WASHINGTON DC - A group of congressional representatives and human rights advocates say Cambodia’s future aid should be tied to whether its upcoming elections are free and fair.
In a House of Representatives hearing earlier this week and in a Senate resolution put forward last month, congressional representatives critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration added their voices to increased international and local concern over the legitimacy of the impending national elections.
House Representative Steve Chabot said in a hearing on Cambodia’s political climate on Tuesday that he planned to introduce a bill that is complimentary to a Senate bill that ties the election and aid.
“Cutting off direct aid to the Cambodian government, specifically foreign military financing an international military education and training funding, is a tangible action the US can take to show its condemnation of the upcoming fallacious and undemocratic election,” he said.
Chabot said his proposed bill would compliment a Senate resolution sponsored by Republican Lindsey Graham that calls for reduced foreign aid to Cambodia if it does not hold credible elections July 28.
The Senate resolution calls on Cambodia to implement 18 recommendations made by the UN’s special envoy, Surya Subedi, last year, including the full participation of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, in order for the elections to be considered credible.
It calls on the US State Department and USAID to “refrain from supporting” the elections if the opposition is “hampered from fully and freely participating in electoral processes.”
“A Cambodian government formed as a result of such illegitimate elections should not be eligible for direct United States government assistance, including for the military and police, and the Department of State and United States Agency for International Development should jointly reassess and reduce assistance for Cambodia in subsequent fiscal years, and urge international financial institutions to do the same,” according to the resolution, which was assigned to a congressional committee June 7.
In Cambodia, calls for a tie of aid to the election process met a swift response from the government.
Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong on Wednesday said Cambodia is a sovereign country that is not reliant on US aid.
“Cambodia is an independent state,” he told reporters in Phnom Penh. “Whatever you want to say is up to you. The future of Cambodia is in the hands of its people.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the upcoming election should not face “pressure” from outside the country. “The United States should understand its duty, to strengthen cooperation and good relationships as partners,” he said. “This election is not an election under the influence of foreigners. It’s an election to strengthen the rule of law, to strengthen democracy, and it is not for a political party or individual, but for a decision by the people of Cambodia.”
Phay Siphan criticized the congressional subcommittee for interfering with the political process between the Cambodian and US governments.
Cheam Yiep, a CPP lawmaker, defended the ruling party, saying that the US Congress does not understand Cambodia’s situation. Any proposal to cut aid to Cambodia should be “thoroughly considered,” he said. “That would cause resentment for Cambodia people, because the CPP is an elected party from the election of the fourth term” in 2008, he said.
Tep Nitha, secretary-general of the National Election Committee, defended his agency’s handling of the election process. It is not proper to evaluate Cambodia’s election process based on laws or elections in other countries, he said.
“It may be the habit of the United States, to always pressure weak countries and evaluate a country without obtaining clear information about the issue,” he said. “Frankly speaking, I myself, as the election organizer, say Cambodia applies election law.”
US Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh told VOA Khmer in an e-mail that embassy officials are aware of the Senate resolution.
“In general, we do not comment on pending resolutions,” he said in an e-mail, “but the US Embassy does share the same concerns expressed by the US Congress.”
“The upcoming Cambodian national elections will be a critical test of the Royal Government of Cambodia’s commitment to strengthening the nation’s democracy,” he wrote. “We are monitoring the lead up to the elections closely.”
In Capitol Hill on Tuesday, congressional representatives on the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific held a hearing on Cambodia’s political and social “crisis,” where the idea of tying aid to the elections was also discussed.
John Sifton, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, who addressed the hearing, told VOA Khmer later that “a lot of pressure” was being put on the State Department, USAID and the Defense Department to cut aid to Cambodia, though not to health programs like those to battle HIV and AIDS or tuberculosis.
“Not those programs, but direct budgetary support for the Cambodian government, military training, military financing,” he said.
Human Rights Watch also wants to see major donors like Japan, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank put similar pressure on Cambodia, he said.
“We believe that if the United States, the EU, and Japan together adopt a coordinated approach, that will have an effect on Hun Sen,” he said. “He will realize, wow, there is a price to stealing an election.”
The hearing in Washington and the Senate resolution both come ahead of the July 28 elections. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has said he will return ahead of Election Day, despite assurances from authorities that he will be arrested to face more than 10 years of imprisonment, on charges he says are politically motivated.
Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher told reporters Tuesday that if Sam Rainsy is arrested, Cambodia should have its aid cut.
“If we see that Hun Sen is becoming more oppressive, and actually has no intention of leaving, then I would say that we reduce our own budget for everything,” he said. “Cutting aid to a government run by a guy like Hun Sen would be at the top of our priorities. So there’d be a good chance of them losing everything.”
Patrick Merloe, director of electoral programs at the US-based National Democratic Institute, told VOA Khmer on Tuesday that international support for Cambodia’s democracy should continue, but he said Cambodia should recognize that “democratic legitimacy is a prerequisite.”
Cambodia’s election process is flawed with irregularities, including a voter registration process that benefits the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, he said. The process so far does not meet international standards, he said.
Not everyone in Congress agrees with tying aid to the elections. Democratic Representative Eni Faleomavaega told Tuesday’s hearing that Cambodia’s debt to the US, about $470 million from the Lon Nol regime of the 1970s, should instead be forgiven. “History shows that the United States failed Cambodia miserably,” he told the hearing.