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A Year After Letter to Hun Sen, U.S. Senator Says Little Sign of Progress in Cambodia

Screenshot of the US senators' letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen, February 11, 2016.

The senators say they wrote as friends of Cambodia, who wish to see a strong relationship between the two countries but who are troubled by the increased social and political turmoil in Cambodia.

One year ago this month, seven U.S. senators sent a letter to Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen expressing their concerns over the human rights situation in Cambodia. One year later, one of the seven senators who initiated the letter says he’s not convinced any meaningful progress has been made.

The letter to Hun Sen signed by the seven senators, all Democrats, expressed concerns about various issues, ranging from voting irregularities during the 2013 national elections, to land grabbing to Cambodia’s record on human trafficking.

The seven senators were Christopher Murphy and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut; Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken of Minnesota; Maria Cantwell of Washington state; Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

The letter was sent to the prime minister a few days before he and other ASEAN leaders met with then President Barack Obama at the U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Sunnylands, California, to talk about trade and cooperation in many fields under the administration’s pivot to Asia policy.

The senators say they wrote as friends of Cambodia, who wish to see a strong relationship between the two countries but who are troubled by the increased social and political turmoil in Cambodia.

One year later, Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who took the lead in writing the letter told VOA Khmer in an email that he is “not convinced any meaningful progress has been made.”

“I remain concerned about the country’s troubling pattern of violence and social and political turmoil, but hope that democratic reforms are soon put into place.”

In the letter to Hun Sen, the senators expressed their concerns about the lack of human rights in Cambodia, citing the attacks by pro-government supporters against two opposition party lawmakers in front of the National Assembly in October 2015.

In his email to VOA Khmer late last week, Murphy stressed the importance of respect for human rights.

“The people of Cambodia deserve a more fair and transparent government that believes in the rule of law, human rights, and property rights,” he said.

Hun Sen reportedly returned the letter to the senators immediately without reading it.

Phay Siphan is the spokesman for the Council of Ministers in Cambodia. Speaking to VOA Khmer by telephone, he says it’s not the responsibility of the Cambodian government to correspond with the U.S. Senate.

“The Cambodian government does not have the mandate to correspond with the U.S. congress. By the same token the U.S. congress does not have the mandate to tell or to suggest the Royal Cambodian Government what to do. That’s the international principal.”

Sok Eysan, CPP spokesman, expresses a similar view. He told VOA Khmer that Cambodian leaders are working to improve society and that the country does not follow the demands of foreigners.

“The Kingdom of Cambodia is a sovereign and independent state, so what has not been in the national sovereignty, we cannot do just as outsiders who wrote any wandering letter.”

Nonetheless, the lack of a response still worries Murphy.

In the same email to VOA Khmer, the Connecticut senator said “I’m troubled that we didn’t hear back from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.”

Senator Chris Coons is a Democrat from Delaware and a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Although not one of the letter writers, Coons told VOA Khmer that under the Trump Administration, the U.S. must continue to make human rights, a free press and the promotion of democracy the core values of U.S. foreign policy.

“I raised these issues in the confirmation hearing for Secretary of State Tillerson,” Coons said. “I will raise these questions in every conversation with leaders of our State Department and I think you will hear in our senate foreign relations hearings a bipartisan commitment to continue to raise human rights concerns in Cambodia and throughout the world.”

Senator John McCain was the 2008 U.S. Presidential nominee for the Republican Party and is the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services. He told VOA Khmer that Cambodia’s close relationship with China is a concern.

“It’s clear that Cambodia is becoming closer and closer to China. And there’s continued repression on human rights. Hun Sen has been in power for many, many years and the repression of basic human rights continues and it should be a concern for all of us.”

VOA Khmer reached out to all seven senators for comments but only Senator Murphy’s office responded. The other six senators declined to comment.