Government officials dismissed a call made by U.S. lawmakers, to review Cambodia’s privileged trade access and for targeted sanctions, as repetitive and the personal opinion of some American politicians.
A group of eight U.S. senators and representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo directing his attention to the worsening human rights situation in Cambodia and the recent arrests of youth, environmental, and opposition activists.
The letter released November 16, said that Prime Minister Hun Sen was not responding to U.S concerns and that the Treasury Department should be used to impose sanctions under the Global Magnitksy Act against senior government and security officials.
It also recommended a review of Cambodia’s access to the Generalized Scheme of Preferences trade privileges, which currently aids Cambodian travel goods exports. Travel goods exports reached $1 billion last year.
“It is now clear that only strong pressure is likely to change the behavior of the Cambodian government,” the letter reads. “We urge you to act because Hun Sen and the ruling CPP are no longer responding to ordinary diplomatic engagement.”
The letter was signed by Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Edward J. Markey, Congressman Ted Yoho, and Congressman Alan Lowenthal, and four others.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan said the U.S. politicians were being “repetitive” in their letter, but directed further queries to the Foreign Ministry.
“This is nothing new from those lawmakers. But to delve deeper, please contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is beyond my work,” he said.
Koy Kuong, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
The letter accused Hun Sen of using “violence, intimidation, censorship and corruption” to maintain his hold on power and that the Cambodian People’s Party had dropped all pretenses when it got the Supreme Court to dissolve the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party.
The letter also lists several arrests linked to the detention of prominent unionist Rong Chhun, who was charged with incitement for his comments on the contentious border demarcation issue. It lists the arrest of activists from the environmental movement Mother Nature-- two rappers detained for allegedly provocative lyrics, and CNRP-linked arrests.
Chin Malin, a Justice Ministry spokesperson, said the contents of the letter were the personal opinions of the eight U.S. politicians, accusing them of characterizing events and arrests from the perspective of the CNRP.
“This is the opinions of the U.S. lawmakers and senators who have been in contact with the opposition and are using the image of human rights and democracy as an excuse to protect their clique,” he said.
Senator Ed J. Markey took to Twitter to reiterate the use of the Global Magnitsky Act against senior CPP officials who had cracked down on the opposition and free speech.
The Global Magnitsky Act targeted sanctions have been previously used against the Prime Minister Bodyguard Unit head Hing Bun Heang, logging tycoon Try Pheap, and influential general Kun Kim. In September, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned the Chinese-owned Union Development Group for human rights violations linked to its Dara Sakor tourism development project in Koh Kong province.
CPP Senator Sok Eysan said prior sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act had not affected the government’s outlook or its sovereignty.
“Whatever the action they want to take such as the use of the Magnitsky Act...it's up to them. What has been the result so far of these sanctions on CPP or government officials?” Eysan said.
U.S. Embassy Spokesperson Chad Roedemeier did not comment on the letter and instead directed reporters to a Facebook post on the embassy’s page, where it expressed concern over the recent arrests and crackdown on fundamental rights.
“We urge authorities to protect these freedoms, as enshrined in Cambodia's constitution, and to take meaningful steps to reopen civic and political space in the lead up to 2022 commune elections and 2023 national elections” the post reads.