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Sweden May Downgrade Relations in Light of Cambodia Crackdown: Envoy

Annika Ben David, Swedish Ambassador-at-large for Human Rights, holds a press conference about the latest political development in Cambodia, Phnom Penh, October 19, 2017. (Hul Reaksmey/VOA Khmer)

Annika Ben David said that if the government presses ahead with plans to dissolve the opposition, Sweden would rethink its relationship with the Kingdom.

A senior Swedish rights envoy has said that the political situation in Cambodia is a cause for “deep concern”.

Annika Ben David, Sweden’s ambassador-at-large for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, told reporters in Phnom Penh on Thursday that she had conveyed the concern to officials during meetings with Khieu Kanharith, the information minister, and Keo Remi, director of the government’s rights body.

She said that if the government presses ahead with plans to dissolve the opposition, Sweden would rethink its relationship with the Kingdom.

“I have stressed to a representative of the government of Cambodia that should the Cambodia National Rescue Party be dissolved, this will force my government to rethink our engagement in Cambodia. We think that it is in the country’s long-term interest to open the democratic spaces as it used to be and to return to freer conditions and fewer restrictions for media and civil society to all operate,” she said.

She added that a worsening political climate would have a knock-on effect on Cambodia’s otherwise booming economy.

Over the past several months Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has expelled and closed NGOs working to promote democracy and document land rights violations; detained the leader of the opposition, Kem Sokha, and charged him with treason; forced the closure of The Cambodia Daily, an American-owned newspaper, and several radio stations broadcasting critical coverage.

“I think it’s important to come and to listen to both government voices and opposition voices and civil society voices and to make an assessment of the situation and in order to see how to go about,” she added.

Uk Kimseng, an information spokesman, said the criticisms of the government were unfounded as the issue was about “respect of the law in a sovereign country.”

“I told her freedom is an issue, but respecting a country’s laws is also an issue, which she has to acknowledge,” he added, adding that he asked the ambassador if closed media outlets such as The Cambodia Daily and Radio Free Asia had met their obligations.

“This was a question that she had to answer, but she didn’t answer,” he said.

Sok Eysan, ruling Cambodian People’s Party spokesman, said the government’s policy reflected its commitment to strengthening the rule of law and eliminating impunity.

He added that the government considered the threat of downgraded relations intimidation and asked whether Cambodia should follow the example set by the Thai government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Sweden has granted Cambodia some $100 million in aid over the past five years.