The United States announced Tuesday that it is cutting aid to Cambodia as a punitive measure on account of the deterioration of democracy under the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The White House issued a statement on Tuesday, saying the U.S. has been “a committed development partner of Cambodia” for 25 years, contributing more than U.S. $1 billion to improve the economy, society, and democracy in the Southeast Asian country.
“Recent setbacks to democracy in Cambodia, however, caused us deep concern,” it said, citing Senate elections on Feb. 25 in which the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all 58 seats in an uncontested vote held just over three months after the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
“These setbacks compelled the United States to review its assistance to Cambodia to ensure that American taxpayer funds are not being used to support anti-democratic behavior,” the statement said.
The administration is ending or curtailing several U.S. Treasury Department, USAID, and American military assistance programs that support Cambodia’s taxation department, local governments, and the military, the statement said.
The U.S. government said it would continue providing support for other projects in the areas of health, agriculture, mine clearance, and civil society.
Hun Sen has targeted the political opposition, NGOs, and independent media in a months-long crackdown to silence government critics ahead of a general election in July.
In November, the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP at the government’s request following the arrest two months earlier of the party’s leader Kem Sokha for alleged treason.
That month, Hun Sen told the U.S. to cut all aid after the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump announced it was ending funding for the election because of the dissolution of the CNRP.
Other CNRP lawmakers in exile have started a movement to put pressure on the government to stop its persecution of the opposition and ensure free and fair elections.
This month, lawmakers approved a lèse-majesté law and constitutional amendments put forth by top CPP officials that critics say could pose a serious threat to human rights and basic freedoms.
EU Council’s threat
The announcement comes a day after the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council threatened the Cambodian government with “specific targeted measures” if it failed to stop using the judiciary as a “political tool” to harass and intimidate political opponents, civil society, labor rights activists, and human rights defenders.
The council also demanded the release of Kem Sokha, and expressed concern over the dissolution of the CNRP and the suspension of several NGOs and media outlets.
The European Union, Cambodia’s largest export market, grants the country trade preferences to the bloc based in part on the respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms as part of the EU’s overall trade policy.
The CNRP welcomed the measure and issued a statement reiterating the Council’s call for Hun Sen’s government to release Kem Sokha, reinstate the CNRP, and stop using the judiciary to silence the opposition.
“We need an immediate solution to the current political crisis,” Mu Sochua, a CNRP deputy president, told RFA’s Khmer Service on Tuesday. “We need favorable conditions for a free and fair election. We need the government to release Kem Sokha immediately and reverse the decision that dissolves the CNRP.”
She said the CNRP was ready for a national dialogue between the opposition party and the CPP, but called on the United Nations, the EU, and the signatories to the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, which paved the way for the restoration of democracy in Cambodia, to be “our witnesses.”
RFA could not obtain comments from the Cambodian government or from Chum Bunrong, Cambodia’s ambassador to the U.S., who is away on travel.
However, government officials, including Hun Sen, have stated consistently that there will be no talks with the CNRP and have accused the party of breaking up the dialogue between them in the first place.
Hun Sen recently called the Cambodia National Rescue Movement, created by former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy on Jan. 28, a terrorist organization and vowed to arrest him and other members of the group whenever they travel to an Asian country
CNRP headquarters seized
In a related development, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court seized the CNRP’s headquarters, owned by Sam Rainsy, as compensation for fines imposed in lawsuits against him by senior CPP officials.
On Monday, the court issued a three-page order to confiscate the property, including the party’s offices and Sam Rainsy’s private residence, to pay for the fines for two defamation convictions, one filed by Hun Sen and the other filed by National Assembly President Heng Samrin.
Sam Rainsy was ordered to pay Heng Samrin about U.S. $37,200 and the state about U.S. $2,400 in a lawsuit over a video posted on his Facebook page.
He also was ordered to pay Hun Sen U.S. $1 million in damages in December for saying that the prime minister had bribed social media celebrity and CPP champion Thy Sovantha to wage a campaign against the CNRP, after text messages purportedly sent between the two were leaked.
“I’m not surprised at all by the court’s order,” Sam Raisy wrote on his Facebook page on Tuesday. “It’s just another part of the many politically motivated cases intended to persecute me for standing up against the corrupt and authoritarian regime over the past 25 years.”
“I shall continue to stand up for freedom and justice for our people and bring the notorious regime of the tyrants to an end,” he wrote.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.