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Q&A: U.S. Congressman Steve Chabot on Possible Sanctions Against Cambodian Officials

Congressman Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) talked to VOA Khmer on November 1, at his office in Washington, D.C about Cambodian politics.

[Editor’s Note: Congressman Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) sat down with VOA’s Sok Khemara for an exclusive interview at his office in Washington, D.C., on November 1, 2017. Congressman Chabot has represented Ohio’s First Congressional District for the past two decades, and is the co-chair of the Congressional Cambodian Caucus along with Alan Lowenthal (D-CA). He spoke to VOA about his thoughts on the Cambodian government’s moves against opposition voices and politicians in recent months, and the possibility that the U.S. will impose sanctions against Cambodian officials involved in the crackdown.]

VOA: Congressman, thank you so much for allowing VOA Khmer to interview you today. What can the US Congress do to help the Cambodian situation right now, in which the opposition leader is in jail and the election is coming soon. What is your response to that?

Chabot: Well, I think that is very important that the United States Congress stay focused on the very unfortunate condition of Cambodia right now. I am one of the co-chairmen of the Congressional Cambodian Caucus and we pay particular attention. I think as far as what we can actually do, we need to make sure that the government in Cambodia knows that it’s completely unacceptable, many of the things which are going on right now. The people of Cambodia have a right to determine who their leadership is, who’s going to run their country. It should not be a single person or one political party—the people have a right to determine that. Right now that is not happening in Cambodia.

VOA: People in Washington have talked about freezing the assets of Cambodian government officials or a visa ban sometime in the future. Will you in Congress initiate that idea?

Chabot: Those are things that are being considered, things we’ve talked about, things about sanctions, for example, not allowing high Cambodian officials to travel to the United States, not giving them visas to do so, freezing assets. There are a whole range of things that we’re considering. We hope that the government will change its policies so that those actions aren’t necessary, but only time will tell.

VOA: What will be the impact for Cambodia and Cambodian officials if those things happen?

Chabot: Well, we hope that the possibility of sanctions and suspensions of visas and travel rights and those kinds of things will get the government, particularly Mr. Hun Sen’s attention. Many of his actions and those of his associates in recent years have been just unacceptable: the banning, in essence, closing down of certain political parties, the jailing of one’s opposition, the crackdown on the independent press, whether it’s Radio Free Asia or Voice of America, those are completely unacceptable, and I would hope the leadership in Cambodia will change its policy so they will allow the people to make the choice of how their country should be run, how their lives ought to be, their education policies, healthcare policies, and a whole range of other things. The people should determine those things, not just one person who has essentially, let’s face it, become…a despot, almost a dictator in recent years, and that’s just unacceptable.

VOA: When you say unacceptable, what exactly do you mean by that?

Chabot: Well, you know again we can consider such things as sanctions, the suspension of rights to travel to the United States. We are working with our other allies in the region. It is my understanding that the E.U., for example, is considering sanctions as well, and we’re, of course, our State Department, others are talking with them about those kinds of things. But we would hope that the government would change its actions and change its policies, because in the end I would hope that the prime minister would look at his legacy, what he’s going to be remembered for. And he did some good things early on, but too far in recent years, you know, it’s been a matter of suppressing his opposition, and the way you treat your people is what you are going to be remembered for.

VOA: When is the last time that Prime Minister Hun Sen did good things, as you mentioned?

Chabot: Well, it's been a while and I would let the people of Cambodia remember and determine what those things may be. I don't want to as an outsider. But even the people that right now are on the wrong path, maybe earlier on were doing some things which were more favorable, particularly when you're considering the opposition that they were dealing with.

And Cambodia obviously has a history that is most unfortunate, when you remember the Killing Fields and the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities literally wiping out about a fourth of the population. So Cambodia is a country that has gone through some horrific times, far worse than most other countries throughout history have seen, and one would think, would hope that the leadership now remembers those things and would like to have much more constructive and productive times for its people. And this leadership is not heading in that direction, unfortunately.

