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Congressman Warns Against Opposition Attacks

[Editor’s note: Two US Republican congressmen, Chris Smith and Ed Royce, have admonished Cambodia’s recent lifting of opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s parliamentary immunity. The suspension, which follows criminal charges against Sam Rainsy for incitement and destruction of property, has deep implications for the development of democracy, they say. Smith recently sat with VOA Khmer for an interview in Washington.]

Q. What is the impact of Sam Rainsy’s immunity suspension on democracy and the opposition?

A. Removing the immunity and criminalizing [the opposition] as they have done on some defamation cases is a way of further marginalizing the opposition parties and clearing the way for your party to do whatever it wants, without having to be held accountable.

We have what we call free speech and debate clauses in the Congress, which allows us to speak on any subject without fear of prosecution, and it is precisely the free speech and debate clause that allows us to be protected from defamation and the criminalization of differences of viewpoints.

We obviously can be sued elsewhere, but it allows for the most vigorous of debates in Congress, so we can say what we want to say without fear of being criminalized by the opposition party or by someone else. And it really has made an enormous difference in this democracy called the United States of America, in having the most robust debates imaginable.

So I think there is a warning here, whether it be defamation or whether it be a case like Mr. Rainsy.

If they steal or do something or commit murder, obviously, immunity is neither here nor there. But on something like this it seems like a very bad step in the wrong direction.

Q. The government has said the suspension is a legal action. It follows similar instances for two other opposition parliamentarians. If these continue to happen, what will be the effect on US and other international relationships with Cambodia?

A. I think it’s bringing attention, and I think from Cambodia’s point of view unwanted attention, to whether or not the opposition parties are allowed to speak out and conduct themselves on policies. And again when you criminalize behavior of opposition parties you run the risk of losing democracy over a period of time.

Q. In October, four congressmen drafted a resolution censuring Cambodia for its corruption and rights abuses. Do you support that resolution and what have you learned from it?

A. Two of my closest friends [in Congress] are sponsors of it. An Joseph Cao [a Republican from Louisiana], who is the first Vietnamese-American ever to serve in the United States Congress is the one of the sponsors, and Frank Wolf [a Republican] from Virginia is the other. It seeks to put the spotlight on human rights abuse and corruption in Cambodia. I have long been concerned with the trafficking issues in Cambodia, particularly of children. It remains a very serious problem in Cambodia, where people are bought and sold, and the government needs to do much more to stop modern day slavery in Cambodia.

Q. What is your message to the Cambodian people in general and the opposition in particular? A. We may not agree from time to time, or I may not agree with people in opposition parties in the United States, but they should have the right to speak freely and to engage in debate and dialogue and to offer bills and resolutions. I don’t always like the outcome that happens in the US Congress, but I have the opportunity as a congressman to change it, and that’s all you can ask for. You can’t guarantee the results, but the process has to be protected so that all viewpoints have a place at the table.

Q. Cambodia and Thailand are currently engaged in a diplomatic row and a border dispute. What is your advice to both of these countries in resolving them? A. I think all regional actors, especially the US, should try to make sure that it is worked out at a table. We can’t dictate an outcome in the US, but we can encourage dialogue, and that’s what we should do.