A letter sent to Prime Minister Hun Sen this week from French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has set off a debate about Cambodia’s increasingly tense relationship with Western powers.
On the surface, Philippe’s words were diplomatic, citing cultural and historical ties. He expressed France’s readiness “to be with you for developing Cambodia with democracy, peace, and inclusive development”.
And he praised Hun Sen’s effort to open constructive dialogue with political figures, civil society and the media.
The French prime minister wrote, “In this spirit, I positively welcome recent developments with regard to opponents including Kem Sokha, activist Tep Vanny, ex-RFA reporters Oun Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, and human rights defender Moeun Tola.” And he added: “I hope there will be more gestures than this.”
Analysts were quick to read between the lines. Occidental College associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs Sophal Ear said the letter’s kind words might have masked a more pragmatic approach.
After all, the EU is considering sanctions against the Kingdom after the European Parliament passed a resolution on the Sokha situation last week.
“After the European Parliament vote to impose sanctions, maybe France wants to have it both ways. We are still friends with you, Cambodge!” Ear said.
And Ou Chanrath, a former lawmaker of the court dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), said the letter was in line with the EU’s position about the political situation in the Kingdom.
“It came after the European Parliament passed a resolution. So the French position is nothing more than asking us to consider walking back to the path of democracy, such as dropping the charges against President Kem Sokha,” he said, referring to Sokha’s former title in the CNRP.
Chanrath said the letter was also a demand – one that could force the government into a position of compromise.
“If he [Hun Sen] had read that letter and still won’t accept it, I think Cambodia will face a lot of political and economic crises. France has been holding our hands for 20 years in turning Cambodia democratic. “
Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said the letter showed the strength of the Hun Sen administration.
“The letter was a diplomatic note that reflects the French position as a partner for dialogue. There’s no reason to order Cambodia around or to put pressure on us,” he said.
Outgoing US ambassador, William Heidt, told Voice of America on Monday that the US, like other countries, was watching and expecting Cambodia to return to a “relatively open political system that it had just a year ago”.
“Of course we are always interested in improving our relationship, but I think what happens next is going to depend much on the steps that the Cambodian government takes over the next weeks and months, to improve the situation,” Heidt said.
Siphan stressed Cambodia’s independence in response to the ambassador’s comments.
“No one can violate or pressure Cambodia. We will continue to cooperate and talk, but it is Cambodia that decides,” he stressed.
On Tuesday, Ney Sam Ol, the Cambodian representative to the UN office in Geneva rejected comments by Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, the Austrian UN ambassador, who spoke at the Human Rights Council.
Tichy-Fisslberger said: “The EU reiterated that the electoral process in Cambodia from which the main opposition has been arbitrarily excluded is not legitimate.”
Sam Ol said Cambodia’s situation was mentioned only for publicity. He also said the Cambodia issue was raised at the wrong time. It was scheduled to be debated on September 26.
“Thus, to dramatise a human rights issue in Cambodia in order to besmirch the Royal Government’s reputation at best, the EU delegate had no hesitation to break the customary norms and practices of the HRC which have existed since its inception in 2006.
“Unfortunately though, merely based on the absence of one former political party and the ban imposed on its 118 members by the Supreme Court, the court of last resort, the EU delegate unfairly alleges that the election is not legitimate.”