The US has urged Cambodia to restore the independence of the media, drop charges against Kem Sokha and other political prisoners, and end the prohibition of political activity by opposition parties.
However, senior government officials see the request, issued by US embassy spokesman Arend C Zwartjes, as interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs, and told the US to “get their hands off”.
It came after Interior Minister Sar Kheng said on Tuesday that some former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) officials, who were banned by the Supreme Court from engaging in political activities for five years and have respected the court’s verdict, might be able to recover their rights and resume their political careers.
Sar Kheng also welcomed the reopening of the Phnom Penh offices of Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA).
Zwartjes said via email: “We are aware of [Sar Kheng’s] statement and urge the government of Cambodia to promote national reconciliation by restoring independent media, releasing and dropping all charges against Kem Sokha and other political prisoners, and ending the ban on the political opposition.
“As we have said repeatedly, the Government of Cambodia should allow civil society and independent media to carry out their constitutionally protected work unhindered, and without threats of arrest."
“We also urge it to allow both RFA and VOA programmes to once again be broadcast freely on Cambodian radio stations, consistent with the government’s stated commitment to a free press.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan responded: “We can see that the statement aims to control Cambodia. Cambodia is capable enough of maintaining political stability and peace and we ask outsiders to get their hands off.
“Recently, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued its statement to ease the internal political affairs of Cambodia, so we do not want a foreign country interfering in the government’s decision. The government is capable enough to solve its internal affairs,” he said.
Siphan said that VOA and RFA are free to reopen their offices in Phnom Penh since the government had not pressured them or closed their offices. Rather, they voluntarily shut their offices down themselves.
“We want to confirm again, the government does not have any intention of shutting down the US’ radio stations."
“For instance, I as well as other government officials continue to give interviews on RFA and Cambodians also continue to receive broadcasts from RFA and VOA,” he stressed.
Siphan defended the government taking legal action against radio stations.
He said they must respect Cambodian laws as they use Cambodian frequencies and resources.
The arrest of two former RFA staff members, he said, was action taken through the legal process.
At a meeting between Prime Minister Hun Sen and outgoing US Ambassador to Cambodia William A Heidt in November, Heidt urged the government to continue to improve bilateral relations and release Sokha.
RFA closed down its office in September last year, while the Cambodia Daily ceased operations on September 4, last year, after failing to pay $6 million in tax arrears.