freed.
“The charges of treason brought against him appear to be political in nature, and the latest step in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s quest to evade democratic accountability,” Cruz said.
The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power with the help of U.S. experts, though the U.S. embassy has rejected any suggestion that Washington is interfering in Cambodian politics.
Cambodia’s National Assembly also recently approved four amendments to the country’s electoral law, despite a boycott by the parliament’s 55 CNRP lawmakers, paving the way for their seats to be redistributed to smaller government-aligned parties in the event that the opposition party is dissolved.
Cruz called Hun Sen’s actions to reallocate the CNRP’s seats “further evidence of his effort to disable the institutions of democratic governance” in Cambodia.
The Texas lawmaker—who is a member of the Senate’s Judiciary, Commerce, and Joint Economic committees—noted that the U.S. has taken a leading role in providing humanitarian and economic aid to Cambodia in support of democratic elections, and in establishing reliable trade and commerce.
He said that in addition to targeting the political opposition, Hun Sen’s removal of independent election monitors and human rights groups, and shuttering of hundreds of radio stations in recent months, is “endangering the future not only of U.S.-Cambodia relations, but of Cambodian democracy.”
“If Kem Sokha remains imprisoned on November 9th, the final day for voters to register for the July elections, it will be impossible for any impartial observer or nation to certify that elections in your country have been free and fair,” he said.
“This attempt to undermine the Cambodia people’s faith in their democratic process must cease immediately. If your Prime Minister does not release Kem Sokha by November 9th, I will work with my colleagues in Congress and in the [U.S. President Donald] Trump administration to see that specified government officials responsible for these actions are prevented from travelling to the United States.”
On Tuesday, Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan dismissed Cruz’s threat, telling reporters that the U.S. senator “doesn’t have any influence on Cambodia” and that the people of Cambodia can “decide the fate of their own country,” without foreign interference.
“The court will take action against Kem Sokha’s treason in conspiring with foreign countries, such as the U.S.,” he said.
Independent analyst Lao Monghay, however, said U.S. sanctions would likely have a “strong effect” on Cambodia’s government.
“Visa sanctions are the most effective way to deal with the Cambodian government, based on what the U.S. has done before,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
CNRP deputy president Eng Chhay Eang, who is living in self-imposed exile from Cambodia, said he hopes the government will resolve political tension in the country without a need for international sanctions.
“The CNRP doesn’t want to see Cambodia or the Khmer people suffer as a result of international sanctions,” he said.
“We want to see the Khmer people solve this issue through the Paris Peace Accord mechanism,” he added, referring to the agreement that ended war between Vietnam and Cambodia in 1991 and led to the U.N.’s administration of Cambodia’s government while the country transitioned to a system of democratic elections.
On Monday, a group of 55 nongovernmental organizations called for a reconvening of the Paris Peace Conference due to a “severe deterioration in the state of human rights and democracy” in Cambodia, in a letter marking the 26th anniversary of the accords.
Meanwhile, the Constitutional Council of the National Assembly on Tuesday approved the four amendments that would see the CNRP’s seats reallocated to government-aligned parties if the opposition party is dissolved, after reviewing their constitutionality.
The decision “without undue urgency” did not find any faults with the amendments, which will now be forwarded on to King Norodom Sihamoni for final approval before they can become law.
The CPP had also proposed a controversial amendment to the Law on Political Parties which was approved amid a boycott of parliament by opposition lawmakers in February, banning convicted criminals from holding a leadership position in a party and forcing Sam Rainsy to resign as president of the CNRP.
The February amendment of the Law on Political Parties was approved by Senate president Say Chhum, who had assumed the role of Acting Head of State while King Sihamoni was in China for a medical examination.
Since Kem Sokha’s arrest, some 20 CNRP lawmakers, along with deputy presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang and a number of party activists, have fled Cambodia fearing retaliation by the CPP following important electoral gains by the opposition in June’s commune ballot, which are seen as pointing to a strong showing in next year’s vote.
Reported by Sovanarith Keo and Nareth Muong for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.