Cambodia dug in its heals ahead of visit Tuesday by a senior U.S official, indicating it would not budge on freeing political prisoners jailed in a 2017 crackdown on a popular opposition party and affirming the China was helping to fund and build a naval base near where U.S.-built facilities had been demolished.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman arrived in Cambodia on Tuesday, the most senior U.S. official to visit the Southeast Asian country in almost a decade, during which Phnom Penh’s ties with the U.S. and European Union have deteriorated while it has moved close to Beijing.
Hunan rights groups have urged Sherman to address strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen’s crackdown on opposition figures, rights activists and environmentalists who have criticized illegal logging.
“As the most senior US official to travel to Cambodia in almost a decade, Sherman should strongly and publicly criticize PM Hun Sen’s wholesale destruction of democracy, media freedom, and human rights,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
The main opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was banned and its leader Kem Sokha arrested in late 2017, allowing Hun Sen's ruling party to win every parliamentary seat in 2018 elections, drawing international criticism and EU trade sanctions.
“Sherman should press demands that Cambodia end show trials against former CNRP officials, release the scores of political prisoners behind bars, and drop the ridiculous charges against opposition leader Kem Sokha,” said Robertson.
“Freedom of expression is under threat in Cambodia like never before, and now facing internet censorship and controls, so Sherman should demand an end to government censorship and persecution of its critics,” he added.
Sherman, who is slated to meet Hun Sen, was urged by U.S. lawmakers to call on him to drop treason charges against Kem Sokha and to reinstate the CNRP, most of whose members are in exile or under arrest.
Sok Eysan, spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), rejected foreign pressure on what he called a judicial issue.
“How can [she] propose to the Prime Minister to drop the charge against Kem Sokha, because he is not the one, who charge him. It is the court and the case is in the court, so the proposal is not acceptable,” he told RFA.
Kem Sokha was put on trial in January 2020, but the hearings were suspended two months later on the pretext of containing the spread of COVI-19. Hun Sen has hinted that the trial may not resume for years, and may not conclude until 2024, long after the next election cycle.
Kem Sokha’s lawyer Pheng Heng told RFA that the final outcome of Khem Sokha’s case will depend on politics in a country where the U.S State Department said “the government did not respect judicial independence, exerting extensive control over the courts.”
“Corruption among judges, prosecutors, and court officials was widespread,” the State Department said in its 2020 human rights report.
Speaking to RFA on Monday, political and analyst Em Sovannara said that it is very unlikely that Hun Sen will drop the charges against Kem Sokha and reinstate his party – a stance that could push the U.S. to impose more sanctions on the Cambodian government.
“I think after the international community exhausted all kind of mechanisms and dialogues and still yielded no positive result, other pressure and sanction will be imposed,” he said.
Former CNRP parliamentarian Soun Sorida said Washington must take the lead in solving the political crisis in Cambodia because Hun Sen’s government accused the U.S. government of conspiring with Kem Sokha to topple his government. Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985, provided no evidence and the Washington has repeatedly rejected the accusations.
“The U.S. has to play an important role in response to the accusation by the Hun Sen’s government against CNRP leader Kem Sokha and the CNRP as a whole,” he said.
“If talks between the U.S. and Hun Sen do not work, severe international economic sanctions will be imposed and make Cambodia’s situation worse, as it is now being already suffering from the Covid-19 pandemic,” added Soun Sorida.
Cambodia’s Minister of Defense Tea Banh confirmed in an interview with RFA at the weekend that Ream Naval Base in the southwestern coastal city of Sihanoukville was being refurbished with China’s help “with the construction of a maintenance facility, renovation of the port, the gate.”
“China helps us without any string attached. They also bring their forces to help,” he told RFA.
“Once it is completed, they will hand over the facilities to Cambodia. It is Cambodia that has full rights to use the base. Hence, there is nothing strange, as such development has been practiced by many others,” said Tea Banh.
The minister declined to disclose further details on the scope of Chinese assistance in developing Ream Naval Base, a point of friction between Phnom Penh and Washington since reports of a secret deal to allow the Chinese to use part of the base for 30 years, and the release of satellite imagery that Cambodia had built facilities near two U.S.-built maintenance facilities were demolished last year.
“We haven’t built anything yet. Such satellite imagery is just in order to stir trouble. The demolished places will soon be filled with land for further expansion,” Tea Banh said.
Political commentator Seng Sary noted that Hun Sen has clearly stated that Cambodia relies on China.
“This means that clearly Cambodia relies on China 100 percent. It is also a sign that Cambodia is moving away far from the U.S. and EU’s orbits.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum and Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Paul Eckert.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.