US Secretary of State John Kerry met with key Cambodian leaders, including those in the opposition and in human rights and development organizations Tuesday, as he makes a brief tour of Asia.
Kerry is visiting Cambodia ahead of a US-Asean meeting in California, in February, and amidst ongoing political turmoil, as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party feuds with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Kerry told reporters Tuesday afternoon he had addressed these issues in talks with Prime Minster Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong. He also met with Rescue Party Vice President Kem Sokha, who is leading the opposition while its president, Sam Rainsy, remains in exile abroad, facing a prison sentence for criminal defamation, in a suit brought by Hor Namhong himself.
Kerry arrived in Cambodia late Monday, following a trip to Laos, which is the acting head of Asean this year, and ahead of a visit to China. China and Asean are at odds over the South China Sea, a major international thoroughfare where four Southeast Asian nations have overlapping claims with China.
In his briefing Tuesday, Kerry said the US and Asean “have agreed that we now have a strategic partnership. That’s what we’re working at. And Cambodia plays a role in fully defining that partnership.” The US-Asean meeting in Sunnylands, California, he said, is meant to “allow for a more relaxed, informal, but intensive dialogue between the leaders on a range of economic issues and security issues.”
But Kerry also did not ignore Cambodia’s tense political environment and poor human rights record. “In my discussions today I emphasized the essential role that a vibrant democratic system plays in the development of a country and in the legitimacy of its political system,” he said. “Democratic governments have a responsibility to ensure that all elected representatives are free to perform their responsibilities without fear of attack or arrest. That is a fundamental responsibility of a democratic government. So as Cambodians prepare for elections next year and again in 2018 it is very important to allow for vigorous but peaceful debate.”
“We care deeply about respect for human rights, universal freedoms, and good governance,” Kerry said. “And progress in each of these areas is really critical to being able to fulfill the potential of our bilateral relations but also, importantly, the full potential of the hopes and aspirations of the Cambodian people.”
Rescue Party Vice President Kem Sokha told VOA Khmer after he met with Kerry Tuesday that he reminded the Secretary of the Rescue Party’s dedication to peaceful, free and fair elections. “The US shows a stance that economic development and human rights and democracy must be parallel,” Kem Sokha said.
Kerry met with leaders from nearly a dozen rights and development NGOs, hearing out concerns on human rights and an environment that stifles dissent, with some 17 government critics and opposition activists currently in jail.
Activists raised concerns about land concessions, land grabs and the loss of land along the Mekong River, as well as dams on the river, said Tek Vannara, head of the NGO forum, a consortium of groups. They discussed global warming and its effects on Cambodia, and they discussed the economy, he said.
“The NGOs hope that more US investors are coming, so there will be positive competition that people can benefit from,” Tek Vannara said.
Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said she remains concerned about the basic rights of assembly and expression and a new law to regulate NGOs, which many fear will be used to crack down on further government dissent.
Ou Virak, head of the think tank Future Forum, said the meetings with Kerry are unlikely to have an impact on human rights issues, particularly when the focus of Kerry’s visit is the US-Asean relationship. “His main mission is to meet with the government, and especially to push the government regarding Asean issues,” Ou Virak said.
Ou Ritthy, who leads a youth group called Politikoffee, said he had raised with Kerry a problem for Cambodian youth, which is the fear of challenging the government and being arrested and sentenced to jail.
Rights advocates agreed after their meeting with Kerry that he acknowledged the problems they face and vowed to support their work. However, they said, he made no promises.