US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday pushed Prime Minister Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong on the need for greater political freedom in Cambodia during meetings in Phnom Penh but also praised the Kingdom’s “extraordinary” development since his first visit as a senator in the 1990s.
Kerry also met with opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party acting president Kem Sokha and civil society representatives during his brief visit yesterday, part of a swing through Southeast Asia ahead of high-level talks in China today.
Addressing the press at the Raffles Hotel after the meetings, Kerry described the talks with Hun Sen and Namhong as “candid and constructive”.
After emphasising the US was “deeply committed” to expanding trade and economic relations as well as anti-terrorism cooperation and continuing its development support, Kerry spoke about the “essential” need for political freedoms, his remarks contradicting a statement by spokesman for the Prime Minister Eang Sophalleth, who said human rights were not on yesterday’s agenda.
Kerry said it was “imperative” that even friends talk about what needs improvement, including “sensitive issues such as human rights”.
“In my discussions today, I emphasised the essential role that a vibrant democratic system plays in the development of a country and the legitimacy of its political system,” Kerry said.
“Democratic governments have a responsibility to ensure that all elected representatives are free [to carry out] their responsibilities without fear of attack or arrest; that is a fundamental responsibility of a democratic government, so as Cambodians prepare for elections next year and again in 2018 it is very important to allow for vigorous but peaceful debate.”
In recent months, two opposition lawmakers have been attacked by a pro-government mob, and CNRP president Sam Rainsy, stripped of his lawmaker status, has fled into self-imposed exile to avoid prison on seemingly politically motivated charges, while deputy Sokha was removed as the parliament’s first vice president.
Sokha said he discussed with Kerry his party’s desire for free, fair and non-violent elections.
“We raised the issue of the democratic process . . . and the election environment with regards to respecting rights and not using violence and the court system to pressure competitors.”
Kerry arrived in Cambodia from Laos and is laying the groundwork for next month’s US-ASEAN conference in California, which he briefed Hun Sen on yesterday, telling reporters US President Barack Obama looked forward to hosting ASEAN’s leaders.
Obama has assiduously courted ASEAN as part of a diplomatic “Asia pivot” aiming to offset China’s trade and diplomatic might in the region, with Cambodia viewed as a close ally of China.
Kerry only made a veiled reference to Beijing’s influence, saying it was agreed during meetings that it was “very valuable for Cambodia to have a diverse set of trading partners”.
“There’s no choice between one partner or another, there’s room for everybody,” he said.
Kerry also didn’t mention the controversial South China Sea dispute, though the briefing memo noted Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2012 left a “black mark” on the group, a pointed reference to the Kingdom’s unwillingness to risk the anger of major investor China by signing a joint statement on the contentious issue.
However, the dispute was discussed, according to Namhong and the prime minister’s spokesman, who said Hun Sen advocated for the signing of the long-stalled Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.
Namhong told a press conference earlier in the day that he had reiterated to Kerry Cambodia’s neutrality on the dispute. Namhong expressed “regret” over the fact that in 2012 they failed to issue a joint statement for the first time in ASEAN’s history, but also attempted to explain the government’s rationale.
“I had to keep the door open for negotiations, because if we said that this island belonged to this or that person, it would have caused a controversial problem that could have elevated to armed conflict,” Namhong said, claiming that Kerry “agreed” with his explanation and “did not say a word”.
A US Embassy spokesman declined to comment on what was discussed at the closed-door meeting.
According to Sophalleth, the premier also pushed Kerry to scrap taxes and quotas on all Cambodian exports to the US, called for increased trade and more cooperation on combating terrorism.
Ou Virak, the founder of political think tank the Future Forum, was among civil society representatives who briefly met with Kerry yesterday.
Saying the “substance was not as good as the photoshoot”, Virak said he got a few minutes to discuss environmental and social issues and emphasised Cambodians felt they had “nowhere to turn” given the perception of widespread judicial corruption and the government’s stifling of criticism online.
Political blogger Ou Ritthy, who also met Kerry, said the secretary of state encouraged civil society representatives to bring specific cases of environmental violations to his attention, via social media or the embassy.
Yesterday, roughly 80 protesters, including land dispute victims from Boeung Kak and Borei Keila, were prevented from reaching the US Embassy to highlight the government’s poor human rights record.
City Hall security guards blocked the group, saying they did not have permission to march, according to Boeung Kak activist Tep Vanny.