The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed the long-awaited Cambodia Democracy Act, paving the way for sanctions to be imposed against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s inner circle.
The bi-partisan bill came just days before Cambodians go to the polls in an election that has been widely criticized by the international community and rights groups.
“It is critical and very significant that the House of Representatives, the week before the election takes a stance against what is happening in Cambodia,” said Congressman Alan Lowenthal.
Congressman Ted Yoho, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, introduced the bill in May, several months after the Cambodian authorities jailed the leader of the opposition, Kem Sokha, and banned his party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
“The Cambodian people are being cheated out of their right to have free and fair elections,” Yoho said. “Hun Sen, Cambodia’s strongman prime minister, has tightened his grip on that country for decades and has no intention of relinquishing power.”
Congressman Ed Royce, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, said: “The people of Cambodia deserve far better than the Hun Sen’s despotism.”
“Political pluralism will soon reach Cambodia, and this legislation will not only help Cambodians attain that goal, but will also send a strong signal that Congress will not tolerate these human rights abuses,” he added.
Nineteen political parties are running against Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, but the election’s credibility is in question after Japan, which was the only democratic country slated to support the National Elections Committee, announced that it would not send any observers.
“All Republicans, all Democrats are in support of putting sanctions on it [the Cambodian leadership],” Lowenthal said. “So I think the administration and the Congress are going to work together not to accept the legitimacy of this election and to look at the other ways in which we can rethink our relationship with Cambodia and send a message that this is not acceptable.”
The bill will apply new asset blocking sanctions on government, military, or security force officials who are deemed to have undermined democracy in Cambodia or committed related human rights abuses. Prime Minister Hun Sen and his two children are among the 16 individuals proposed for sanctions.
Lawmakers warned that more actions could be on the table. This includes a reconsideration of the preferential trade agreement between the U.S. and Cambodia.
The Cambodian government said the bill was partisan support for the banned opposition party.
“This is a wrong political decision,” said government spokesman Phay Siphan, “because it’s against a Cambodian hero who has been recognized by more than 50 percent of Cambodians. Therefore, this is like an anti-Cambodia law as well as anti-good cooperation between Cambodia and the US. This is also a continued failure of US policy since the 1970s.”
Additional reporting by Poch Reasey and Sok Khemara