Cambodian-Americans have welcomed the drafting of a bill by a group of prominent U.S. Senators that could see further sanctions imposed on Cambodia over its anti-democratic crackdown.
The Cambodia Accountability and Return on Investment (CARI) Act calls for further sanctions on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, including possible asset freezes.
Hun Sen’s government has led a crackdown in recent months that has seen the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, dissolved and its leader imprisoned on treason charges. Media outlets, civil society groups, and activists have also been targeted by the courts and security forces.
The CARI Act was sponsored by Sen. Linsey Graham, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Dick Durban, Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Sen. Ben Cardin, and was introduced on February 8. The bill will impose further visa bans on officials, opposition to new loans and other assistance from international institutions and a prohibition on debt relief, as well as possible asset freezes on top officials.
Nem Chhoeung, president of the Cambodia Town Association in Georgia, said a “red line” had been crossed, which had led to support for more sanctions.
“This shows the U.S. legislature’s commitment to bringing back democracy as a signatory country of the Paris Peace Agreement. If this step is not taken, there will be no significant impacts.”
The international community condemned the Cambodian government for jailing the CNRP president, Kem Sokha, in September, and later dissolving his party.
The United States has since imposed limited sanctions on officials, including visa bans.
“I think that the bill will go through the Senate quickly because this is an urgent matter for Cambodia and the international community,” said Men Vannak, a community activist from Lowell, Massachusetts. “If the bill is not passed right now, it will also be useful in the future after the elections in Cambodia.”
Vannak believes that the bill will make signatories to the Paris Peace Agreements reinvigorate their commitments to guarantee Cambodia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, democracy, and development.
"This bill, I believe, will be effective and influential,” Vannak added, “because if the 18 countries that signed [the Paris Peace Agreement] convene a meeting at the United Nations, I think Cambodia will consider not to keep itself isolated from the international system."
The Paris Peace Agreement was signed on 23 October 1991 by four warring factions and 18 other countries, under the presence of the United Nations. The agreement was intended to end armed conflicts and bring democracy to Cambodia.
Cambodian-American human rights activists have been active in the past several years organizing conferences, lobbying the United Nations and U.S. legislators, and holding demonstrations to ask signatory countries to review the implementation of the Paris Peace Agreement. They argued that it has not been fully implemented.
“We see that the Cambodian people have finally seen the light at the end of the tunnel now,” said independent analyst Kuch Schanly. “This is because the United States, which is a signatory to the agreement, has acted. It is in conformity with the requirements of the Paris agreement that the governments of any of the signatory countries will act to get it reviewed. This is what the Cambodians want. This is the hope and dream of Khmer people both inside and outside the country.”
Cambodia will hold national elections on July 29.
But Schanly said that the US should focus on the implementation of the sanctions after that because the election has already been compromised.
"The US has already known that this election is unacceptable,” he said. “It’s not going to be free and fair.”
The CARI act will require the US Secretary of State to submit a report to the Senate every 90 days until December 31, 2020. It also authorizes programs to be broadcast on the Internet that inform and educate the people of Cambodia about the role of China in support of the Khmer Rouge regime and the role of the international community, especially the United States, to support the implementation of the Paris Peace Agreement, and Cambodia development from 1991 to 2017.
“Cambodia is in deep crisis and it is very important and timely that the bill is introduced,” said CNRP vice president Mu Sochua. “It’s never too late. The CNRP and other democratic forces in Cambodia and millions of Cambodians continue to believe in the PPA [Paris Peace Agreement]. The bill will honor the will of the people who desire the real process to peace as defined in the PPA.”