Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Kerry presses for reform in talks with PM




Kerry presses for reform in talks with PM

US Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh yesterday. AFP
US Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh yesterday. AFP

Kerry presses for reform in talks with PM

US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday pushed Prime Minister Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong on the need for greater political freedom in Cambodia during meetings in Phnom Penh but also praised the Kingdom’s “extraordinary” development since his first visit as a senator in the 1990s.

Kerry also met with opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party acting president Kem Sokha and civil society representatives during his brief visit yesterday, part of a swing through Southeast Asia ahead of high-level talks in China today.

Addressing the press at the Raffles Hotel after the meetings, Kerry described the talks with Hun Sen and Namhong as “candid and constructive”.

After emphasising the US was “deeply committed” to expanding trade and economic relations as well as anti-terrorism cooperation and continuing its development support, Kerry spoke about the “essential” need for political freedoms, his remarks contradicting a statement by spokesman for the Prime Minister Eang Sophalleth, who said human rights were not on yesterday’s agenda.

Kerry said it was “imperative” that even friends talk about what needs improvement, including “sensitive issues such as human rights”.

“In my discussions today, I emphasised the essential role that a vibrant democratic system plays in the development of a country and the legitimacy of its political system,” Kerry said.

“Democratic governments have a responsibility to ensure that all elected representatives are free [to carry out] their responsibilities without fear of attack or arrest; that is a fundamental responsibility of a democratic government, so as Cambodians prepare for elections next year and again in 2018 it is very important to allow for vigorous but peaceful debate.”

In recent months, two opposition lawmakers have been attacked by a pro-government mob, and CNRP president Sam Rainsy, stripped of his lawmaker status, has fled into self-imposed exile to avoid prison on seemingly politically motivated charges, while deputy Sokha was removed as the parliament’s first vice president.

Sokha said he discussed with Kerry his party’s desire for free, fair and non-violent elections.

“We raised the issue of the democratic process . . . and the election environment with regards to respecting rights and not using violence and the court system to pressure competitors.”

Kerry arrived in Cambodia from Laos and is laying the groundwork for next month’s US-ASEAN conference in California, which he briefed Hun Sen on yesterday, telling reporters US President Barack Obama looked forward to hosting ASEAN’s leaders.

Obama has assiduously courted ASEAN as part of a diplomatic “Asia pivot” aiming to offset China’s trade and diplomatic might in the region, with Cambodia viewed as a close ally of China.

United States Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to members of the press yesterday at Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh during his official visit to the Kingdom.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to members of the press yesterday at Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh during his official visit to the Kingdom. Hong Menea

Kerry only made a veiled reference to Beijing’s influence, saying it was agreed during meetings that it was “very valuable for Cambodia to have a diverse set of trading partners”.

“There’s no choice between one partner or another, there’s room for everybody,” he said.

Kerry also didn’t mention the controversial South China Sea dispute, though the briefing memo noted Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2012 left a “black mark” on the group, a pointed reference to the Kingdom’s unwillingness to risk the anger of major investor China by signing a joint statement on the contentious issue.

However, the dispute was discussed, according to Namhong and the prime minister’s spokesman, who said Hun Sen advocated for the signing of the long-stalled Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.

Namhong told a press conference earlier in the day that he had reiterated to Kerry Cambodia’s neutrality on the dispute. Namhong expressed “regret” over the fact that in 2012 they failed to issue a joint statement for the first time in ASEAN’s history, but also attempted to explain the government’s rationale.

“I had to keep the door open for negotiations, because if we said that this island belonged to this or that person, it would have caused a controversial problem that could have elevated to armed conflict,” Namhong said, claiming that Kerry “agreed” with his explanation and “did not say a word”.

A US Embassy spokesman declined to comment on what was discussed at the closed-door meeting.

According to Sophalleth, the premier also pushed Kerry to scrap taxes and quotas on all Cambodian exports to the US, called for increased trade and more cooperation on combating terrorism.

Ou Virak, the founder of political think tank the Future Forum, was among civil society representatives who briefly met with Kerry yesterday.

Saying the “substance was not as good as the photoshoot”, Virak said he got a few minutes to discuss environmental and social issues and emphasised Cambodians felt they had “nowhere to turn” given the perception of widespread judicial corruption and the government’s stifling of criticism online.

Political blogger Ou Ritthy, who also met Kerry, said the secretary of state encouraged civil society representatives to bring specific cases of environmental violations to his attention, via social media or the embassy.

Yesterday, roughly 80 protesters, including land dispute victims from Boeung Kak and Borei Keila, were prevented from reaching the US Embassy to highlight the government’s poor human rights record.

City Hall security guards blocked the group, saying they did not have permission to march, according to Boeung Kak activist Tep Vanny.

MOST VIEWED

  • School reopening to be postponed until November

    Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron on Tuesday wrote to Prime Minister Hun Sen requesting a delay of school reopening across the Kingdom until November, when the new academic year begins. In his letter, Chuon Naron said the postponement is warranted to avoid the new

  • Foreigners in Kingdom must now register in FPCS system

    The Ministry of Interior’s General Department of Immigration (GDI) announced that it would not grant visa extensions to foreigners staying in Cambodia if their names are not listed on the Foreigners Present in Cambodia System (FPCS) by July 1. Foreign nationals can register in the

  • Covid-19 at ‘alarming rate’, health ministry says

    The Covid-19 risk level for individual transmission is at an “alarming rate” in the Kingdom and its probability is “not low”, warned Health Ministry spokesperson Or Vandine. “Cambodia’s coronavirus scenario is classified as being at an early stage of the pandemic because of ongoing

  • Mandatory quarantine for 30,000 workers begins

    Some of the roughly 30,000 workers from factories and enterprises across the Kingdom who went on leave during Khmer New Year began their government-imposed 14-day quarantine on Monday. Speaking at a press conference while visiting workers at the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone on Monday, Ministry

  • Unemployed to get $40 per month

    The Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training has instructed enterprises, business owners and travel agencies in five provinces to prepare the proper forms for the suspension of employment contracts. This, it said, will make it easier for the ministry to transfer $40 a month to workers

  • Gov’t travel ban flouted

    While the majority of Cambodians have paid heed to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s order to stay put and not travel during the Khmer New Year – the holidays of which were also postponed – several hundred have left Phnom Penh nonetheless. They have allegedly breached provincial

  • G20 energy ministers struggle to finalise oil output cuts

    Top oil producers struggled to finalise production cuts during a virtual summit held by Group of 20 (G20) energy ministers on Friday, despite US President Donald Trump’s mediation efforts to end a standoff with Mexico. The final G20 communique appeared to gloss over simmering divisions

  • Kingdom revises travel restriction order

    The government on Friday eased the district and provincial border restrictions issued on Thursday. People are now allowed to cross districts within their provinces. Phnom Penh and Kandal province are to be treated as a single region where people are allowed to travel freely. In

  • Private schools struggling

    The Cambodian Higher Education Association has claimed that 113 private educational establishments are facing bankruptcy because of their inability to pay rent and staff salaries in light of nationwide school closures caused by the Covid-19 outbreak. It said the financial trouble started when the Ministry of