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Government, West exchange barbs amid tension

Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn speaks on Cambodian foreign policy yesterday at Phnom Penh’s Royal School of Administration.
Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn speaks on Cambodian foreign policy yesterday at Phnom Penh’s Royal School of Administration. Facebook

Government, West exchange barbs amid tension

As international condemnation of the Kingdom’s worsening political climate continued yesterday, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn painted a picture of a Western democratic order in decline, telling a crowd of university students that Cambodia’s foreign policy future lay with China and Russia.

Stopping short of naming the United States – which the government has accused of conspiring to orchestrate regime change along with jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha – Sokhonn told hundreds of students during a lecture at the Royal School of Administration that “big countries” were always “winning” at the expense of smaller ones.

“I have made the comparison between a buffalo and a dog, which cross the road in their own ways . . . When the dog prepares to cross the road, it runs back and forth. But the buffalo walks across the road without being concerned about anything . . . because it is big and has power,” he said.

“The world’s affairs are not different … when they are big, what they say is always right, and we are the ones who have difficulties.”

He then praised China and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership, before taking a shot at Western democracies.

“We have noticed that the West has become weak. I don’t say this looking down on them; this is what analysts and observers noted. The US has become weak; and look at Europe – it has difficulties in solving complex and uncountable problems since the British walked out,” he said. “We have friends and people who love and help,” he added, referring to unnamed countries, “but also one who is angry with us.”

Government officials across the board similarly dug in their heels.

In response to rising tensions between the US and Cambodia, the US on Wednesday issued travel warnings to its citizens in Cambodia, prompting government spokesman Phay Siphan to tell government mouthpiece Fresh News that the warning was “ill intentioned”, and a “distortion of reality”.

In an interview, Siphan said the notice, which warned of escalating anti-US rhetoric, served “to scare tourists”.

“Its intention is to create tension between Cambodia and the United States,” he said.

Fresh News, meanwhile, published a purported letter from “the victims of 1970” – an apparent reference to the coup led by Lon Nol, whose regime was supported by the US – taunting the superpower to evacuate its citizens if it felt the situation was so grave.

“In view of the worsening situation in Cambodia, as the US Embassy has issued a statement that its citizens should be cautious in Cambodia, the US should take a helicopter to transport its citizens from Cambodia, as it did in April 1975,” the letter read.

Rather than the date of the Lon Nol coup, however, the letter refers to the date Lon Nol was toppled by the Khmer Rouge, which killed as many as 1.7 million Cambodians.

Yesterday, the Foreign Ministry also dismissed the UN High Commission for Human Rights’ Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s criticism of its rights breaches as a “misjudgment”.

The statement argues that he had not considered legal aspects and that “an individual that committed treason and conspiracy with foreign power, an NGO that deliberately conducted activities without legal permission, a newspaper that did not pay tax” – references to the jailed Sokha, the expelled National Democratic Institute and the shuttered Cambodia Daily, respectively – could not be exempt from law enforcement.

“Political and civil rights, media freedom, freedom of association and expression are fully protected in Cambodia,” the statement continues.

Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, dismissed the argument as “laughable and sad”.

“PM Hun Sen has effectively weaponized his political control over the courts to attack targets like Kem Sokha and NGOs like ADHOC, meaning that all the various civil and political rights that the [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] says they respect are in fact at risk on a daily basis,” he said in an email, calling on donors to reconsider their support to “a politically mendacious partner”.

Concerns were not limited to the US. Swedish State Secretary for International Development Cooperation, Ulrika Modéer, in a radio interview last week said the country’s aid to Cambodia was being reviewed. Yesterday, Swedish Ambassador Maria Sargren in an email said they were following developments with “great concern” and had voiced their apprehensions both through the EU and unilaterally.

“It is important to underline, though, that Sweden has at this point not taken any decision related to discontinuing or decreasing any of our aid programmes in Cambodia,” she said.

Also echoing concerns by the High Commissioner, the European Parliament passed a resolution yesterday that “strongly condemns” the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha, asking for his immediate release.

They also deplored “public statements by the Prime Minister and high-ranking officials about Kem Sokha’s supposed guilt, which breach the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial”.

Despite not directly calling for economic sanctions, several parliamentarians in the debate prior to the adoption of the resolution highlighted that the EU invested large sums in Cambodia. David Martin, of Group of Progressive Alliance of Socialists, reminded Cambodia “that we are a significant partner”, and that it was “particularly concerning” to see democratic values “under attack”.

Federica Mogherini, high representative of the EU for foreign affairs, noted that the EU had invested €10 million in election reforms, and would “monitor closely” all developments.

Mogherini said if restrictions of civil society and the opposition continued, this could call into question the legitimacy of elections. “If invited by the government, the EU would be ready to consider the deployment [of an election observation mission],” she said.

Yet, Siphan said the government wasn’t interested. “We don’t care about free and fair elections [as defined by foreigners], we care about free and fair elections for our own people,” he said. “Let Cambodia enjoy our independence.”
But Michaela Šojdrová, of the Group of European People’s Party, said the situation had nothing to do with foreign interference. “The prime minister wants to bring in a dictatorship,” she said.

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