WASHINGTON DC —
[Editor’s note: US Congressman Alan Lowenthal (Democrat-CA) has served for more than two decades as a city council member and California legislator. He is the House Representative for California's 47th Congressional District, which includes portions of Long Beach - one of the country’s most ethnically diverse cities and home of the largest Cambodian community in the US and estimated to be the largest outside Cambodia. A founding member of the Congressional Cambodian Caucus, Congressman Lowenthal recently introduced a bi-partisan resolution condemning political repression and rights abuses by the Cambodian government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and called for free and fair elections. Co-sponsored by 21 House members, Lowenthal’s resolution was passed on September 12, 2016. VOA Khmer’s Sok Khemara spoke with Congressman Lowenthal about “H.Res.728 - Supporting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Cambodia” and what it means for Cambodia and its people.]
What does the passage of this resolution mean for Cambodia and what is the next step for the United States?
The first thing that it does is that it sends a message to the government of Cambodia, to the ruling party, the CPP (Cambodian People’s Party), to the prime minister, that the United States wants to hold Cambodia’s feet to the fire.
That is, we want to make sure that they live up to the reforms that were agreed upon in terms of national elections that were done right after the 2013 national elections.
There were all the irregularities that took place [in 2013]. I guess, at first, the CNRP (Cambodia National Rescue Party) did not want to be seated in their representative chambers. Then they came [together] and they agreed upon what would be the electoral reforms needed for the next elections, which would be both the local election 2017 and national election 2018.
Congress has been watching and seeing really what has happened in the last couples of years. The government now, rather than living up to this agreement, has engaged in intimidation, oppression, trying to make sure that these elections are not going to be free and fair… and the Congress has said we are watching very closely these elections. The election must be fair. We are sending a message that the entire Congress has stood up and voted on it and said that, “prime minister, you must follow through what you said. You must stop intimidating and harassing the opposition.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen normally ignores the actions of the international community. So, what happens then?
I believe in 2014 the United States began to look at some of the congressional aid to Cambodia and predicated that reform should be made in order to continue that aid.
I think the same thing will happen.
Now that the Congress how voted on [the resolution], while there were no sanctions against Cambodia, if in fact the Cambodian elections are not free and fair, I would imagine there would be movements in Congress to limit economic cooperation with Cambodia.
I’m not sure what that would take until we have a full discussion of that issue. We are hoping that the prime minister will follow what was agreed upon by both the CNRP and the CPP. But if he doesn’t, I will tell you there will be consequences.
Do you think other countries will consider similar action after passage of the resolution?
I think other countries who know that the elections in 2013 - because all the international observers agreed upon that - were highly irregular. I think this will send a signal to other countries that the United States is very concerned that the elections coming up may again be highly irregular. And we are going to try to prevent that from occurring. And I would imagine other countries will begin to follow us also.
Will the executive branch be taking any action after the resolution?
The administration is following up to the Cambodian government on this. The State Department is very much aware, although they didn’t take a stand on this resolution, but there are very much aware that there are tremendous irregularities going on right now, and that the government now is trying to intimidate the opposition and to keep from free and fair election.
So our government and our administrative branch knows this.
This is just another kind of tool in our toolbox to tell the Cambodians that we are watching. We are not here to decide which side wins the election. We are not here to engage in any kind of destabilization on the existing government. But the US also wants the government to fulfill its obligation to have free and fair elections and future actions by the United States will be dependent upon whether the government does fulfill its [obligations].
You explained a little already that US and Cambodian relations are based on many factors including respect for human rights. Could you give more details?
We are very, very concerned that, for example, in July the prominent political activist and outspoken critic of the government, Kem Ley, was brutally killed in Phnom Penh.
We are not saying that the government did that, but we are very concerned that he was the greatest challenge and the critic of the government.
We are very concerned that Kem Sokha, who is acting as the opposition party’s leader, was placed under house arrest and then the government, last week, tried and sentenced him to five months in jail in absentia.
We are very much concerned that the leader of CNRP. Mr. Sam Rainsy, had a seven-year-old defamation charge against him; they revived that charge, the government, and they expelled him from the parliament, forced him in to self-imposed exile.
This is not the way to have free and fair elections by decimating the opposition party.
So we are not going to stand for that. We are going to speak up, we are going to talk to the world about that, and we are going to tell the Cambodia government… to be on guard, that the US is watching.
We have not seen the Cambodian government live up to its obligation for free and fair elections. Actually, it is doing just the opposite. There are more violations of human rights than before.
It seems to be a pattern now in Cambodia, and that’s the one thing that the United States can do is to talk about respect for democracy and tell our friends and enemies that we are going to fight for human rights. We are going to stand up for democracy. We are going to stand up for the rule of law.
Right now, we are not seeing that occurring. We are seeing human rights being, not only not observed, but being oppressed in Cambodia. We are seeing a lack of democracy, and the lack of the rule of law. And we are telling the Cambodian government if they want to have a relationship with the United States, that must change.
What is your final message to the Cambodian people?
That we will not forget you. We will continue to fight for free and fair elections in Cambodia. That Cambodia and the United States could embark on a great era of friendship. But that is really going to be dependent upon the Cambodian government allowing the people of Cambodia to speak freely.
Let the people of Cambodia decide what type of government they want not the government of Cambodia nor the US.
It should be the people of Cambodia. And we stand with the people of Cambodia.