The United States has said it remains optimistic that Cambodia will reverse course in its crackdown on political opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
On an unannounced visit to Phnom Penh on Wednesday, Patrick Murphy, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of Southeast Asia, said Washington would consider taking further measures against Cambodia.
Hun Sen’s government has led a crackdown on dissent in recent months which has seen the opposition outlawed and its leader jailed on questionable charges of treason, as well as independent media and civil society targeted.
Cambodia has accused the United States of being behind a plot to overthrow Hun Sen in a “color revolution” modeled on Serbians’ opposition to Slobodan Milosevic.
“When we had said that we had a concern, we also said that we would be required to take measures if there were further backtracking of democracy,” Murphy said.
Murphy met with Ouch Borith, deputy foreign affairs minister, and Sar Kheng, interior minister.
“We believe there is an opportunity to reverse some to these actions to get back on a good track in order to enter 2018 and conduct an electoral process that is legitimate,” he told reporters after the meetings.
“There is a little bit of friction, a little bit of noise in the official bilateral relationship, but we remain optimistic. Why? Because we have invested, we know Cambodia has come a long, long way, and have too much to lose by going back.”
Since the Cambodia National Rescue Party was banned on November 16 in a Supreme Court ruling, the Trump administration has withdrawn financial support for Cambodia’s general election next year and placed dozens of officials on a restricted visa list.
Murphy declined to specify what specific measures the United States may take against the Cambodian government if it does not release the CNRP president, Kem Sokha, and reinstate his party ahead of the election.
“We have a variety of measures and tools that we can consider. I won’t reveal them today, but one message that we have provided to Cambodia is this backtracking on democracy place into jeopardy the legitimacy of the electoral process that lies ahead.”
According to local media reports, Cambodian officials told Murphy that there was no chance Cambodia would reverse course.
In a speech on Tuesday, Hun Sen said his regime had “broken the backbone, cut the head and eliminated the body” of the supposed attempt to overthrow him.
Earlier this week the European Union joined the United States in announcing it was suspending election support for the 2018 general election.
A ruling Cambodian People’s Party spokesman, Sok Eysan, said it was “too late” for Cambodia to change direction. “The ship has departed from the pier and cannot reverse. Any reversal in the cases of Kem Sokha and the CNRP means undermining democracy and the rule of law in Cambodia,” he said.
“I think the [United States], as our friend, should not trade 15 million Cambodian people with a handful of people who commit treason,” he said in an apparent reference to the opposition. “That’s not right. And please don’t push Cambodia to abandon its independence and sovereignty.”
Since it was dissolved, the CNRP has operated largely from abroad, traveling to lobby for support from foreign governments. Most of its former lawmakers have left the country, while those officials who have remained in Cambodia have complained of harassment and intimidation at the hands of the authorities.