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US Diplomat Says Cambodia’s Reputation Suffers Amid Arrests

An U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel, right, shakes hands with Cambodian Secretary of State of Foreign Ministry Ouch Borith, front left, after a meeting, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015.

Cambodia’s failure to enact democratic reforms could hurt its international reputation, as well as foreign investment, a top US diplomat says.

Speaking at the end of a trip to Cambodia, US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel said investors need confidence that contracts will be enforced and that the rule of law will protect them.

“International investors won’t choose Cambodia if, for example, the court and the legal infrastructure isn’t reliable,” he said, during the round table with reporters in Phnom Penh.

Russel, who met with acting Foreign Affairs Minister Ouch Borith, said these things taken together could be slowing down American investment in the country.

“And I underscored the point that actions that undermined faith by the international community, or, more importantly, Cambodian citizens, in the judicial institutions of the country work counter to the goals of growth, stability, and democratic reform,” Russel said. “So I made our concerns very, very clear.”

Russel also met with Kem Sokha, vice president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

Kem Sokha said later that the two had discussed the importance of stability for investors. “If the political situation is not stable, important investors will not come to invest in Cambodia,” he said.

Russel also discussed the arrest of a group of activists in November, who are facing up to a year in prison for a protest against the city, in which they rolled beds into the street. Among those arrested is outspoken community leader Tep Vanny, and rights groups have said the arrests and swift convictions of the activists is meant to deter further protests.

“I of course don’t propose to intervene on a internal legal manner,” Russel said, “but the unmistakable appearance is of a politically motivated prosecution. Cambodia and the United States have great differences, but even so, I am not aware of any other countries in which moving a bed into a road is a criminal offense punishable by a significant jail term.”

Government officials, including Ouch Borith, have defended the arrests, saying they fall within the strictures of the law, and claiming they are not politically motivated.

Russel, meanwhile, told reporters Cambodia’s democratic reforms will require all sectors of society. The US benefits from a stable and prosperous Cambodia, he said. “At the end of the day democratic governments with healthy respect for human rights flourish economically.”

“I believe that the Cambodian people and the American people basically want the same things for themselves, for their families, for their communities, and for a nation,” he said. “We want opportunity, and we want justice. The United States can help, and it is determined to help Cambodia on both of those fronts, but there are real challenges. There are significant problems: the problems of corruption, the problems related to land seizure, the problems related to unequal application of the law, the uncertainty regarding to the resolution of several outstanding questions pertaining to the rules that will govern the upcoming elections. Cambodia now has an extraordinary chance to get it right, and I came with the message to both the government and business community and civil society, that the US will be a full partner to those in Cambodia who will commit to take meaningful steps toward democratic reform and good governance.”