More than 1,000 Cambodian-Americans from across the United States converged on Washington on Sunday to call for the release of Cambodia’s jailed opposition leader and the restoration of his party.
The protest was led by several former lawmakers from the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was dissolved by court order in November.
The party and its leadership were accused of colluding with the United States to stage a revolution to overthrow the rule of long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Eng Chhai Eang, the CNRP’s vice president, said he was “very excited” to see a strong showing at the protest, despite the cold weather.
“They are determined to demand Hun Sen’s administration releases our president, Kem Sokha, nullify the decision to dissolve the Cambodia National Rescue Party, and organize free and fair elections with the opposition’s participation,” he said.
Nuon Veasna, a recently elected city councilor in Lowell, MA, said he hoped the Trump administration could persuade the Cambodian government to change course.
Protesters carried placards and banners condemning the decision and urging a return to the terms of the Paris Peace Agreement of 1991, which officially ended Cambodia’s long-running civil war and paved the way for the country’s first modern democratic elections in 1993.
Nalen Smith, a protest organizer from Virginia, said: “Each country must respect human rights and uphold democracy. Therefore, I’m appealing to the international community to seriously look at the situation in Cambodia because the human rights violations are deepening.”
The majority of the CNRP’s former lawmakers have fled the country since Sokha’s arrest in early September.
Washington has made several appeals to Cambodia to release Sokha and provide space for civil society and the media to operate freely.
The U.S. government has also ended its support to the country’s election body and imposed visa restrictions on Cambodian officials.
Demonstrators on Sunday unanimously welcomed such moves, however, Hong Net, a councilor for Lynn City, MA, said the sanctions did not go far enough.
“I want to see more sanctions especially the economic ones and their assets frozen. I really want to see these,” he said.
Sia Phearum, executive director of the Housing Rights Task Force, an NGO, who attended the protest as an observer, said organizing protests in Cambodia was not possible in the current political climate.
He said: “If the [Cambodian] government is still stubborn and does not listen to the international community, it’s the government alone who will have to bear all the blame because they will make more than 15 million people suffer. This is because Khmers cannot work together and wait till the international community jumps in. This is a shame.”
Cambodia’s ambassador in Washington, Chum Bunrong, did not respond to requests for comment.
Sok Eysan, ruling Cambodian People’s Party spokesman, said the protest would have no bearing on political developments in Cambodia.
“For people overseas, no matter how they scream or hold a rally, big or small, it does not have any impact on Cambodia’s independence and sovereignty,” he said. “They have demanded we release democracy, but our democracy is working smoothly every day. There is no problem. On the contrary, the legal action was taken against Kem Sokha and the opposition party was no one’s fault. He created the offense himself.”