The United States has warned Cambodia of further sanctions following what Washington said was a “deeply flawed” election last month that saw Prime Minister Hun Sen cement his rule in the absence of an established opposition party.
The U.S. has said new sanctions may be similar to those imposed in December, which saw visa bans placed on senior officials and their family members.
The European Union is also considering sanctions against Cambodia, which may take the form of a suspension of Cambodia’s membership of a vital preferential trade scheme.
But experts have said that targeted sanctions against senior figures in the regime will be more effective and less damaging to ordinary Cambodians.
“So we’re working on travel bans and asset seizure for the ’Dirty Dozen’, and for Hun Sen, and dozens of other people who have the same human rights records and record of corruption,” Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), told a conference for overseas Cambodians in Minnesota last week, referring to 12 senior military officials HRW singled out as propping up Hun Sen’s regime. “And that has to be our goal, to isolate the regime to make them feel the pain of what they’ve just done.”
Cambodia relies heavily on US and EU markets for their annual exports, mainly garment and footwear products.
After the ruling Cambodian People’s Party announced it won all 125 seats in parliament in the July 29 election, criticism of the electoral process from abroad was dismissed, with officials saying they did not need the support of foreign powers for the vote to be legitimate.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for over 33 years, remains defiant. He challenged his critics by vowing to address the UN General Assembly next month to argue his case.
“So I will be able to go to the United Nations,” Hun Sen told a gathering of workers last week. “I will have a chance to address the UN to show you all that a sovereign country can organize its own elections without anyone, except our king, to approve it.”
Hun Sen also revealed his plans to meet EU leaders in October and challenged opposition supporters there to stage a protest against the visit.
“I’ve told you my plan so that you’re able to gather yourselves for a protest,” he said. “Now, some countries are tired of Cambodian protests. Therefore, go ahead and do it.”
Just days before the election took place, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed the Cambodia Democracy Act, which calls for free and fair elections. The bill also calls for asset freezes and visa bans on Cambodian officials. Hun Sen, members of his family, and a dozen members of his inner circle have been targeted for sanctions.
“The Cambodian election on Sunday was a sham,” Congressman Alan Lowenthal said in an e-mail to VOA Khmer. “It was not decided by the will of the people. It was decided by Prime Minister Hun Sen in November when he outlawed his only real political opposition in order to ensure his stranglehold on power.”
Lowenthal, who co-sponsored the bill, warned of the possible consequences of the way the vote was organized.
“The Cambodian people were promised a free and fair election; instead they received an orchestrated stage show by a dictator,” said Lowenthal. “His regime can claim zero legitimacy for subverting the will of the people.”
Five US senators, including Ted Cruz and Patrick Leahy, also introduced their own bill in February. The Cambodia Accountability and Return on Investment Act, which is now at the Senate’s Foreign Committee, calls for asset freezes, visa bans, conditions on assistance, and opposition to international loans.
Cambodian American activists are now rallying support to get the two bills passed.
“We have our representatives in all 50 states that are working on letters to send to their senators through CNRP representative offices and ask for a meeting with them,” said Ken Kiv, a community activist from Maryland. “We want to let them know the Khmer people’s suffering and this unfair election. We want the return of the Paris Peace Agreement.”
“We will continue to push for the passing of the two bills,” said Men Vannak, CNRP-America’s spokesman in Lowell, MA. “We are also preparing a protest before the formation of the new government in Cambodia.”
Human Rights Watch said their efforts will not go in vain.
“There is a great risk here for Hun Sen,” said Brad Adams. “I think he miscalculated it. He didn’t understand it. He may have thought in the end a buy of China is enough but I think that’s wrong.”
Adams said Hun Sen should be banned from any democratic country.
“All of us have a role in trying to make sure that each of these countries that have been soft on Cambodia is really clear about what has just been happening in Cambodia,” he added. “And that they make the right decision about their relationship with Cambodia in the future. We should not see any more of Hun Sen’s visits to any democratic country. That’s one of my goals.”