A senior Pentagon official has criticized the handling of Cambodia’s election process and the widespread crackdown on the opposition and civil society.
Randall G. Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Asia Pacific Security Affairs, was speaking at an event on the insights of U.S. strategic policy in Southeast Asia when he made the comments.
“In Cambodia, we are also concerned about the trend. After Cambodia’s sham election last week, the White House expressed, quote, “profound disappointment” and caution that set steps may be taken in response to that election,” Schriver told the audience at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday.
“In the meantime, Cambodia should immediately release the opposition leader Kem Sokha. Hun Sen’s wrongful imprisonment of Kem [Sokha] is causing great stress and leading to his deteriorating health,” he added
The “Cambodian military is being used to threaten the people of Cambodia who are seeking a voice for their political future,” Schriver said.
The comments followed previous statements from the Trump administration on the election, which saw the ruling Cambodian People’s Party win all 125 seats in parliament after it dissolved the country’s main opposition party last year.
In June, the U.S Treasury Department placed sanctions on Hing Bun Heang, the head of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, for his alleged involvement in rights abuses.
Schriver, a Trump appointee, has a history of support for Taiwan and Japan, having previously held senior positions dealing with the Chinese military and Taiwan.
Beijing is Hun Sen’s most powerful backer, with China becoming Cambodia’s most important ally and financier.
Before assuming the Pentagon role in January, Schriver was the chief executive officer of the Project 2049 Institute, which primarily studies security and military strategies in Asia.
Council of Minister's spokesman Phay Siphan denounced Schriver’s remarks, saying they exposed U.S. strategic interests in the region.
“The remark by [Schriver] does not only stand on no particular grounds of integrity but also stands in a paranoid and fearful state by perceiving that Cambodia’s close ties with China would make the U.S. an enemy,” he said.
Citing democratic decline, the U.S. House of Representatives last month passed the Cambodia Democracy Act, urging the White House to take action against 17 top government officials, including Hun Sen and the country’s military apparatus.
Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and global affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said U.S. Government institutions were consistent in their stance against Cambodia’s crackdown.
“I think the days of thinking ‘we can play the White House against Congress’ are over. Everyone in Washington, DC, agrees with respect to Cambodia and China's involvement, there's no light between the decision-makers,” Ear wrote in an email.
“It's really remarkable. No-one is arguing ‘go easy on them, you're being too extreme.’ The United States stands united in condemning the sham election in Cambodia and demanding the release of Kem Sokha,” he added.
“Everyone knows it's not paranoia if it's really happening. And to call Cambodia's relationship with China increasingly friendly is like saying a husband and wife with 10 kids between them are just getting to know each other.”