Another day, another country: US tightens squeeze on Cambodia

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Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks to media in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

American legislation aims to block multilateral funding and freeze assets of Cambodian officials complicit in anti-democratic crackdown

21 May 2018 | | Asia Times

A US State Department warning that the “integrity” of Cambodia’s upcoming July election is questionable and new moves afoot to freeze the assets of officials involved in the nation’s political clampdown have underscored the two sides’ fast deteriorating relations.

America has spearheaded the international community’s reaction to Cambodia’s slide towards a one-party state, which culminated with the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha on treason charges last September.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the only viable electoral competitor to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, was forcibly dissolved two months later. Over 100 CNRP members were also banned from politics and many fled the clampdown into exile.

America responded to the CNRP’s dissolution, by immediately cut funding to the country’s National Election Committee. Further cuts were announced in February, affecting Cambodia’s Tax Department as well as some military and local government programs.

US-Cambodian diplomatic friction goes back further. The political crackdown, led by Hun Sen, was foreshadowed by ramped up anti-US and anti-Western rhetoric. The strongman premier accused the US of various human rights violations, both past and present, and warned America not to meddle in Cambodia’s internal affairs.

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In retrospect, the nationalistic messaging was seen as a way to preempt criticism of the clampdown to come by undermining America’s self-reputed championing of rights and democracy.

The anti-US rhetoric was mobilized while Hun Sen simultaneously cozied up to China, with the emerging regional powerhouse happy to accept Cambodia as a pliant client.

After the CNRP’s dissolution, US Representative Ed Royce declared Cambodia a “one-party dictatorship”, while the unfazed Hun Sen dared Western donor nations to withdraw their aid and assistance, boasting that China would happily fill the vacuum.

On May 14, party registration for the national election closed with the CNRP unsurprisingly absent.

“The United States deeply regrets the Royal Government of Cambodia’s decision to prohibit leading figures from the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) from participating in the July 2018, national elections,” said a May 17 US State Department press release.

The statement also called for the immediate release of Kem Sokha and reinstatement of CNRP candidates.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed the State Department’s denunciation, insisting that Cambodia is a “sovereign nation.”

“We are not under anyone,” he said in an interview on May 19. Siphan, a dual Cambodian-American citizen, claimed the dissolution of the CNRP was consistent with the “rule of law.”

Member of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Ouk Pich Samnang reacts inside a police vehicle on his way to attend a verdict announcement at the appeal court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Samrang Pring