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Outgoing US Ambassador Calls on Cambodia to Mend Damaged Relations

Outgoing US Ambassador William A. Heidt (left) meets with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (right) to discuss relations between the two countries, Phnom Penh, November 20, 2018. (Courtesy of U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

Hun Sen did not reportedly respond to Heidt’s comments regarding political reconciliation or the release of Sokha.

Outgoing US Ambassador William A. Heidt on Tuesday urged Cambodia to improve bilateral relations between the two countries and the release of all political prisoners, including Kem Sokha, the former leader of the opposition.

The remarks from Heidt, published on the US Embassy Facebook page, were made during his visit to the Peace Palace to meet with Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday.

Heidt reportedly thanked Hun Sen for his leadership of Cambodia and for furthering the “productive relationship” between the two countries.

“The Ambassador noted he feels encouraged by recent positive steps, including the resumption of POW/MIA cooperation, and encouraged the Cambodian government to take further actions to improve bilateral ties, including by promoting national reconciliation, freeing Kem Sokha and other political prisoners, and loosening restrictions on civil society and the media.”

Hun Sen wrote on his Facebook page that he had told the US ambassador that Cambodia would not allow foreign powers to host military bases on its territory, a reference to allegations that a Chinese port being built in Koh Kong province could be used for naval activities.

Hun Sen did not reportedly respond to Heidt’s comments regarding political reconciliation or the release of Sokha.

Phay Siphan, government spokesman, said he did not know if Hun Sen had addressed the comments at the meeting, adding that the government viewed such comments as “internal interference” in Cambodia’s domestic affairs.

“We see it as an indication of the interference in Cambodia’s work, because Kem Sokha’s case and the others are under the jurisdiction of the court, and I believe the [US] embassy must respect democracy,” he said.

Arend Swartjes, a US Embassy spokesman, declined to comment further on the meeting.

Relations between the United States and Cambodia have worsened in light of a period of political repression that has seen the opposition banned and Sokha jailed on questionable treason charges, civil society groups and independent media targeted, and the murder of a prominent government critic in suspicious circumstances.

Cambodia claimed Sokha had conspired with Washington to create a “color revolution” and overthrow Hun Sen. Sokha and the United States deny the charges.

Sokha was released into house arrest after serving a year in pre-trial detention.

The United States has called a general election in July illegitimate and threatened to freeze the assets of officials who are alleged to have committed rights abuses. The European Union is also considering withdrawing Cambodia from its Everything But Arms preferential trade scheme, which allows tariff-free access for Cambodian garment and footwear products to EU markets.