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After Attack on Westerners, Cambodia's Foreign Minister Softens Tone

FILE - Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon addresses the 72nd U.N. General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, Sept. 22, 2017.

Cambodia's foreign minister has launched a scathing attack on Western democracies, labeling them hypocritical and interested in promoting human rights and democracy only when it's in their own interest.

Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon told the U.N. General Assembly last week that human rights and democracy issues were raised only "when the specific interests of certain major powers are at stake."

"Otherwise, it is sheer silence, and often a conspiracy of silence," he added.

The comments came amid a surge in anti-American rhetoric from the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, which has jailed the leader of the country's opposition on allegations he conspired with the United states to unseat the long-term premier.

'One-sided' presentation

In an exclusive interview with VOA Cambodia, Sokhon softened his tone, saying Cambodia wants to "normalize relations" with the United States, "at least back to the original level."

But Sokhon lashed out at the international media's portrayal of the crackdown on dissent in Cambodia.

He told VOA, following the General Assembly meeting, that the international media had given a "one-sided" presentation of recent events in Cambodia.

He said that the closures of the National Democratic Institute in Cambodia, the American-owned Cambodia Daily newspaper and numerous radio stations broadcasting U.S.-funded radio programs were "being done in accordance with the law."

The government has come under heavy criticism from Washington and American allies, while China has lent Phnom Penh explicit support for its crackdown on dissent.

As Sokhon was giving his speech at the General Assembly last week, Cambodian-American protesters gathered at the U.N. headquarters to oppose the government line.

Steven Reach, a New York City resident, said he was unhappy with the "unreasonable" treason charges against Kem Sokha, the Cambodia National Rescue Party leader. He added that he hoped the U.N. could exert some influence over Hun Sen's government.

Annie Van, a Cambodian-American from Massachusetts, said: "I and my colleagues came here to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to free Kem Sokha ... as well as free the other political prisoners of the opposition party."

FILE - Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon is interviewed by VOA Cambodia during his trip to attend the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Sept. 23, 2017.
FILE - Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon is interviewed by VOA Cambodia during his trip to attend the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Sept. 23, 2017.

China pivot

In the interview with VOA, Sokhon said Cambodia's pivot toward China and away from the West was "for the benefit of the Cambodian people ... only because the relationship with China is based on mutual respect and mutual benefit."

"We have received Chinese aid, Chinese cooperation, Chinese investment," he added, pointing to China's huge investment in key economic sectors, such as hydropower.

"The relationship is considered in the interest of Cambodia, but it does not mean that Cambodia has become a satellite state of China," he said.

Cambodia had proved its independence during the recent diplomatic tensions with North Korea, he added..

Cambodia has historically had a close relationship with North Korea, which it has repeatedly attempted to use as leverage in its bid to act as a mediator in military de-escalation talks. However, following recent missile tests by North Korea, Cambodia has publicly taken a stronger line against Pyongyang.

"Although Cambodia has a good and special relationship with North Korea, Cambodia issued two separate statements last year and two more statements this year regarding the missile launches and underground nuclear test. So we had clearly stated to North Korea that if you want to maintain the friendship, you need to comply with the U.N. Security Council and comply with the resolution of the U.N. member states," Sokhon told VOA.

"We ask [all parties] to consider the proposal of China and Russia" to halt nuclear and missile tests and military exercises, because U.S. and South Korean exercises are "a spark of fire, and that irritates North Korea."

This report appeared originally on VOA Cambodia.