U.S. lawmakers on Thursday advanced a proposed bill that would place further sanctions on senior Cambodian officials following the months-long crackdown on the opposition and civil society ahead of July’s national elections.
The Cambodia Democracy Act includes amendments that could see senior Cambodian officials linked to the crackdown face asset freezes and visa restrictions.
Representative Ed Royce (R-CA), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, oversaw the advancement of the measures. He said in a statement that Prime Minister Hun Sen was a “thug” and that the bill would help hold his government accountable to Cambodian citizens.
“Hun Sen is a thug who aspires to become a tyrant,'' Royce's statement said. ''I’m proud to support this Act, which will hold Hun Sen and his regime accountable for systemic human rights abuses.”
The bipartisan draft legislation is ready to be put before the House of Representatives for a decision on whether the bill will be voted on. If passed by the House, the Senate would consider it.
The Cambodian Supreme Court dissolved the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, in November. The Phnom Penh government also has been accused of a widespread crackdown on political dissent and civil society groups.
Kem Sokha, the former leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, faces treason charges and remains in prison since being detained in September.
The Cambodian Democracy Act could see sanctions placed on military officials, members of the security forces, and senior members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Speaking after committee passage of the bill on Thursday, Ted Yoho, a Republican from Florida who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on East Asia, said: “The people of Cambodia yearn for freedom just like everybody else in the world, and you know democracy was set up. That’s what people want. It was gaining momentum and when you have a dictator and an authoritarian ruler like Hun Sen who is squashing the liberty in people, it’s not a healthy outcome.”
Sok Eysan, a ruling party spokesman, told the Phnom Penh Post earlier this week the bill would do little to pressure the Cambodian government.
“Some things that he [Yoho] has said are not true, such as his claim that the government uses the court to oppress the opposition or its former officials – it’s just not the truth,” Sok Eysan told the Phnom Penh Post.
Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said the U.S. “deeply regrets” the banning of the CNRP.
“This decision prevents millions of Cambodian voters from exercising their democratic right to vote for candidates of their choice and calls into question the integrity of the electoral process,'' Nauert said in a statement released Thursday. ''We urge the Cambodian government to reinstate CNRP candidates immediately.”
Congressman Alan Lowenthal, a Democrat from California, told VOA Khmer that the measures proposed in the bill were rare, but necessary given the steps that Hun Sen’s government has taken to stifle democratic opposition.
“This is a major step by the United States government,'' Lowenthal said in the Capitol. ''We do not sanction other countries, only the worst countries that perpetuate, take away democracy and freedom, and this is reserved for those countries."
Representative Steve Chabot (R-OH) is co-chair of the Congressional Cambodia Caucus in the House. In an email to VOA Khmer on Friday, Chabot expressed concern that dissenting voices in Cambodia were being silenced.
“Despite widespread criticism over the last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen has done his best to double down on his outrageous attempts to cripple Cambodia’s democracy and ensure that he wins this summer’s elections,'' Chabot said.
“The Cambodian people deserve to elect their own leaders, but his actions mean that the election will be neither free nor fair. That is why, as a Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on Cambodia, I am pleased to be an original cosponsor of the Cambodia Democracy Act, which will hold those who have worked to sabotage Cambodia’s democracy accountable.”
Separately, the European Union is also considering further sanctions against Cambodia, including the removal of preferential trading arrangements for Cambodian goods.