Political analysts at the US-based Heritage Foundation say relations with Cambodia are overdue for reform.
In a recent analysis, “Promoting True Democratic Transition in Cambodia,” the Washington think tank says the 2013 elections, which the opposition claims were marred by widespread fraud, offer a chance to reevaluate the US relationship with Cambodia.
“Cambodia can begin to establish the full legitimacy of its government only through an objective investigation of the 2013 elections and comprehensive election reforms, including, if necessary, a re-vote that offers the opposition enough faith in the process to join the assembly,” the authors, Walter Lohman and Olivia Enos, say. “It is critical to US interests that Cambodia mature into a self-sustaining, democratic nation that is prepared to combat modern-day challenges to governance and peace and security in the Pacific.”
US interests need Cambodia to be “a self-sustaining, democratic nation that is prepared to combat modern-day challenges to governance and peace and security in the Pacific,” according to the analysis. “That means guaranteeing basic freedoms and rights to its people, one of the foremost being the right to change its government through free and fair elections.”
The authors call for the US to push for a credible investigation into the 2013 elections, which was won by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, but wherein the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party gained much ground. The opposition has since boycotted the new government and called for election reform.
Meanwhile, rights workers and development groups have warned of a backslide in Cambodia’s democratic freedoms, especially the rights of assembly and free speech, with tighter official sanctions on gatherings, arrests of protesters and violent crackdowns on demonstrations.
“The US should be more publicly critical of Hun Sen’s human rights abuses,” the analysis says.
In an interview with VOA Khmer, Lohman said the international community, especially the US and other signatories to the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, should create a contact group, “where they can continue to discuss the health of Cambodian democracy.”
“Part of the Paris peace agreement was to continue to look out for Cambodian democracy and human rights in Cambodia,” he said. “But we’ve forgotten that, and in exchange for stability I think that signatories have all turned a blind eye to Hun Sen’s stalling of democracy.”
Cambodia has more freedoms than it did 20 years ago, he said. “But it’s stalled basically. And this election is a perfect example of how it’s failing to make any more progress.”
In his analysis, Lohman writes that though Cambodia may seem like a small country in Southeast Asia, it has often been at the center of international politics.
“From the Vietnam War to the moral outrage of Khmer Rouge tyranny to Vietnamese invasion and yet another war that engaged major outside powers, Cambodia’s problems have often been near the center of US involvement in the region,” the analysis says. “When a place has proven time and again to invoke critical American interests, it is only prudent to be concerned with its stability and political development.”
The US would benefit from a bilateral relationship with a Cambodia engaged in “true democracy,” it says. And engagement with Asean, where every country has an equal say, also would benefit from a democratic Cambodia.
The analysis calls for more US pressure on Cambodia to reform and to call a new election. The US should plan on “continued intransigence on the part of the Hun Sen government by tightening both bilateral and multilateral assistance,” it says. It lauds conditions of US assistance tied to an investigation of the 2013 elections, but it says USAID should conduct a formal review of its democracy programming “to identify deficiencies in current areas of focus or channels and identify new areas and mechanisms for political development.”