PHNOM PENH: Cambodia’s national elections in 2018 will not be considered “free or fair” if the government does not release imprisoned opposition leader Kem Sokha by next month, US Senator Ted Cruz warned on Monday (Oct 23).
In a letter to Cambodia’s US ambassador, the former presidential candidate said that Cambodian democracy was being undermined by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s “quest to evade democratic accountability”.
Sokha has been locked up since September, charged with treason over a video of a speech he made in 2013. He is accused of conspiring with the United States to oust the Hun Sen regime.
“If Kem Sokha remains imprisoned on Nov 9, the final day for voters to register for the July elections, it will be impossible for any impartial observer or nation to certify that elections in your country have been free or fair,” Cruz said.
“This attempt to undermine the Cambodian people’s faith in their democratic process must cease immediately,” he said, adding that he would take measures with the Trump administration to ensure relevant officials would be banned from travelling to the United States.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan brushed off the warning, saying Cruz’s statement was proof of Kem Sokha’s “treason by persuading foreigners to invade Cambodia’s sovereignty”.
“We give priority to the sovereignty and independence of Cambodia. Ordering Cambodia to release an accused person is not stated in Cambodian law,” he told Channel NewsAsia.
“We don`t pay attention to this statement. It is worthless. We throw this demand into the dust bin.”
Cambodia’s ruling party has taken steps to having the country’s main opposition party – the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) – dissolved, due to Kem Sokha’s alleged actions. The party’s seats in the national assembly and local commune positions won in elections in June are set to be redistributed among other parties.
In addition, many of the CNRP’s senior lawmakers and leading figures have fled the country for fear of arrest or harassment.
'MIRAGE OF COMPLIANCE'
Relations between Cambodia and the US have deteriorated in recent months as Phnom Penh has increasingly leant on China for economic foundations without the strings attached from Washington and its branches of aid.
American-backed media outlets and non-government organisations have been the target of government crackdowns, while Hun Sen accused the US of playing down its legacy responsibilities from the Vietnam War.
“These bombs dropped on Cambodia belong to the United States,” he said in a speech earlier this month, after the discovery of unexploded bombs that have reportedly caused health problems among dozens on people in the rural province of Svay Rieng.
A diplomatic row has also broken out over the US decision to deport Cambodian migrants who have committed crimes, despite many of them having never set foot in their homeland since they were children.
“Our relationship seems to be difficult,” Ouch Borith from Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry told the Phnom Penh Post.
While bilateral ties are at a dire level, it still may not produce any meaningful action by the United States in the form of sanctions. Otherwise, that might cause Hun Sen to change course, said Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia”.
“If there is any strong action taken by a western government - including the United States - it’s likely to deepen the pattern and dialectic of mistrust and hostility on the part of the Hun Sen government,” he said.
“You can’t force someone to behave in a democratic way. At best, you’re going to get a mirage of compliance, which will be easily reversible.”
Strangio, however, says that the government has shown it is willing to exert more pressure on its rivals than ever before to ensure election victory in 2018 and as part of “consolidating a much more openly authoritarian form of government”.
But fears of an outright dictatorship are unfounded, he said.
“Cambodia is not moving to a one party dictatorship. They’re not going to abolish the constitution. At least it’s highly unlikely.”
With the CNRP legally and politically hobbled, Kem Sokha has said it is the Cambodian people who are losing their voice. In a letter on the 26th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords, which brought an end to conflict in the then war-ravaged country and spelled out legal obligations of future governments to maintain, he urged the international community to do more.
“I think if the international community, as well as all Khmer parties, do not find the solution on time, Cambodia will turn backward,” he said in a statement.
“That means Cambodia loses benefits and will have more slow development, just as we already experienced in the two decades of war before the Paris Peace Accords."
His daughter Kem Monovithya says that while the 64-year-old's health is deteriorating behind bars, he remains determined to continue leading the party.
“He’s stronger than ever in spirit,” she said. "He believes his sacrifices will not be in vain.”
Additional reporting by Ouch Sony