[Editor’s Note: Amid heightened political tensions that have seen Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime close independent media outlets, target foreign nationals it claims have conspired against it and arrest the leader of the country’s opposition, VOA’s Sok Khemara spoke to Congressman Alan Lowenthal about where Cambodia is heading in the run up to next year’s election. Last year, Lowenthal, who represents a California district including Long Beach, where many Cambodian-Americans live, along with Congressman Steve Chabot, formed the Bipartisan Congressional Cambodia Caucus to bring together members interested in Cambodian politics.]
VOA: As you may know the Cambodian prime minister decided to expel the National Democratic Institute from Cambodia and also the independent English newspaper The Cambodia Daily. What is your reaction to that?
Lowenthal: Yes--I am the co-chair with Congressman Chabot of the Congressional Caucus on Cambodia-- just yesterday we issued a joint statement condemning the action of the government against NGOs, radio stations, newspapers, attacks against Radio Free Asia and threatening them and Voice of America; threatening the Cambodia Daily with the tax bill and the expulsion of the NDI. This is all part of an attack by the Hun Sen government to make sure that there will not be a free and fair election next year; to silence all critics of the government.
VOA: You called on the international community to act on Cambodia. What can they do?
Lowenthal: Well, I think the first thing that the international community has to step up and understand that the agreements that the Cambodian government made in 2013 to hold a free and fair election in 2018 are under threat from the Cambodian government attempt to silence all its critics. So, the international community has to step up and condemn the anti-democratic actions of Hun Sen’s government. The United States has to question whether to begin to withhold aid to Cambodia until Cambodia lives up to its obligations.
VOA: What are the greater consequences of the current developments on Cambodian democracy?
Lowenthal: This is a game where there is a real attack on free institutions. Cambodia cannot have a free and fair election if those organizations, those NGOs that promote democracy and those newspapers that talk about what is actually taking place in Cambodia if they all are silenced. It sends a frightening message to the rest of the world that Cambodia will not live up to its obligations. I think the rest of the world needs to specifically and strongly now condemn the actions which are taking place in Cambodia.
VOA: The government has also targeted many local radio stations. What do you think about that?
Lowenthal: Well, it is just a pattern of the government of escalating now, of trying to eliminate any free press, any criticism of the government, any help to get people to understand what their rights are in the election. There is no doubt that the government now has taken the gloves off and really wants to restrict all freedom of speech in Cambodia and the United States must step up and rigorously condemn Cambodia. We are going to hope that the entire Congress does that and we are going to ask the administration to do more.
VOA: Could the US-Cambodia relationship be affected?
Lowenthal: Well, I think the first thing we will demand is that these phony charges, tax charges against the Cambodia Daily, Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, we must begin to demand answers from the Cambodian government ... this is a violation of international law. Last year, I think we withheld 5 percent of the budget of aid to Cambodia. I think we must really begin to look at that and really begin to put much more economic pressure on Cambodia.
VOA: What message do you have for Cambodians at this time?
Lowenthal: Well, to the Cambodian people and to those people who are standing up and defending democracy and defending free and fair elections ... we complement you. We applaud you for standing up for freedom and democracy in Cambodia. To the Cambodian government, more than ever, we are watching. The spotlight is now on Cambodia and the United States government is watching. Cambodia is going to go from the back pages to the front pages now. We are watching what is going on.