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With CARI Act, US Senators Hope to Fight Chinese Influence in Cambodia

China's Premier Li Keqiang, left, pulls a symbol of China-Cambodia Heart Journey, together with his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen, center, during a signing ceremony at Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. Cambodia and China on Thursday signed nearly 20 agreements worth several billion dollars to develop the impoverished Southeast Asian country's infrastructure, agriculture, and healthcare. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

The bill would mark the most severe sanctions on Cambodia since 1997 when the United States cut off aid after Hun Sen ousted his co-Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh in a bloody coup.

A new bill in the US Senate could see the most severe sanctions imposed on Cambodia in decades.

The Cambodia Accountability and Return on Investment (CARI) Act includes conditions on new assistance to Cambodia, a visa ban on more Cambodian officials, asset freezes, opposition to all new loans and assistance from international financial institutions, and the prohibition of debt relief.

The bipartisan bill was introduced by Sen. Linsey Graham, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Dick Durbin, Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Sen. Ben Cardin on February 8.

“The CARI Act is consistent with the long-term support the United States has provided to democracy and human rights in Cambodia since the U.N.-sponsored elections in 1993,” Tim Rieser, a foreign policy aid to Sen. Leahy, told VOA Khmer in an e-mail.

Rieser said that this will make clear that the “repressive policies of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party are not in the interests of Cambodia’s development.”

“Today, Cambodia is once again a one-party state, as it was prior to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement,” he said. “That is not what the Cambodian people voted for in any of the elections since 1993.”

The CARI Act requires the government to respect the rights and responsibilities enshrined in the Constitution of Cambodia, including restoring civil and political rights of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, media and civil society organizations, returning the positions of elected officials, and releasing all political prisoners, including journalists, activists, civil society activists and opposition party members.

The visa ban will cover senior government officials including military, military police, national police, and the judiciary. The ban extends to officers and employees of entities, including international commercial facilitators and offshore entities, owned or controlled by the officials. Their immediate family members are also affected.

The US Department of State is required to submit a report on the sanctions, as well as a list of those banned officials, to congressional committees, according to a copy given to VOA Khmer.

Any violator of the asset freezes will be subjected to penalties by way of a fine of up to $250,000 or $1,000,000, and 20 years imprisonment.

The restriction shall “remain in effect until the Secretary of State determines and reports to the appropriate congressional committees that free and fair parliamentary elections have taken place in Cambodia that includes the full and unimpeded participation of the Cambodia National Rescue Party and members of that Party,” according to the bill.

The sanctions can be lifted only when the Secretary of State certifies that Cambodia has strengthened regional security and stability, especially in the South China Sea disputes, and international sanctions imposed on North Korea.

The bill would mark the most severe sanctions on Cambodia since 1997 when the United States cut off aid after Hun Sen ousted his co-Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh in a bloody coup. The ban was lifted in February 2007.

“In the backdrop of Hun Sen’s authoritarian impulses and bombastic rhetoric is Xi Jinping and the growing influence of the People’s Republic of China throughout Southeast Asia,” Sen. Ted Cruz said in an e-mail to VOA Khmer. “This same influence, which is enabling Hun Sen to dismantle all remnants of free speech and fair elections within Cambodia, is targeting universities, businesses, and mass media within America.”

Sen. Cruz said he will lead efforts to counter China’s influence in its various forms.

“Restoring democratic reforms in Cambodia depends on making the cost of siding with Beijing too great for Hun Sen,” he added.

Chheang Vannarith, a researcher at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, believes that by including the South China Sea disputes and North Korea in the bill, it will draw more interest from the White House.

"President Donald Trump does not care much about human rights and democracy, but he is interested in security issues,” he said. “Therefore, if the condition is based on regional security, especially the South China Sea and the DPRK, President Trump will pay more attention to that and take more effective measure.”

But Vannarith added that this could be difficult for Prime Minister Hun Sen to follow because Cambodia has a close relationship with China.

"As per Cambodia's response, I do not think it would be possible to follow or comply with any US resolution on its foreign policy, especially in relation to Cambodia-China relations,” he said.

The international community and the United States have condemned the Cambodian government for jailing the CNRP's president, Kem Sokha, in September and dissolving his party the following month.

Ben Marter, a spokesman for Sen. Durbin, said the leverage the U.S. government can use in such cases has diminished under the Trump administration.

“With the Trump Administration abdicating its diplomatic leadership around the world, China and Russia are increasing their spheres of influence at America’s expense,” he wrote in an e-mail to VOA Khmer.

The CARI Act also authorizes a propaganda program in the Khmer language highlighting China’s past support for the Khmer Rouge regime and the role of the international community, especially the United States, in supporting the implementation of the Paris Peace Agreement.

Since 1993, Cambodia has received billions of dollars in international aid and loans from international institutions for development. But over the past 10 years, Beijing has increased its aid and loans to Cambodia, which has weakened Western influence.