US Diplomat Raises Concerns about Political Crackdown and Chinese Base in Cambodia

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman "pressed the government to reopen civic and political space in advance of the 2022 commune and 2023 national elections."
2021-06-01
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US Diplomat Raises Concerns about Political Crackdown and Chinese Base in Cambodia Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) greets U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (R) during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, June 1, 2021.
Handout / US Embassy Phnom Penh / AFP

UPDATED at 3:10 p.m. EDT on 2021-06-01

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the most senior U.S. official to visit Cambodia in five years, voiced concern about a possible Chinese military base in the Southeast Asian nation and urged Phnom Penh to drop “politically motivated” court cases against opponents and critics, the State Department said.

Sherman met Prime Minister Hun Sen, ruler of Cambodia since 1985, as well as opposition leader Kem Sokha, who remains in political limbo awaiting trial on unsubstantiated treason charges after his arrest in 2017 kicked off a broad government crackdown against the opposition, civic activists and journalists.

A State Department statement on Sherman’s meetings in Phnom Penh said she also took issue with a naval base China is helping to fund and build near where U.S.-built facilities had been demolished.

“Deputy Secretary Sherman expressed serious concerns about the PRC’s military presence and construction of facilities at Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand,” said a department spokesman.

“She sought clarification on the demolition of two U.S.-funded buildings at Ream without notification or explanation and observed that a PRC military base in Cambodia would undermine its sovereignty, threaten regional security, and negatively impact U.S.-Cambodia relations,” the spokesman added.

In a weekend interview with RFA’s Khmer Service, Cambodia’s Minister of Defense Tea Banh confirmed that Ream Naval Base in the southwestern coastal city of Sihanoukville was being refurbished and China is helping “with the construction of a maintenance facility, renovation of the port, the gate.”

The minister declined to disclose further details on the scope of Chinese assistance in developing Ream Naval Base, a point of friction between Phnom Penh and Washington since reports of a secret deal to allow the Chinese to use part of the base for 30 years, and the release of satellite imagery that showed Cambodia had built facilities near two U.S.-built maintenance facilities were demolished last year.

“China helps us without any strings attached. They also bring their forces to help,” he told RFA.

“Once it is completed, they will hand over the facilities to Cambodia. It is Cambodia that has full rights to use the base. Hence, there is nothing strange, as such development has been practiced by many others,” said Tea Banh.

‘Politically motivated’ charges

A naval base at Ream on the Gulf of Thailand would provide China with its first naval staging facility in Southeast Asia and allow it to significantly expand patrols on the South China Sea. Beijing claims much of the waterway, parts of which are also claimed by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

“Under the Constitution, Cambodia has the right as the owner to conduct cooperation with superpowers, except for (hosting) military bases,” said Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesman Chhim Phalvarun.

“Cambodia is implementing it correctly and there are no foreign soldiers or military bases,” he told RFA.

Advisor Koul Panha of the Cambodian election watchdog group COMFREL said he believes the United States, as well as Japan are trying to use diplomacy to persuade Cambodia not to “turn deeper and deeper” to China’s embrace.

“But looking at the Cambodian side, it seems to show clear bias towards China, because it sees that the countries of the free world have set conditions and do not seem to fully support the current Cambodian government. The problem is that democracy in Cambodia is seriously undermined and human rights are not being respected properly."

Sherman also raised Hun Sen’s crackdown on the opposition and civil society, the main factor causing Phnom Penh’s ties with the U.S. and European Union to deteriorate while the strongman has moved closer to Beijing.

Sherman “emphasized the importance of human rights and the protection of fundamental freedoms as integral to our bilateral relationship,” the spokesman said.

“She called on authorities to promptly drop the politically motivated charges against members of the political opposition, journalists, and activists” and “pressed the government to reopen civic and political space in advance of the 2022 commune and 2023 national elections,” added the statement.

The main opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was banned and its leader Kem Sokha arrested in late 2017, allowing Hun Sen's ruling party to win every parliamentary seat in 2018 elections, drawing international criticism and EU trade sanctions.

Kem Sokha was put on trial in January 2020, but the hearings were suspended two months later on the pretext of containing the spread of COVI-19. Hun Sen has hinted that the trial may not resume for years, and may not conclude until 2024, long after the next election cycle.

Kem Sokha’s lawyer Pheng Heng told RFA that the final outcome of his case will depend on politics in a country where the U.S State Department said in an annual human rights report that “the government did not respect judicial independence, exerting extensive control over the courts.”

Kem Sokha welcomes Sherman

Speaking to RFA on Monday, Sok Eysan, the main spokesman for the CPP, rejected foreign pressure on what he called a judicial issue.

“How can [she] propose to the Prime Minister to drop the charge against Kem Sokha, because he is not the one, who charged him. It is the court and the case is in the court, so the proposal is not acceptable,” he told RFA.

In a post on Facebook after Tuesday’s meeting, Kem Sokha said he “welcomed and thanked Wendy Sherman and delegates who visited Cambodia and spent time discussing important issues with me,”  but did not mention any details of the talks.

Hun Sen “expressed gratitude for U.S assistance toward Cambodia and its contributions toward Cambodia’s peace and development,” said a statement on the prime minister’s Facebook page.

He also called for bilateral discuss on Cambodian debt to the United States that started with $274 million in aid to the then government during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s but has doubled in size as interest accrued in the decades since.

Hun Sen urged the U.S. to accept terms including that interest be capped at 1 percent and that 70 percent of its debt be converted to aid for education, culture, and removal of war-era mines and unexploded ordnance, he said on Facebook.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum, Samean Yun and Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Paul Eckert.

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