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In Hearing, US Representatives Urge Stronger Stance on Cambodia

VOA Khmer reporters Men Kimseng, Poch Reasey, and Sok Khemara interviewing US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California during House hearing on ‪#‎Cambodia‬ on July 9, 2013. (VOA Khmer/Sophat Soeung)
VOA Khmer reporters Men Kimseng, Poch Reasey, and Sok Khemara interviewing US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California during House hearing on ‪#‎Cambodia‬ on July 9, 2013. (VOA Khmer/Sophat Soeung)

WASHINGTON DC - A US House of Representatives subcommittee on Tuesday held a pointed hearing on Cambodia’s “looming political and social crisis,” urging the US government to take a tougher stance on Cambodia’s leaders.

The House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific heard from four witnesses from the human rights, democracy and business arenas, in a hearing that comes amid a campaign period for the July 28 national elections and increased criticism of Cambodia’s rights environment.

“US policy towards Cambodia needs to change, and the Obama administration needs to take a tougher approach to Asia’s longest-ruling dictator,” Republican Representative Steve Chabot said at the opening of the hearing, referring to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Chabot said that Hun Sen has proven unwilling to tolerate political debate, while the run-up to the July 28 elections have underscored a deterioration of Cambodia’s human rights environment. Cambodia has not been reformed under Hun Sen according to the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, which brought an end to decades of war in the country, he said.

“Twenty years have passed since Cambodia held its first election, but the vision for the Cambodian people that the international community put in writing is not yet a reality,” he said. “Cambodia remains consumed by a corrupt political system that is becoming more authoritarian with each passing day.”

“Today how much leverage does the US still have in Cambodia and with Hun Sen?” he said. “And how can the US leverage its assistance to better address the growing human rights abuses in Cambodia at a time of incredible political instability?”

Republican Dana Rohrabacher said in the hearing that Hun Sen has committed crimes and held power for too long.

“Hun Sen is a corrupt, vicious human being, who has held that country in his grip for decades,” he said. “It’s time for Hun Sen to go.”

US Representatives Urge Stronger Stance on Cambodia
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Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has said in recent days he intends to end his exile and face the prospect of more than 10 years in prison to return to Cambodia ahead of the election. Authorities have said he will be arrested if he returns.

Rohrabacher told reporters Tuesday that if Sam Rainsy is arrested, Cambodia should face the prospect of US congressional action and a loss of US aid.

“If we see that Hun Sen is becoming more oppressive, and actually has no intention of leaving, then I would say that we reduce our own budget for everything,” he said. “Cutting aid to a government run by a guy like Hun Sen would be at the top of our priorities. So there’d be a good chance of them losing everything.”

During the hearing, the subcommittee heard testimony from John Sifton, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch; Patrick Merloe, head of electoral programs for the Electoral Programs National Democratic Institute; Daniel Mitchell, CEO of the SRP International Group, which focuses on emerging markets in Southeast Asia; and Eva Schueller, a legal consultant for the Cambodian rights group Licadho.

Sifton, of Human Rights Watch, told representatives that Cambodia’s civil and political situation “remains highly problematic.” Cambodia’s government remains “deeply corrupt” and continues to fund security forces over human services, he said.

“Human rights, democracy, and the rule of law—promised to Cambodians in 1991 by the Paris agreements and signed by the United States and 17 other nations—remain elusive in Cambodia,” he said.

“The United States can disassociate itself from Hun Sen, who regularly showcases his supposed friendship with the US government as a way of belittling and intimidating political opponents,” he said. “It should be noted that Hun Sen uses photographs of himself with President Obama, taken during the president’s trip to Phnom Penh last November, in campaign materials and other promotional material for the [Cambodian People’s Party].”

Sifton recommended cutting support for the Cambodian military, “utterly a creature of the CPP.” He also recommended the US taking a lead role working with others in the international community, and within Asean, “to make it clear that the days of the strongman are over, that one-man and one-party rule are not acceptable in the 21st Century, that massive corruption that takes resources from the poor to benefit the regime will be met with a strong policy response by bilateral and multilateral donors, and that the lack of rule of law and human rights will continue to retard meaningful progress in Cambodia.”

