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Mind your own business

Two senior government officials yesterday issued a warning to the US and other countries critical of last week’s expulsion of opposition lawmakers from the National Assembly: stay out of it.

Signalling that the topic was essentially off-limits to outsiders, Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker Chheang Vun described a US statement critical of the affair as “unacceptable” and tantamount to political interference in the Kingdom’s internal affairs.

“Cambodia is a sovereign state, so the US cannot order us to go left or go right or to make it rain or to bring a storm,” he said at a press conference.

“Cambodia is . . . strengthening democracy through law enforcement,” Vun said.

“We do everything based on law. So the US’s statement is unacceptable.”

Parliament was thrown into disarray last Wednesday when the National Assembly’s permanent council – made up wholly of CPP members – stripped 29 lawmakers of their parliamentary status and salaries.

Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy said on Saturday that the expulsion created the “preconditions for civil war”.

The US wasn’t as bold but said the same day that it was concerned about the effects of the expulsion on Cambodia’s democracy.

“Stripping the salaries and parliamentary status of opposition party legislators deprives the Cambodian people of their voice and hurts the democratic process in Cambodia,” a statement released at the time says.

But Vun added yesterday that it was not acceptable for the US to “point fingers” at the government, because some of its own past actions in the Kingdom had left “Cambodia wounded until today” and, in any case, the US was not the Kingdom’s colonial ruler.

“Does the US recognise Cambodia as a sovereign country or not?” he asked.

Concurrently yesterday, Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong told Australia’s new ambassador, Alison Burrows, that Cambodia did not appreciate interference from foreign embassies, ministry spokesman Koy Kuong told reporters after a closed-door meeting.

“[Namhong] informed [Burrows] that there were a number of foreign embassies in Phnom Penh who had made comments relating to the forthcoming election,” Kuong said. “[Namhong] stressed that this activity was interference into Cambodia’s internal affairs.”

Kuong then appealed to all foreign embassies based in the country to stay out of issues that Cambodia could deal with itself.

“This is democracy, and Cambodia will do its best to ensure a transparent and democratic election on July 28 and urge foreign observers to monitor the election.”

The US and Australia have been generous donors to Cambodia in the past two decades.

Sean McIntosh, a spokesman for the US embassy in Phnom Penh, declined to comment directly on Vun’s words yesterday, instead choosing to focus on the extent to which the Cambodian government remained committed to a fair and democratic election.

“The upcoming National Assembly elections will be a critical test of the [government’s] commitment to strengthening the nation’s democracy,” he said. “The full and unfettered participation of all political parties and their leaders on a level playing field allows for a more democratic electoral process.”

McIntosh added that the government should implement recommendations from “credible, independent observers” such as UN Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi, the National Democratic Institute, and the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia “without further delay”.

Two spokesmen from the Australian embassy, which was closed yesterday due to a public holiday in Australia, did not respond to emailed questions.

A spokeswoman from the European Union’s Delegation to Cambodia – another major financial supporter of democracy in the Kingdom – said she could not provide comments before deadline.

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said it was up to embassies to continue shining light on actions that potentially compromised democracy or electoral processes in the lead-up to July 28.

“Embassies should be highlighting these things. Serious things that would not make elections free and fair,” he said, adding that issues ranged from voter list abnormalities to political coverage in mass media.  

Events of the past week, during which the government has turned its focus away from policy to heap pressure on CNRP acting leader Kem Sokha and the rest of the opposition, demonstrated the need for more measured responses from the ruling party in general, Mong Hay said.

“An observer used the term ‘child responses’,” he said. “I think our government officials should find ways to make their responses much better.”

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