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US to issue visa sanctions against Cambodian officials ‘undermining democracy’

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US Department of State spokesperson Heather Nauert speaks at the Department of State last month in Washington, DC. Alex Wroblewski/AFP

US to issue visa sanctions against Cambodian officials ‘undermining democracy’

The US State Department will issue visa restrictions on individuals “involved in undermining democracy in Cambodia”, the Trump administration announced overnight yesterday, following the dissolution of the main opposition party last month and the arrest in September of former opposition leader Kem Sokha.

According to a press statement by department spokesperson Heather Nauert, the step is in “direct response to the Cambodian government’s series of anti-democratic actions”, citing the Cambodia National Rescue Party dissolution, the banning of its officials from politics, Sokha’s imprisonment, restrictions on civil society and the “suppression of independent media”.

Sokha was arrested more than three months ago in apparent violation of his parliamentary immunity and charged with “treason”. A 2013 speech in which he talks about US support in developing his political career has been used by the government to justify the arrest, and in the ensuing months the US has been continually accused by officials of fomenting “colour revolution”, accusations that precipitated the dismantling of the CNRP – the nation’s only viable opposition party.

Immediately after the dissolution, the White House announced it would cut funding for the National Election Committee, with more steps to follow. It was unclear yesterday exactly which officials would be targeted by the visa sanctions, but the statement does say they would also apply to family members of some affected individuals.

Embassy spokesperson David Josar in an email yesterday said neither the number nor identity of individuals could be disclosed. “Visa records are confidential under U.S. law and therefore we are not able to provide details on any individual cases,” he wrote, adding that all other visa cases would be processed as usual.

Lifting such restrictions, Nauert wrote, would be linked to reversing recent acts of political suppression. “We will continue to monitor the situation and take additional steps as necessary, while maintaining our close and enduring ties with the people of Cambodia,” the statement reads.

Mu Sochua, deputy president of now-dissolved CNRP, called the move a “very significant step”.

“The USA has heard the call from the 3 million voters who voted for positive change. High ranking officials and their family members travel regularly to western countries. They will feel the pressure, in particular those with assets and children going to universities [in] the USA,” she wrote today in an email.

Monovithya Kem, Sokha’s daughter and a CNRP public affairs official, also welcomed the visa ban. She said in a message that “further actions will be taken” if there was no course correction from the Cambodian government. Kem said she expected these to be individual sanctions, cuts in aid to the Cambodian government – which she said would be decided on this month – and a review of the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP).

Under the GSP, Cambodia receives preferential trade treatment, such as duty-free imports of certain products.

Sochua also met yesterday evening with Fadli Zon, deputy speaker of the Indonesian People’s Representative Council, who said he would raise the issue of the CNRP’s dissolution in a plenary session next week and would send a letter to National Assembly President Heng Samrin.

“I hope the situation in Cambodia is not going not be a setback against the frame of democracy, and as a member of Asean, we would like to have our neighbours become a more democratic country,” he said yesterday after the meeting.

While Huy Vannak, president of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia and a Ministry of Interior official, agreed that the visa restrictions came as no surprise, he said they were unjust and “vengeful measures” by a number of US officials “to save their face”.

“Cambodians do not fear it. We see it as a desperate measure,” he said in an email.

Vannak added that the step showed that “some US officials” don’t respect Donald Trump’s purported policy of non-interference. “Are US officials making a confession that they are really backing an alleged traitor and a political party whose allegiance belongs to a certain foreign power to topple Cambodia’s legitimate authority?” he asked.

Sok Eysan, the spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said the move was a “very strange thing” that showed the US was taking sides with the opposition and did not care about rule of law and democracy in Cambodia.

“This is their excuse to take sides with its puppet,” he said. “They are joint businesses to topple the CPP and the legitimate government.”

Nonetheless, the restrictions were of no concern for the government, he said. “Banning visas will not make people in Cambodia die by having their children not [being allowed to] visit there. They can visit their parents [here] – there is no problem,” he said.

Chak Sopheap, of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said in an email that it was “regretful that we had to reach this point”.
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“There should not be any need for anyone to take actions such as targeted visa sanctions, as the [Cambodian] authorities should . . . be respecting their international engagements and ensure that Cambodia . . . [develops] in a sustainable manner. It is time for authorities to take concrete and demonstrable actions to restore a free and fair civic space where members of the civil society can work unhindered,” she said.

Preap Kol, director of Transparency International in Cambodia, echoed this assessment and said the country had “entered into a ‘lose-lose politic’ in recent months”.

“I fear that some other countries . . . including the European Union might also apply [sanctions] of this kind . . . or some forms of economic sanctions that could have profound [effects] on Cambodian people,” he said, while calling on the Cambodian government to “return to a dialogue” based on the Paris Peace Accords to “restore hopes and inspiration for Cambodian people”.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and several senior government officials could not be reached yesterday.

Additional reporting by Mech Dara

Updated Friday, 8 December, 6:30am

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