VOA: Congressman Chabot, Prime Minister Hun Sen has controlled power for 30 years. What kind of election would be acceptable to you and to the Cambodian people?

Chabot: Well the type of election is one that, I think, when you look at Cambodia's history, there probably need to be observers there, international observers from various countries, who are fair and unbiased and can help to make sure that the elections are being carried out in a fair and free manner. Unfortunately, the steps leading up to that election are important too, and when you’re banning parties, when you are jailing your opposition, when you are not allowing an independent press to fairly tell the true story and tell both sides in an election, you are not meeting that obligation right out of the box. So it’s pretty hard to conceive that the election would be fair if the lead-up to that election has not been fair.

VOA: President Donald Trump will soon travel to the meetings at the ASEAN Summit in the Philippines, so what is your message to the president about human rights in Asia, especially in Cambodia?

Chabot: I think President Trump, on his trip, will talk about a lot of things. He'll talk about economic development and he'll talk about working with our allies, and I also think at the appropriate times and to the appropriate people, he will talk about human rights. Sometimes that's done behind closed doors so that one can make a very strong message and not embarrass the other leader, for example. And I will leave that up to President Trump to determine the best way to do that, and he'll of course be advised by his State Department, particularly Secretary of State [Rex] Tillerson.

VOA: I just want go back to the Cambodian community here in the US. When you met them in the past, what did they say to you about Cambodian affairs?

Chabot: Well, most of the people that I talked to, Cambodian-Americans here in the United States, have urged me and other members of Congress to not forget Cambodia. You know, the United States has commitments all over the world. Cambodia is relatively small country, and so it’s important for us to focus some attention there, because the people in Cambodia do need assistance and help and do need us to speak out in places like the UN and with our EU allies and our other allies in Southeast Asia.

So the people that I’ve talked to here have just urged us to pay attention to Cambodia and do everything within our power to help to turn things around there, because right now it’s not very good. Things are not happening from the government as they should; people are not allowed to express themselves without there being adverse reactions by the government. People can be jailed, people can disappear. I mean, bad things can happen, and so I welcome input from the Cambodian-American community to their elected representatives, like myself, you know, being a member of the Congress.

VOA: You talked about the sanctions against Cambodia. Are there any resolutions coming out soon, like H. Res. 728 [a 2016 congressional resolution urging Prime Minister Hun Sen to end harassment of Cambodia’s opposition and foster a more democratic environment] or other resolutions about Cambodia?

Chabot: We’re looking at those things now, and the Cambodian Congressional Caucus, especially Alan Lowenthal, who is the other principal member of the Caucus, and I have met many times on this. We’ve talked with the U.S. ambassador, we’ve talked with other political figures that have come here, so we’re working on those things. I don’t want to get too far ahead on them though, because we want to make sure that we actually get it right and when we do pass things, that they actually work.

VOA: You said you talked to the ambassador and talked to State Department officials too. So did they support that idea or your initiative?

Chabot: Yes, in general that is the case. Now, the State Department is a separate branch of government, of course. You know the executive branch has their own responsibilities and duties, and we, being the legislative branch, we work together on these things—so they don’t tell us what to do and we don’t tell them what to do, but hopefully we work together.

VOA: How about the Magnitsky Act [a 2012 law barring Russian human rights offenders from the United States]? Can it be or will it be applied in the case of Cambodia?

Chabot: Yes, very possibly, because you do have you know an abuse of human rights, at least allegations of that, which I tend to believe are true, so there always is a possibility of that act in particular being applied here. So I would say yes, that’s a possibility.

VOA: Congressman Chabot, thank you so much. My last question is, what is your message to Cambodian people inside the United States and in Cambodia?

Chabot: Well I would say, don’t give up. There can certainly be a very bright future ahead. You have a right to determine your own leadership and how you live your lives and it shouldn’t be the government determining everything. People have a right to be free, and that will be there. Unfortunately, it’s not completely there today. It will be some day. Don’t give up.

VOA: Thank you so much Congressman Steve Chabot, for allowing VOA Khmer to interview you.

Chabot: Thank you very much. Thank you.