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Washington Watching Cambodian Gov’t Closely: Ambassador

William Heidt, US ambassador in Cambodia, at the opening ceremony of Krakor Health Center in Pursat province, Cambodia, August 14, 2018. (Tum Malis/VOA Khmer)

William Heidt, the US ambassador, told VOA Khmer that he hoped Cambodia would move towards a more “open” political system in the coming year.

The United States’ ambassador to Cambodia has said Washington is keeping a close eye on the Cambodian government and monitoring its commitment to reverse the deteriorating rights situation in the country.

William Heidt, the US ambassador, told VOA Khmer that he hoped Cambodia would move towards a more “open” political system in the coming year.

“I think for the United States and for many other countries, we will be watching how these processes play out to see steps the government would take in the next period of time to return Cambodia that relatively open political systems just had a year ago,” he said. “So we'll be watching.”

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, won all 125 seats in Cambodia’s parliament in an election in July, months after members of his party ruled in the Supreme Court to ban the country's the main opposition. The US, EU, and Japan declined to send observers to monitor the vote following a widespread crackdown on civil society, independent media, and the opposition.

The White House called the elections “neither free nor fair” and said they “failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people”. Both The US and EU are considering further sanctions against Cambodia.

Kem Sokha, the former leader of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, which prior to the court ruling which dissolved it in November held a large minority in parliament, was released on bail in early September and is being held under house arrest. He was jailed last year on treason charges.

“So I think our government's view is going to be influenced by what's happened from this point on in that case,” Heidt said.

The US House of Representatives passed a resolution aimed at “restoring democracy” in Cambodia shortly before the election, with the backing of prominent senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin introducing a bill calling for tough sanctions against the regime.

“Let's be honest, those two bills, they reflect widespread concern up on Capitol Hill of the direction of events in Cambodia over the past year,” Heidt said. “And I was there this week meeting representatives of the House of Representatives and there's widespread concern so I think the degree to which Cambodia can make positive changes can sort of make events move in the right direction that will reduce the level of concern in our congress and that's what I hope happens.”

The House bill called for sanctions on Prime Minister Hun Sen and his inner circle, including some of his children. Hun Sen’s chief bodyguard Hing Bun Hieng is now sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act.

However, the relationship at a personal and business level remains strong, according to Heidt.

“The American people are really their friends,” he said. “They don’t want to take over Cambodia. They don’t want to take over Cambodian cities or anything like that or dominate Cambodia’s economy, but Americans really like Cambodia. They admire the culture. They admire how much progress Cambodia’s made.”