Cambodia’s government on Thursday urged the U.S. to reconsider visa restrictions announced in response to an ongoing crackdown against the political opposition and freedom of expression, but maintained that the move would not influence the internal affairs of the nation.
On Wednesday, Washington announced visa restrictions on “individuals responsible for undermining Cambodian democracy” in response to the September arrest of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha on charges of “attempting to topple the government” and a decision by the Supreme Court last month to dissolve his party for its alleged role in the “conspiracy.”
The U.S. State Department said the move was part of a series of “concrete steps” aimed at pressuring Cambodia to “reverse course” that included a decision last month to withdraw funding for general elections set for July 2018, adding that in certain cases family members of the individuals deemed responsible for the crackdown would also be subject to visa bans.
“Reinstating the political opposition, releasing Kem Sokha, and allowing civil society and media to resume their constitutionally protected activities … could lead to a lifting of these travel restrictions and increase the potential for Cambodia’s 2018 electoral process to regain legitimacy,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement accompanying the announcement.
On Thursday, ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesperson Sok Ey San called on the U.S. to reconsider the visa restriction, accusing the State Department of “having double standards” by contradicting what he called U.S. President Donald Trump’s “policy of non-interference” in the affairs of sovereign states.
“It affects our feelings, and the U.S. [government] should reconsider this issue, because Cambodia is a tiny country that doesn’t possess even tiny missiles, let alone nuclear weapons,” he said.
“Therefore, we request this superpower country to kindly permit tiny Cambodia to live in peace.”
The decision made by the State Department “clearly shows the U.S. is using its influence to put pressure on Cambodia on behalf of the opposition party,” Sok Ey San said, referencing accusations that Kem Sokha had colluded with Washington to bring down the CPP, which the U.S. embassy has denied.
He reiterated that Kem Sokha’s arrest, the decision to dissolve the CNRP, and other actions his government has taken against NGOs and the media in recent months were simply meant to “reinforce the rule of law,” and that the CPP had “made great efforts to build Cambodia into a country that truly respects democratic principles.”
Sok Ey San said that if the U.S. will not reconsider the visa restrictions, “it is not a problem,” and noted “there are many other meetings outside the U.S. that [Cambodia] can join.”
Cambodia has increasingly looked to China for loans and investment, preferring Beijing’s policy of offering assistance without conditions, unlike the U.S., which has called on Phnom Penh to improve its human rights record.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan said the restriction of visas “appears to be in opposition to the democracy that Cambodia has worked so hard to build over the past 20 years” and could “undermine stability” in the country, calling the decision “disappointing.”
“Nevertheless, they must serve their own interests, even though those whom they support are among a rebel group who have been working against state institutions, the courts, the Senate and the National Assembly,” he said.
“We are not concerned about this,” he added.
Local political analyst Lao Mong Hay welcomed the visa restriction as a “sign that democracy may be rescued in Cambodia,” and expected the decision to have an effect on the government’s strategy in the lead up to the 2018 ballot.
“This is a positive measure—a step that may push our leaders to reconsider the actions that they have taken and that affect democracy in Cambodia,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Former CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who has been living in self-imposed exile since 2015 to avoid convictions on charges widely seen as politically motivated, also welcomed the restriction, but urged the U.S. and other members of the international community to take additional measures against the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 32 years.
“The measures taken by the U.S. … is appropriate considering the bad deeds committed by this leader against his own citizens and democrats,” he said in an interview via Skype from Paris.
“They are appropriate since they do not affect the interests of regular citizens. They only affect the interests of the dictator, members of his clique, and their families.”
On Wednesday, Hun Sen maintained that his country is governed by a multi-party democracy and said elections scheduled for next year would go on as planned, despite the dissolution of the CNRP—the only opposition party that posed a serious challenge to his rule.
He also accused Sam Rainsy—who resigned in February this year in a bid to preserve the CNRP in the face of a law that bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party—of “treason” for calling on Cambodia’s military to disobey the prime minister’s orders to kill protesters, and said the former CNRP chief will face additional legal action for his comments.
Also on Thursday, Australian Labor Party lawmaker Mark Butler, a member of the House of Representatives for Port Adelaide, South Australia, called on Australia’s parliament and federal government to take strong measures against Hun Sen’s government to push for the release of Kem Sokha and the normalization of democracy in Cambodia.
“The large Cambodian-Australian community here in Australia is obviously distressed by what is happening in Cambodia,” Butler said in a speech on the floor of parliament, noting that a number of Cambodian-Australians had come to Australia’s legislature earlier this week to support CNRP deputy president Mu Sochua in her campaign to rally support for free and fair elections in Cambodia.
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.
Butler noted that the European Union, which last month threatened to withdraw preferential trade status for Cambodia in response to the crackdown, and the U.S. have pressured Hun Sen to end restrictions, and said he had written to Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop “asking her what concrete actions our country is considering to support democracy in Cambodia.”
“The first step must be the immediate release of Mr. Kem Sokha,” he said.
“It's time Australia took action to support democracy in Cambodia.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.