Washington reiterated its support of Kem Sokha as Cambodia’s opposition leader during a visit by a top-ranking diplomat to Phnom Penh, his lawyer said Wednesday, expressing hope that Phnom Penh will pursue a politically “softer stance” that could see his banned party join upcoming elections.
On Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the most senior U.S. official to visit Cambodia in five years, separately met with Prime Minister Hun Sen, country’s ruler since 1985, as well as Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha, who remains in political limbo awaiting trial on unsubstantiated treason charges after his arrest in 2017 kicked off a broad government crackdown against the opposition, civic activists and journalists.
According to a State Department statement, Sherman urged Cambodia’s government to drop “politically motivated” court cases against its critics and expressed concern over Hun Sen’s broader crackdown on the opposition and civil society—the main factor causing Phnom Penh’s ties with the U.S. and European Union to deteriorate while the strongman has moved closer to Beijing.
During her meeting with Kem Sokha, Sherman “referred to him as ‘the president of the opposition party,’” his lawyer Pheng Heng told RFA’s Khmer Service on Wednesday, noting that the CNRP “is a party with big potential in Cambodia.”
Pheng Heng said he could not provide details of the meeting, which he did not attend, but suggested that it could lead to a reconciliation between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the CNRP, if Phnom Penh decides to thaw increasingly frosty ties with the U.S.
“We are waiting to hear back about the relationship between the government and the U.S.,” he said.
“We are waiting to see if there will be any changes following her visit in terms of the political situation and particularly in regard to the opposition party.”
The CNRP was banned, and its leader Kem Sokha arrested, in late 2017 for allegedly plotting a coup that Cambodia’s government has said was U.S.-backed, allowing the CPP to win every parliamentary seat in 2018 elections, drawing international criticism and EU trade sanctions.
Kem Sokha was put on trial in January 2020, but the hearings were suspended two months later on the pretext of containing the COVID-19 pandemic. Hun Sen has hinted that the trial may not resume for years, and may not conclude until 2024, long after local voting next year and parliamentary elections in 2023.
‘Softer stance’ possible
Pheng Heng said Wednesday that the U.S. has made clear that it was not involved in any alleged plot to overthrow Hun Sen’s government and repeatedly voiced its support of the CNRP as a legitimate opposition party that plays a crucial role in a democratic Cambodia.
He said he believes Sherman reiterated its stance on these issues during her meeting with Hun Sen and said he expects the visit will have a positive influence on Cambodia’s political situation.
“I think the government will take a softer stance and move forward to shake hands [with the U.S.] and won’t stray farther from the Paris Peace Accords,” he said, referring to the agreement that ended years of war and helped set up a democratic country in Cambodia to ensure they uphold the pact.
“In order to have a working democratic process, the opposition party must compete fairly. The U.S. wants to see Cambodia turn back to democracy by allowing the opposition to join the election … As a lawyer defending Kem Sokha, I hope the government will open up so that he can move forward. Kem Sokha has not been convicted, so if the government intends to allow him to return to politics, it will be easier.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan acknowledged Sherman’s statement on Wednesday, but said she did not pressure the government to improve its record on human rights and democracy.
“There was no promise exchanged, but in principle the government is implementing the spirit of the Paris Peace Accords,” he said.
“Since we already walk on a pathway of democracy and rule of law, it will not be difficult to improve some challenges we have faced.”
On the eve of Sherman’s visit, however, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, called on her to “strongly and publicly criticize PM Hun Sen’s wholesale destruction of democracy, media freedom, and human rights.”
In a statement from Bangkok, he said: “Any ideas of a softly, gently approach to the Cambodian government is both misguided and morally bankrupt in the face of the systematic rights abuses committed daily by the government throughout the country.”
On Monday, Sok Eysan rejected foreign pressure by the U.S. to drop charges against Kem Sokha, calling the case “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 charged him. It was the court, and the case is in the court, so the proposal is not acceptable,” he told RFA.
Hope visit will prompt reforms
The Cambodian public also expressed hope that Hun Sen may roll back restrictions on democratic freedoms after Sherman raised U.S. concerns directly with the prime minster during their meeting.
A taxi driver in Phnom Penh named Kong Srun told an RFA call-in show that he hopes Sherman’s visit will improve ties between the U.S. and Cambodia, adding that Washington is right to have brought up concerns over a lack of freedom of expression under Hun Sen’s rule.
“People who live in Cambodia lack freedom; we don’t have the right to criticize or express ourselves,” he said. “If the situation continues, we won’t live in peace, but if we dare not criticize, we can’t live.”
A worker in the capital named Ouk Chanthy told RFA that Sherman’s visit had provided hope to the people of Cambodia.
She said workers lack the right to speak out and are being exploited by factory management through low wages and a lack of government support.
“I hope after the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State’s visit that the government will reform the situation for the workers so we can enjoy better living standards.”
Reporting by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.