The United States continues to urge the Cambodian government to open democratic space for citizens to help the country toward a development path of durable democracy and respect for human rights, US officials say.
Recent communications between the US and Cambodia come amid the government’s current and escalating clampdown on dissent, worsening a brazen political crackdown in 2017 against the main opposition party, civil society and independent media.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Robert A. Destro said in a Twitter post in September that the US was “deeply concerned” about a recent batch of detentions. He urged Cambodia to release those arrested for exercising freedom of expression and association.
US Ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy indicated the arrest of longtime civil society and labor leader Rong Chhun caught the attention of US officials.
“We're concerned about the arrest case which does suggest some constraints on freedoms of association and speech,’’ W. Patrick Murphy said in a recent interview with VOA Khmer. “And we hope that the government here will be very forthcoming and transparent with any charges that are related to this case. Cambodia has had some success in advancing these kinds of fundamental freedoms.’’
Rong Chhun, one of the most senior labor organizers in Cambodia, was charged with incitement in early August following purported comments he made about demarcation on the Cambodian-Vietnamese border.
“We think it's very valuable for a country like Cambodia to protect the freedoms that can be found in its constitution, the freedoms of association and speech,” Murphy said. “And we strongly encourage that those freedoms be strengthened and advanced and protected. We have had something to say.”
Arend Zwartjes, chief spokesperson for the US embassy in Phnom Penh, said the US consistently has raised its concerns both publicly and privately with the government about the shrinking space for independent viewpoints and threatened human rights freedoms in Cambodia.
“We’ve urged the government to provide an opening for a reconciliation in the country,” Zwartjes said in a recent interview. “We’ll continue to do that.”
A spate of arrests in Cambodia occurred as the European Union on Aug. 12 implemented a decision to partially withdraw duty-free trade preferences for Cambodian products under a scheme known as Everything But Arms (EBA). Some 80 percent of the EU trade benefits for Cambodia remain in place, unaffected by the EU’s punitive action due primarily to human rights decline.
Authorities in Cambodia have detained more than 50 people including opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party activists, youth, environmental activists and journalists “on politically motivated grounds,” according to Human Rights Watch.
The US embassy this year has marked 70 years of American relations with Cambodia by organizing monthly events to highlight areas of bilateral cooperation and mutual interests.
Murphy said that the US has multiple priorities in Cambodia and maintains efforts to cooperate with the Cambodian government on education, trade, commerce, security, regional cooperation and other issues.
Said Zwartjes, “Just because we are cooperating [with the Cambodian government] doesn’t mean we ignore the principles of human rights and democracy that are important to us and that we know are also important to the Cambodian people.”
“We never forget the shared principles,’’ Zwartjes said. ‘’We know that Cambodia’s constitution, and Cambodia’s people, believe in human rights and democracy.”
Arend Zwartjes said the US does not take sides in Cambodian politics and urges for national reconciliation.
“We want to work with all sides and encourage them to work together and have reconciliation,” he said. “Our hope is that that can happen and that Cambodia can go back to the path of being a full-fledged democracy.”
Ou Virak, founder of policy institute Future Forum, said the US would continue to push for a restoration of democratic and civil rights but that the Cambodian government wouldn’t be pleased by periodic reminders.
“The US will continue to urge and that won’t change in the future,” Ou Virak said in Phnom Penh. “Cambodia, especially those in power in the country, will still be unhappy.”
Prominent rights groups, including the United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights, have appealed in recent weeks for the Cambodian government to release the detained.
“The UN has never abandoned Cambodia so they’ll keep pushing, reminding and reprimanding,” Ou Virak said.
In 2017, authorities in Cambodia acted against dissent, civil society and independent media by taking measures including a court-ordered dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the only viable political rival of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. The move, analysts and observers said, was effective in its key goal of silencing nearly all critical and opposition voices in the public sphere in a bid to secure the power grip of Hun Sen.
The CPP won a landslide victory in the 2018 national parliamentary elections. The ruling party took all 125 seats in the National Assembly following the competition without the CNRP. The banned opposition party called that election a sham and demanded its detained members be released, the party be legally re-instated and re-election be held.
Gains made in the area of human rights and freedom of expression and social support networks in Cambodia in the 1990s and early 2000s, in large part led by Cambodian and international civil society organizations, are increasingly at risk for the long-term, some analysts said.
Without an engaged international community, including the US, UN, EU and Japan, about societal development in Cambodia, a steady democratic decline in Cambodia is likely to continue, they say.
“Since the dissolution of the main opposition party with the potential to compete in the  election in Cambodia to ensure a meaningful competition, I have not seen any strong reactions from the [President Donald Trump] Trump administration,” said Ro Vannak, co-founder of Cambodian Institute for Democracy.
Late last year, the US imposed financial sanctions on several associates of Hun Sen including Try Pheap, a major timber trader, and General Kun Kim, a senior minister in charge of special missions and his family members, by using the Global Magnitsky Act for their “corruption and serious human rights violations” in Cambodia. The sanctions block entry to the US and prevent Americans from doing business with the individuals.
“We have taken concrete steps, but our hope is that we don’t have to resort to those kinds of measures,” Zwartjes said, “and that we can make progress working with the government. That’s what we’ve been doing and continue to do.”
Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said Cambodian authorities would continue to take action to thwart attempts to ‘overthrow the government’ and efforts with the support of ‘foreign agents.’
“This is Cambodia’s choice, as we have often said,” Phay Siphan told VOA Khmer. “We do not kneel down with any assistance that destroys the independence and sovereignty of Cambodia.”
Ear Sophal, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said the US has been trying for years to influence Cambodia toward a democratic path and that recent efforts are hindered by the ongoing global pandemic.
“The US tried to apply pressure, but COVID-19 is not helping,” he told VOA in an email. “Everything is in disarray.”
Sebastian Strangio, author of ‘Hun Sen’s Cambodia’ and a new book about China in Southeast Asia, said to change the status of human rights and democracy in Cambodia would require a change in leadership.
“As long as Hun Sen is in charge, these ideas will be granted as indulgences,” Strangio said. “There will be a period, as happened in the past, of relative tolerance and then a period of the crackdown.”
“At the moment, it seems like things are settling into a more permanent authoritarian spell,” he said.
Bopha Phorn in Phnom Penh contributed to this report.