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Senior US official urges government to drop charges against opposition members

Prime Minister Hun Sen greets US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, June 1, 2021. Photo posted on the premier’s Facebook page.
Prime Minister Hun Sen greets US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, June 1, 2021. Photo posted on the premier’s Facebook page.

US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman has called on the Cambodian government to drop what she described as politically motivated charges against imprisoned activists, journalists and members of the outlawed Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), and to reopen the political space ahead of the upcoming commune and national elections.

In a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, the visiting deputy secretary of state stressed that the protection of human rights was a crucial factor in maintaining a good relationship between the two nations. While in Cambodia, Sherman also met with CNRP leader Kem Sokha as well as a number of representatives from civil society groups.

Sokha, president of the main opposition CNRP — dissolved by Supreme Court order in 2017 — was charged with conspiring with a foreign power for allegedly working with the US to overthrow the government. Sokha has maintained that he has only acted legitimately and transparently to try to win an election. The trial is ongoing at the municipal court.

Cambodia’s foreign policy similarly came under scrutiny. A statement released by the US Embassy in Cambodia following the meeting stated that Sherman had expressed serious concerns about what the embassy characterised as a Chinese military presence and ongoing construction and demolition activities at Ream Naval Base along Cambodia’s coast. The statement said that a Chinese military base in Cambodia — forbidden under the nation’s constitution — would “undermine its sovereignty, threaten regional security, and negatively impact US-Cambodia relations”.

However, in a press briefing after the meeting, Hun Sen’s personal assistant Eang Sophalleth focused instead on the prime minister’s request for the United States to consider converting Cambodia’s outstanding debts dating back to the Lon Nol regime in the 1970s into development assistance. He did not mention Sherman’s comments on Cambodia’s political situation, or the alleged Chinese military presence at Ream.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of monitoring at rights group Licadho, welcomed the United States’ call for the government to drop all charges against detainees who had been arrested for political purposes, as well as lifting the crackdown on civic space and free expression.

“I think [the government] should consider those requests in regards to prisoners of conscience, activists…, human right defenders,” he said. He pointed out that the international community had seriously criticized the current government, accusing it of undermining democracy and human rights. By ignoring the requests, he said, Cambodia could continue to face economic challenges.

On Friday last week, the families of imprisoned CNRP activists delivered a petition to the US embassy urging them to help release former opposition members who had been imprisoned on charges of plotting to overthrow the government.

Seng Chanthan, 49, the wife of former CNRP party member Sun Thun who remains locked in Prey Sar Prison’s CC1 facility, urged Sherman to put more pressure on the current government over the persecution of former opposition members.

“We hope that she will help to resolve the political situation, especially people being imprisoned due to politically motivated charges who are innocent,” she said. “They [the US] are a donor country and they have been providing humanitarian aid to Cambodia, they will help or pressure the current government.”

She said that the US deputy secretary of state had urged the Cambodian government to hold genuinely democratic elections and accused the government of worsening human rights.

“Right now, when we speak out and there are some small mistakes, they [authorities] have arrested us,” she said. 

Sun Thun, who was a district councilor from Kampong Thom province, has been behind bars for one year on charges of plotting, incitement and inciting the military to disobey orders. The charges stem from former opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s attempted 2019 return to Cambodia and the formation of the Cambodia National Rescue Movement in the aftermath of the party’s dissolution.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has a meeting with a US delegation led by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman at Phnom Penh’s Peace Palace, June 1, 2021. Photo posted on the premier’s Facebook page.

Former CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrath, who has since formed the new Cambodia Reform Party (CRP), said he does not foresee improved relations between Cambodia and the United States following the meeting.

“I think it can’t make the government change its attitude in these circumstances,” he said. “The current government and CPP leaders have no stance to soften their attitude and lose their power,” he said.

Former CNRP deputy president Pol Ham, who last month requested the reinstatement of his political rights and joined the recently formed CRP, said on Tuesday that he wanted Cambodia to have good relations with all the countries in the world, including powerful countries both in the East and West. He added that he believed that the Cambodian government also wanted happiness and development for its citizens, and that they would possibly drop charges against activists.

“I believe that the Cambodian government and the courts will consider these issues,” he said.

Political analyst Em Sovannara said that by raising their concerns over the Ream Naval Base, the US was sending a clear message that it wanted Cambodia to adopt a balanced foreign policy.

“Cambodia should show its clear stance, or the country may face a huge obstacle to its foreign policy with the US and western countries,” he said. “In general Cambodia needs more support from western countries than China, such as trade, so any concern raised by western countries, including the US, should not be ignored.”

He said while Cambodia will chair ASEAN next year, the US wants to remind Cambodia of its role in resolving conflicts in the region.

“When Cambodia took its role as ASEAN chairman in 2012, the country stood on China’s side related to the South China Sea,” he said. “Again in 2022, the US and western countries will also be concerned over Cambodia’s stand, as currently the country already clearly shows that it stands with China.”

(Additional reporting by Sorn Sarath and Khy Sovuthy)