A hearing held by the US House of Representatives this week focused on the human rights and democracy efforts in several Asian countries, including Cambodia, where rights workers say basic freedoms are backsliding.
During the hearing, held by the House Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs, congressional lawmakers asked how the US could help improve rights and democracy in Burma, Cambodia, Hong Kong and Thailand.
Scot Marciel, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said rights in some parts of the region have improved.
Marciel told lawmakers the US Embassy had been “instrumental” in talks between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition, Cambodia National Rescue Party, following a hung government and flawed elections in 2013. “We are supporting the Cambodian people as we work to build on these gains,” he said.
The hearing follows a visit by House Major Leader Nancy Pelosi to several Asian countries, including Cambodia, earlier this year, on trade matters. But it also comes amid growing concern that the Cambodian government is curtailing basic rights.
“We do have concerns about democracy and freedom in Cambodia, which we have expressed to Mr. Hun Sen,” California Rep. Zoe Lofgren told VOA Khmer. “But we are also aware there are many strengths in the country, and that its real strength is the character of the Cambodian people.”
The US needs engagement with other countries, she said, and is seeking economic development with partners around the world. But that does not mean ignoring issues of freedom and human rights, she said. “I just urge Cambodian-Americans, as well as other Americans, to continue to press the US government to make human rights the priority in dealings in our international relations.”
Jonathan Stivers, assistant administrator to USAID’s Asia bureau, told the hearing that democracy and rights “continue to be our highest priority.” US assistance to human rights NGOs continues, he said, and they “have strengthened their skills necessarily to advocate effectively for change.”
US assistance covers human rights in various ways, he said, including support for legal representation and trial monitoring, anti-trafficking programs and help resolving land disputes.
Tom Malinowski, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, told the congressional hearing the US will continue to work on such issues. “Promoting human rights and democracy in Asia is something we do because it’s the right thing to do,” he said, “and it also advances our strategic interest.”