A day after meeting Hillary Clinton in June 2012, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong moved to assure the then-US secretary of state that her exhortations to release 13 imprisoned Boeung Kak activists would be met, leaked emails suggest.
The emails sent from Clinton’s private email server are among a trove of more than 32,000 recently made searchable by Wikileaks.
The correspondence gives interesting insight into the former US senator and presidential hopeful’s intervention into the high-profile case as she prepared to visit Phnom Penh in July 2012 for an ASEAN conference.
They also seem to contradict claims by Namhong that US pressure had no bearing on the case, though Clinton’s advocacy has long been seen as a major factor in securing the activists’ freedom on June 27 of that year.
Exchanges related to the case begin on June 11, with Clinton, in an email tagged “Cambodia”, seeking an update about “women’s land rights issues/hunger strikes” from State Department officials Kurt Campbell and Jacob Sullivan.
A month before her trip, she notes “This has potential for big problems for us.”
Campbell, in response, indicates the need to push Cambodian leaders to “resolve” the issue, before the upcoming forum.
He refers to plans to do some “careful media” after a meeting scheduled the next day with Namhong in Washington.
After that meeting, Cambodia’s foreign minister told Radio Free Asia the case was being reviewed. Namhong, however, maintained US pressure was not the reason.
“This is not because of someone’s intervention; this is because of the [Cambodian] government’s goodwill,” he said at the time.
But an email forwarded to Clinton by Sullivan, of the State Department, on Wednesday, June 13, shows Namhong was very conscious of Clinton’s wishes.
According to the correspondence, a Cambodian secretary of state travelling with Namhong in America – referred to as Ouch – made contact with the State Department’s Joseph Y Yun soon after the meeting to relay a message.
“Cambodian State Secretary Ouch, traveling with FM Hor Namhong, called me just now, saying that the FM wanted to pass a message to the Secretary,” Yun tells Sullivan and other State Department employees.
“According to Ouch, the BKL group of 13 women, convicted for protests involving land rights, will be released. He wanted S to know this, as she had raised it yesterday with FM Hor Namhong.”
Namhong, Foreign Ministry Secretary of State Ouch Borith and the ministry’s spokesman were unreachable yesterday.
A US Embassy spokesman declined to comment on or confirm internal diplomatic emails. Political commentator Ou Virak, founder of the think tank Future Forum, said the Cambodian government’s ability to influence the court was a “surprise to no one”.
“I’m not sure why they pretend like they can’t,” Virak said.
The eviction of thousands of villagers from the Boeung Kak Lake community in 2007 by developer Shukaku, owned by ruling party Senator Lao Meng Khin, has become one of the Kingdom’s most high-profile, heated and long-running land disputes.
Though the women were released after their initial prison sentences – between one and two-and-a-half years – were reduced to time already served, their convictions for occupying state land and obstructing authorities during a protest in May 2012 have been upheld, most recently by the Supreme Court last week.