Visiting US State Department official W Patrick Murphy yesterday warned that further punitive action could be forthcoming in response to the government’s recent crackdown on the main opposition, while repeatedly pointing to the US’s warm relationship with the people of Cambodia – if not their leaders.
In diplomatic but firm remarks made at a press roundtable yesterday, Deputy Assistant Secretary Murphy noted recent “negative developments with regards to democracy”, and implied that the US would be unable to recognise the legitimacy of an election that took place without the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.
In September, CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested on widely decried “treason” charges based on a 2013 video in which he told supporters he had received advice from the US. The CNRP was summarily dissolved at the government’s behest two months later after being accused of fomenting a foreign-backed “revolution”.
Meanwhile, the Kingdom has seen a parallel clampdown on civil society and the free press in recent months, with the government expelling the US-funded National Democratic Institute, stepping up its scrutiny of NGOs and shuttering or severely curtailing the operations of numerous independent media outlets, including US-backed Radio Free Asia and the often critical Cambodia Daily newspaper.
The United States has repeatedly expressed grave concern over the deteriorating situation, and took concrete action after the CNRP’s dissolution, cutting election funding and announcing visa bans against top officials involved in “undermining democracy”, as well as their families.
Murphy opened yesterday’s roundtable by saying he came to Cambodia from Washington, DC, as “a friend of Cambodia” and praising the relatively smooth 2017 commune elections as a “positive process in strengthening democracy”.
Since then, however, “steps have been taken that disenfranchise many”, he added, referring to the dissolution of the CNRP, which received around 3 million votes in both the 2013 national elections and this year’s commune elections.
Murphy described the current political situation as “flawed” and “exclusive”.
Noting that the US has “invested in the success” of Cambodia for 25 years, Murphy said he hoped the situation could still improve.
“Our assistance is intended to help the people of Cambodia,” he said.“What we are encouraging, advising, is that these steps that have taken place here . . . should be reversed,” Murphy added.
While he declined to comment on “hypotheticals”, Murphy did say “we have a variety of measures and tools we can consider” in response to further deterioration of the political situation, adding that the US’s ability to endorse next year’s elections was “in jeopardy”.
Murphy did say the US could “reassess” the situation if the government heeded its suggestions.
“The steps we have taken are reversible,” he said.
When asked how America could improve relations with a country that has repeatedly accused it of attempting to topple the government, Murphy instead emphasised America’s relationship with the Kingdom’s people.
“We have a very good relationship with the people of Cambodia . . . Cambodian people who have struggled in the past,” he said, citing US contributions in demining and agriculture, among others.
“The people-to-people ties between our two countries is very strong,” he added.
Calling the allegations it conspired to foment revolution “fabricated conspiracy theories”, Murphy said the government’s anti-American rhetoric “pulled the US into this process in a way we find surprising and undesirable”.
Those conspiracy theories continued yesterday, with both government mouthpiece Fresh News and the nominally independent newspaper Khmer Times publishing an anonymous letter to the editor accusing US senators John McCain and Ted Cruz of attempting to overthrow the Cambodian government.
“You have been providing secret support, both technically and financially, to the opposition and used them as your puppets to execute your leadership change plan through revolution rather than democratic, free and fair elections,” reads the piece by Chaksmok Chao.
Chao is a frequent contributor to Fresh News, a media outlet that analysts say exhibits classic characteristics of authoritarian state-controlled media despite its claims of independence.
Chao previously accused NDI of trying to topple the government in a Fresh News piece. The organisation and its foreign staffers were summarily expelled from the country shortly thereafter.
“The love you are showing us is vicious. You use human rights and democracy as excuses to hide your viciousness and exploit it for your nation’s interest,” the letter continued.
Murphy, however, insisted the US’s “interest is very transparent and very positive”, noting that the US has contributed over a billion dollars to Cambodia in aid over the years.
“We hope for the best for Cambodia,” he said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan, however, maintained yesterday that there were “so many clues” linking the US to a purported revolution.
“Cambodia, we do whatever we like to protect our sovereignty,” he added.
When asked about the possibility of further sanctions from the US, Siphan said the decision to dissolve the CNRP was made by the Supreme Court, not the government.
“We are unable to work against our court,” he said.
The initial motion to dissolve the party, however, was filed by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party-controlled Ministry of Interior. The top judge hearing the ministry’s case is also a member of the CPP’s permanent committee, its highest decision-making body.
Despite confirming that he believed some American officials were involved in the alleged plot to overthrow the government, Siphan said he didn’t want to treat America “as a foe”.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, a panel of “witnesses” convened by the House Foreign Affairs Committee – including Kem Sokha’s daughter, Kem Monovithya – called for additional action in response to the political crackdown.
In a statement, Monovithya urged targeted financial sanctions against government officials responsible for undermining democracy. She also called on the US to suspend “any and all assistance for the central Cambodian Government”, while “continuing democracy assistance programs for civil society, particularly those engaged in election-related matters”.
Monovithya also asked America to review “Cambodia’s eligibility for the Generalized System of Preferences”, a program which gives favourable trade treatment to Cambodia’s garment exports.