Preventing outside interference in the internal affairs of small states such as Cambodia is key to protecting independence, said the foreign ministry in response to comments made by the US embassy in Phnom Penh regarding the Kingdom’s current political sphere.

In a recent statement, the embassy urged Cambodian authorities to strengthen democracy in the run-up to the July general election, citing as its concern the recent arrest of Thach Setha, vice-president of the opposition Candlelight Party (CP).

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said authorities are only implementing the law, while affirming that Cambodia will maintain its national sovereignty and not accept any interference by any foreign power.

“The best way to ensure independence for a small country like Cambodia is to prevent a foreign power from interfering in its internal affairs or supporting one side against the other,” it said in a January 21 statement.

Setha was arrested on January 16 on the order of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on charges of issuing dud cheques back in 2019. Some commentators have suggested that there may have been political motivations behind the arrest, while the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have taken the position that it is purely a criminal case.

The foreign ministry said democracy and human rights come with certain obligations, which are set out in the national laws and constitution of all nations. Non-compliance with those obligations can lead to serious consequences, he said, offering the example of the raid on the US Capitol in 2021 and the recent riots that destroyed the presidential palace and parliament buildings in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil.

Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said the US’ call was not uncommon.

“The self-proclaimed father of democracy issues these calls to many countries, including Cambodia. The arrest of Setha is a totally separate case,” he said.

He said the foreign ministry’s response served as a very important reminder of how seriously Cambodia takes its independence and sovereignty.

“Cambodia’s sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, peace and stability are all red lines when it comes to its interaction with other powers. If the US suggests that Setha’s arrest was a violation of human rights, then it appears to be moving away from scrutinising the facts and seems to be attempting to interfere with the due legal process of an independent state,” he added.

Phea reiterated that Cambodia and her people have always expressed a desire to promote human rights and democracy, but based on principles of respecting internal sovereignty. He said the correspondence between the ministry and the US embassy would not affect foreign relations, but suggested that the two sides increase their mutual understanding.

Political commentator Seng Sary said the role of US diplomats – as representatives of a leading democracy – is often to oversee the democratic situation in other nations. Foreign diplomats need to respond to the current political situation in Cambodia to avoid criticism from their own government.

“As I understand it, the comments by the US embassy were not an attempt to intrude on internal affairs. It is just that the US wants to signal that Cambodia is deviating from the path of democracy and needs to maintain a good environment for this year’s national election,” he said.

Sary said the US’ reaction is unlikely to have a negative impact on Cambodia-US relations. The US has sent strong messages in the past, with US President Joe Biden mentioning the declining state of democracy in Cambodia during the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits in mid-November.

He said the current exchange of statements is likely a means of feeling out one another’s influence in the current context.

Prime Minister Hun Sen recently declared that no foreign powers or individuals should interfere in the Kingdom’s internal affairs, as Cambodia is an independent country and does not consider itself subordinate to any power.