The United States ambassador said he was urging the Cambodian government to accept diverse and dissenting points of view in the country, as the ruling party has launched a renewed campaign to target and jail government critics, activists, and journalists.
U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy spoke to VOA Khmer on Thursday, in which he said Cambodia’s democracy had deteriorated over the last three years.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party was dissolved in 2017, 118 of its senior members were banned from politics, and non-governmental organizations, activists, and journalists had been targeted in a three-year-long campaign that intensified this year.
“Is it good for the country that all of the seats in the legislature body are part of one single party? Or isn’t it better [to have] multiparty representatives?” Murphy said during the interview.
After the dissolution of the CNRP, the Cambodian People’s Party won all elected seats in the National Assembly and Senate and controls all commune councils across the country, but one in Banteay Meanchey province.
Murphy said Cambodia’s democratic rollback was a matter of “concern”, urging the government to cherish the “multi-party aspect” of the Constitution.
“My message is very consistent [to] the senior-most level of government here, we encourage you to do just the opposite: protect the rights of your citizens, encourage many voices, bring those voices in so that they can be part of the process. You will be stronger for it.”
In a report released on Friday, local rights group Licadho said human rights defenders were facing “threats, beatings, and legal action over their activism.” They highlighted how attacks on activists, journalists, and dissidents had intensified in the absence of political opposition.
Justice Ministry Spokesperson Chin Malin said the civil space for Cambodians was already “wide open,” and that there was a distinction between expressing dissenting views and criminal activity.
“But airing opposition voices does not mean you can violate the laws, violate other people’s rights, manipulate, exaggerate, incite to create violent unrest, or jeopardize social stability, national security, or public order,” Malin said.
In response to the ambassador’s remarks, Malin questioned Murphy’s “assessment methodology” and whether the diplomat put into consideration “the social and legal realities” of Cambodia.
Ambassador Murphy also talked about former opposition leader Kem Sokha’s treason trial, saying his acquittal was possible with an “independent judiciary.”
Murphy said that it was his job to protect the rights of “any American who is here,” in reference to exiled former CNRP leader Mu Sochua’s intention to return to the country next month to face conspiracy and incitement charges leveled against her and more than 130 former party members and supporters.
On December 17, the Cambodian government issued a letter from Prime Minister Hun Sen congratulating U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on his election.
Murphy was non-committal when asked if the incoming Biden administration would deal with Cambodia any differently, only to say that there would be consistency when it came to dealing with human rights and democracy.