U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said the Cambodian government should drop politically motivated charges against members of the dissolved opposition party, journalists and activists, during a conference call with regional journalists.
The senior U.S. diplomat visited Cambodia on Tuesday and met with Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh. She also met opposition leader Kem Sokha, and civil society groups and journalists, according to social media posts from the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh.
Sherman held a regional press briefing on Wednesday, a day after her Cambodia trip, and said the government should reopen the civil and political spaces in the country, ahead of the 2022 and 2023 elections.
A State Department statement from Tuesday revealed that Sherman raised the “PRC’s military presence” at Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province, and the demolition of U.S.-funded buildings at the base without notice.
The U.S. has recently raised serious concern over the potential presence of Chinese military personnel at Ream, after the Wall Street Journal reported in 2019 that China had struck an agreement with Cambodia to use the base and have a Chinese presence there.
Chak Sopheap, who heads local rights group Cambodian Center for Human Rights and met with Sherman on Tuesday, said the Cambodian government should ensure democratic rule and a multiparty legislative system.
“It depends on the will of the government to show its commitment as stated in the nation's constitution and its acknowledgment of other international statutes in which Cambodia has to ensure civil society space,” Chak Sopheap said.
“We need to ensure the pathway towards real implementation for Cambodia and not just words-out-mouth or a piece of writing on a paper.”
Phay Siphan, a Cambodian government spokesman, said Sherman’s call to drop charges against members of the former opposition party could not influence a court’s rulings.
“The call is just a call. It's just an opinion. It doesn't affect the rulings or the procedures of the court. What the two governments are paying attention to is cooperation,” he said.
Siphan added that the meeting between Hun Sen and Wendy Sherman was positive and focused on the partnership between the two countries.
On Wednesday, Cambodia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement but did not address Sherman’s call for a restoration of democratic principles and human rights in the country.
It instead reiterated Hun Sen’s stance on Ream Naval Base and repeated how the government was committed to protecting the nation's sovereignty, independence, and autonomy.
Meas Nee, a social and political analyst, said it was unlikely the government would drop charges against former CNRP members, and the meeting only revealed the chasm in the two countries’ analysis of Cambodia’s current situation.
“For there to be a positive change in the Cambodian government's stance, there [should be] other talks, such talks about the future of the United States GSP trade preference for Cambodian exports,” he said.