A senior US government official yesterday called on Cambodia to take “concrete steps” on a number of high-profile human rights issues, but fell short of saying whether the Kingdom would be held accountable if they failed to do so.
During a visit lasting less than a day, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner met with rights groups, labour lobbyists, opposition lawmakers and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.
Although Posner declined to discuss the issues raised by NGOs and opposition, he said that in his half-hour meeting with Namhong, he had raised the cases of imprisoned broadcaster Mam Sonando, Sam Rainsy, land disputes, failures of the judiciary, harassment of activists and excessive force exercised by police.
The list is nearly identical to that raised by US President Barack Obama, who discussed the topics with Prime Minister Hun Sen on the sidelines of November’s ASEAN summit. Those, in turn, echoed the concerns brought up by then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton during a June meeting with Namhong.
Asked whether the US would consider tying its foreign and military aid to the issues raised by the three senior officials, Posner declined to answer outright.
“We are discussing within our government and certainly with the Congress the best way to improve progress on these issues, we are mindful of the importance of our continued relationship with the government of Cambodia but also the importance of continuing to support the Cambodian people in their support for democracy and human rights.”
Although the US’s role as a donor has been dwarfed in the past decade by Australia, China and Japan, it remains one of the largest. In 2012, it disbursed more than $82 million in aid.
As the superpower increasingly turns its eye to countering China’s military might in the region, military aid to Cambodia has skyrocketed, growing from $1.2 million in 2010 to $5.7 million last year.
Asked what the consequences would be if the government did not heed the US’s recommendations, Posner said they would “consider a range of policy options”, but stressed that “Our goal here is to encourage the Cambodian government to do what is right — not because we’re saying it, but because this is how you build a sustainable democracy that is stable, that has a strong economy.”
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Ministry of Foreign Affairs secretary of state Ouch Borith said Namhong had denied Posner’s request that Cambodia release Sonando and drop charges against Rainsy, who is in self-exile after being convicted of charges including incitement.
“On the one hand, they demand that we respect the law and the independence of the court. On the other hand, they [the US] insist that we violate the law. What do they want?”
To contact the reporters on this story: Abby Seiff at [email protected]
Vong Sokheng at [email protected]