Schueller, of Licadho, told the subcommittee that Cambodia’s rights environment has seen a “marked deterioration” in recent years.

“The issuance of long-term, large-scale land leases has accelerated significantly, while the safeguards expressly provided for in Cambodian land laws have continued to be almost entirely ignored,” she said. “Human rights defenders have been targeted for harassment, threats, unjustified criminal charges and violence, particularly when their activism has related to land rights.”

She recommended the US urge government leaders to put in place a transparent, public land demarcation process. With no national registry of state versus private land, confusion over such classification perpetuates conflict, she said.

“We also ask that the United States renew its calls for a genuine end to forced evictions, and for fair and adequate compensation as guaranteed by Cambodian and international law to those who have already been forcibly displaced,” she said. “We respectfully suggest that the United States urge the Cambodian government to take effective action to improve the independence and impartiality of its legal system and to conduct serious investigations into unresolved grave human rights violations, including the assassinations of politicians, journalists and trade unionists, and bring the persons responsible to justice.”

Schueller called for the immediate release of two men, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, who are serving prison sentences for the murder of labor leader Chea Vichea in 2004, in a case where they are widely seen as innocent.

NDI’s Merloe also noted a “significant decline” in Cambodia’s democratic environment.

“Now, more than ever, a robust civil society, an informed electorate, and a level playing field for political parties are essential to protecting the rights of all Cambodians,” he told the hearing. “It is therefore critical that the US government continue to support Cambodian democrats and civil society advocates in fulfilling the aspirations of the Cambodian people for an accountable, transparent and democratic leadership that respects fundamental freedoms and delivers a better life for citizens.”

Merloe noted intimidation in both speech and action by the ruling CPP, as well as “severe restrictions” on freedoms of speech and association and a failure by the National Election Committee to address problems within the election process.

“The political environment in Cambodia has grown increasingly tense in recent months, with the CPP taking measures to reduce the space for political discourse,” he said. “In early June, a parliamentary committee made up entirely of CPP members voted to remove all opposition members from the National Assembly, an action the US State Department said ‘deprives the Cambodian people of their voice and hurts the democratic process in Cambodia.’ Their removal paved the way for the rapid passage of a politically-motivated bill aimed at discrediting the opposition and removed the opposition MPs’ immunity, exposing them to subsequent lawsuits and criminal charges.”

Merloe also noted concerns over the national voter registry, which challenges voters’ rights and “illustrate the government’s continued refusal to take the steps necessary to ensure that their elections meet international standards.”

SRP International CEO Mitchell told the subcommittee that Cambodia is now seeing very active Chinese foreign aid and investment.

“This factor proves especially challenging for the US in the promotion of human rights,” he said. “Whereas US aid typically has stipulations for improvements in human rights, the Chinese are spending more aid money in Cambodia, and human rights improvements are simply not a Chinese requirement of the Cambodian government. Further, the Chinese stand ready to fill any aid gaps created by suspension or termination of aid by the US for human rights issues.”

Cambodian and US relations “are at a crossroads,” he said. There is an opportunity for better US economic cooperation and trade, he said, “with the resulting improved human rights, and ultimate the transition from an emerging democracy to a mature democracy.” But there is also a chance Cambodia will move closer to China’s sphere of influence, “within which neither human rights or democracy will be a priority.”

Mitchell recommended continued foreign aid and increased trade and investment following the elections as a road for further US influence. Mitchell noted a lack of violence in the campaign period as progress in Cambodia’s political system. Human rights are “moving up the pyramid of priorities for Cambodians,” he said.

Tuesday’s hearing was a rare chance for defenders of Cambodian rights and democracy to speak before US Congress. It also coincides with the a US Senate resolution that has been introduced that calls for more accountability in foreign assistance to Cambodia. The resolution, submitted by US Senator Lindsay Graham, calls for reduced foreign aid to Cambodia if it does not hold credible elections later this month.

Schanley Kuch, a Cambodian-American democracy advocate who observed Tuesday’s hearing, said the US must find immediate solutions for Cambodia.

“We asked the United States to help solve the issues because Cambodia has no choice to struggle and rebuild the country on our own,” he told VOA Khmer. “The United States is a super power that has continually expressed sympathy for the Cambodian people.”