Two leading US lawmakers say as the United States moves towards improving relations with Cambodia, the administration must be firm on human rights issues and urge Cambodia’s government to improve its records. The congressmen want to send the message to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who plans to meet with Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong later this month.
Speaking after a hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Thursday in Washington, Jim Moran, a Democrat from Virginia, who initiated the hearing, told VOA Khmer that if Clinton meets with Cambodian Hor Namhong, she must be firm on one important issue.
“Human rights,” he said. “If we are going to provide assistance, if we are going to raise the status of Prime Minister Hun Sen as one of the world’s leaders, then he needs to clean up the mess of his own country in terms of the judicial system.”
The tentative meeting is a result of the current administration’s desire to intensively engage in Southeast Asia, according to Scot Marciel, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and Pacific Affairs and US Ambassador to Asean.
“We are still working on when and where exactly, but certainly we want to keep that dialogue going,” he said.
Moran said he initiated the hearing because the United States has a responsibility towards the Cambodian people.
“If we don’t do anything and allow the opposition party to be repressed, if we allow the media to be silenced, if we allow the Cambodian people to lose their homes and be put out in the fields without any belongings, then we are complacent,” he said. “We bear responsibility if we allow that to happen and don’t speak up.”
James McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, is the co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.
“My message is to stress that the United States wants a good relationship with Cambodia,” he said. “We want a strong alliance with Cambodia, but human rights is an important issue, and there are some serious concerns about the human rights situation in Cambodia. And we will urge the Cambodian government to try to address them.”
Cambodia has proven dangerous for critics of powerful officials. Last year a journalist and his son were gunned down in broad daylight after he published an article critical of a high-ranking Cambodian police official.
To ensure that the witnesses will be safe upon returning to Cambodia, Frank Wolf, the Republican co-chair of the Human Rights Commission, said he would write a letter to the US Embassy in Cambodia asking officials to keep a watchful eye on the returning witnesses.
Moran praised Cambodia’s past achievements in moving towards a democratic society. However, he said it was unfortunate Cambodia has moved backwards in human rights over the last few years.
“The relationship [between the US and Cambodia] is not going to warm up until [Hun Sen] cleans this up, because as far as Congress is concerned, this is unacceptable,” Moran said. “Cambodia has made tremendous progress, but now it’s going back. It’s moving towards Burma instead of towards Indonesia. That’s unacceptable.”
A day before the hearing, the Cambodian Embassy in Washington released a statement outlining the government’s accomplishments in the areas of human rights and freedom of speech since 1993.
Relations between the United States and Cambodia have thawed during the last few years. In June, the US removed Cambodia from a trade blacklist allowing US loans to companies doing business in Cambodia.