Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday dismissed threats of sanctions by U.S. Senator Ted Cruz over the jailing of opposition leader Kem Sokha on charges of treason, saying American laws cannot be applied to his country and rejecting the need for international recognition of elections set for 2018.
In a letter to Cambodia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Chum Bun Rong dated Oct. 23, Cruz had expressed “deep concern” regarding the Sept. 3 arrest of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha for allegedly collaborating with Washington to overthrow the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), calling it an “attempt to undermine the Cambodian people’s faith in their democratic process.”
Cruz said at the time that if Hun Sen did not release Kem Sokha by Nov. 9—the voter registration deadline for Cambodia’s July 2018 general elections—it would be “impossible for any impartial observer or nation to certify that elections in your country have been free and fair” and he would push for sanctions banning Cambodian government officials from travelling to the U.S.
On Friday, Hun Sen dismissed the Texas lawmaker’s threats as interference in Cambodia’s sovereign affairs, saying “there is no such thing as international standards when it comes to politics” and that there is no need for “outsiders” to legitimize the outcome of elections in his country.
“Each country must resort to its own version of standards based on the reality on the ground,” he said, speaking to a group of Cambodian and Japanese exchange students during his meeting with delegates of the 2017 Ship for Southeast Asian and Japanese Youth Program at the Peace Palace in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.
“We cannot copy a foreign standard to apply in a Cambodian context. Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliamentary form of government.”
Hun Sen echoed an earlier statement by Chum Bun Rong in response to Cruz’s letter, saying Kem Sokha had been arrested in accordance with Cambodia’s Criminal Code and suggesting his actions would evoke a similar response under U.S. law, pointing to the example of Paul Manafort—the former campaign manager of U.S. President Donald Trump who was indicted last month on conspiracy charges related to money laundering.
“An arrest has just been made in the U.S. for a person who is accused of treason—he was the campaign manager of U.S. President Donald Trump,” he said.
“We can also do that, because we need to apply our own laws too.”
The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts, though the U.S. embassy has rejected any suggestion that Washington is interfering in Cambodian politics. Cambodia’s Supreme Court plans to rule on whether to dissolve the CNRP for its alleged involvement in the “conspiracy” on Nov. 16.
Hun Sen’s government has faced widespread condemnation in recent months over its actions against the opposition party, as well as for orchestrating the closure of independent media outlets and cracking down on nongovernmental organizations.
But the prime minister said his country is “still committed” to a policy of “liberal, multi-party democracy,” and vowed that next year’s elections would go on, with or without international backing.
“You have threatened us that you will not recognize the next national election, but it isn’t important if that election is or is not recognized by an outsider,” he said.
“Most importantly, it is enough for the legitimacy of the government as long as the election is recognized by our Cambodian people. It has never been necessary to beg foreign countries to recognize any of our elections. We don’t need such support.”
On Friday, Kem Sokha’s daughter Kem Monovithya told RFA’s Khmer Service during an interview in Washington that she had received significant support from U.S. lawmakers for her campaign to bring pressure on Hun Sen to release her father, end his persecution of the opposition, and lift restrictions on the media and NGOs.
“As a result, a draft bill from the Senate Financial Committee is in the pipeline and slated to be adopted by the end of the year … [that] includes visa bans on specific government officials who are involved in the violation of human rights and democracy in Cambodia [to prevent them] from traveling to the US,” she said.
U.S. Senators John McCain and Dick Durbin have also drafted a resolution in support of the bill urging the U.S. State Department and Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) under the Treasury Department to consider placing all senior Cambodian officials on a list of Specially Designated Nationals (SDN), she said, blocking their assets and preventing U.S. nationals from doing business with them.
“These sanctions are significant to impact the top brass of the ruling elites—they will frustrate them from their travel and business transactions with the U.S. and allies,” Kem Monovithya said.
“To sum up, the bill and resolution, which I believe will be passed 100 percent, have one thing in common: a demand for free and fair elections.”
While Hun Sen is “pretending he isn’t under pressure,” Kem Monovithya expressed confidence the measures would force him to reconsider his strategy.
“The government officials who are listed in the SDN will be affected—they will be concerned,” she said.
“[Additionally] Cambodia cannot stand alone without international assistance. Cambodia’s economic growth is contributed to foreign support.”
She noted that Hun Sen has expressed hope that Cambodia can become a member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), whose heads of government—including those from the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, Canada, Australia, and Mexico—are currently meeting in Da Nang, Vietnam.
“That shows his reliance on international recognition and status,” she said of the prime minister, who traveled to Vietnam later on Friday to attend an informal dialogue between APEC leaders and heads of state from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—of which Cambodia is a member.
She said she had also enlisted the support of officials from the United Nations and European Union, who agreed to bring up Cambodia’s political situation during the ASEAN summit.
Call to defect
In the meantime, Kem Monovithya said, Hun Sen is “buying time” and attempting to “cajole and buy CNRP members to defect” to the CPP ahead of next year’s elections, threatening them with the loss of their jobs in the event that their own party is dissolved.
“[But] very few CNRP members have taken his bait,” she said, because “the CNRP is still strong.”
“Our supporters and members who serve the national interest do not sell their wisdom … Simply put, Hun Sen’s attempts to fool CNRP members into defecting to the ruling party have failed.”
Last week, Hun Sen called for members of the CNRP to leave and join the CPP in a video clip posted on his Facebook page, and opposition officials told RFA they had been invited to attend a viewing by local authorities, but refused.
“Hun Sen does not want a free and fair election—he is certain that if such an election is held he will lose it,” Kem Monovithya said.
“Shamelessly he has resorted to all means of political repression … to weaken and if possible dissolve the CNRP,” she added.
“He is buying time so that he can continue to demoralize the opposition party members, who he hopes will buy what he is selling, but time is running out for him because our members and supporters are strong and determined.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.