In meetings with senior officials this week, Daniel J. Kritenbrink, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said he urged the Cambodian government to reopen civic and political space ahead of next year’s national elections.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Kritenbrink said he met Tuesday with Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn to discuss issues ranging from human rights and the election to repatriation policies and the situation at Ream Naval Base.
“We want to see that all Cambodians will be able to exercise their rights and freedom so I hope that the 2023 election will be conducted in a fair, free and open [manner],” he said. “The U.S urges [the Cambodian government] to adhere to the international law to protect and respect the freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly and reopen civic and political space ahead of the 2023 national election.”
During his visit, Kritenbrink met with other senior officials as well as with Kem Sokha, former president of the CNRP, and youth and civil society leaders.
The Assistant Secretary said the US continues to have concerns over China’s possible involvement at Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville and urged the Cambodian government to offer more transparency.
“We also remain concerned about the possible threat to Cambodia’s autonomy and to regional security,” he said.
The US has accused Cambodia of allowing Chinese military access to the base in exchange for infrastructure support. Cambodian military officials have said that China is indeed helping with construction at the base and has denied that the country has any military involvement.
A statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn urged the US to renew its trade preferences for Cambodia. Kritenbrink said the issue remains under review by Congress.
Sokhonn also raised concerns over the visa restrictions on Cambodian officials imposed by the US in 2017 in retaliation for refusing to take deportees. Sokhonn, along with Prime Minister Hun Sen, have long called for the US to lift the restrictions, noting that they have been cooperating with repatriations.
Chin Malin, Secretary of State and a spokesman for the government’s Cambodian Human Rights Committee, dismissed Kritenbrink’s comments on inadequate political freedoms.
“If he understood the situation of Cambodia, he would know that the freedom space is open,” he said “This is for those who exercised their rights in accordance with the law but we do not defend those who used the rights as an excuse to cause social turmoil.”
After the June 5 commune council election, Cambodia is set to conduct the national election next year. However, election observers noted a number of irregularities during the latest polls, including the presence of armed forces at polling stations, inadequate efforts to ensure voters were properly registered, and vote counters refusing to allow observers to watch the process.
After raising concerns, Candlelight Party vice president Son Chhay was sued by both the NEC and the ruling Cambodian’s People Party after publicly raising concerns over the election.
Am Sam Ath, operations director of rights group Licadho, said the restrictions on freedom of expression and political rights would impact the result of the next election.
“Referring to free and fair elections, human rights are intertwined, it’s related to the political right of citizens to participate in a democratic manner,” he said, adding that the Cambodian government needs to address the international community’s concern to benefit economic development.
“The United States has not resumed GSP for Cambodia yet while the European Union also demanded that the country restore democracy and respect for human rights,” he said. “So, the government should reconsider its shortcomings to improve on human rights issues.”
Chak Sopheap, executive director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights said Cambodia’s human rights situation faces an all-time low as civil society and the political opposition continue to face unjustifiable restrictions at the hand of the authorities.
“The government would do well to remember that true democracy embraces civil actors and encourages political pluralism,” she said.