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New US legislation would impose more sanctions on Cambodia, ban negotiations on debt relief

 US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, seen in April 2016. AFP/Mohamed El-Shahed
US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, seen in April 2016. AFP/Mohamed El-Shahed

New US legislation would impose more sanctions on Cambodia, ban negotiations on debt relief

New bipartisan legislation introduced on Friday in the US Senate seeks to impose an array of sanctions on Cambodia and postpone any discussion of forgiving the country’s $506 million in war-era debt.

The bill, drafted by Republican Senator Lindsay Graham and cosponsored by senators Dick Durbin, Ted Cruz, Ben Cardin and Patrick Leahy, is meant to “support the successful implementation of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement in Cambodia”.

If passed, all sanctions proposed by the bill, titled “Cambodia Accountability and Return on Investment Act of 2018”, would be in effect until the Cambodian government restores the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), releases all political prisoners and enforces sanctions on North Korea, among other conditions.

The proposed sanctions come in response to a political and civil society crackdown in which former CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested in September on widely decried charges of “treason” and the CNRP was summarily dissolved. To justify the crackdown, the government has strung together a narrative of an alleged US-backed conspiracy to overthrow the ruling party, implicating NGO workers, opposition activists, officials and media outlets.

The legislation, which has been forwarded to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, opens by banning the appropriation of any funds for the assistance of the Cambodian government. The bill also supports visa bans for high-ranking officials “involved in undermining democracy”, a measure already approved by the Trump administration in December.

It would also freeze the US assets of officials covered by the visa ban and require financial institutions to declare all property those officials own in the US. The legislation would oblige US representatives of international financial institutions to oppose any loans or financial assistance to the Cambodian government, “other than to meet basic human needs”.

It also forbids the US Secretary of State to “negotiate for or establish a program of debt relief” – a reference to debt accrued by the government before the Khmer Rouge took power. The more than $500 million sum has been a wedge issue between the two countries, with Prime Minister Hun Sen repeatedly demanding that it be forgiven.

“Democracy is dead in Cambodia today,” Senator Graham said in a statement, while accusing China of trying to “colonize” the Kingdom.

“Our legislation sends a message to the Cambodian government that there is a cost to suppressing the rights of the people,” Senator Leahy added.

Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed the significance of the proposed sanctions, however.

“We still have good cooperation and relations,” he said. “I don’t worry, it’s politics – Cambodia still looks at the US as a friend.”

Asked about the Cambodian government’s repeated accusation that the US was involved in a plot to topple the government, Siphan said that was a “completely different” matter.

“We respect US interests, as well as we want the US to respect our interests,” he said. “I hope that in the future, everything is going to be OK.”

Former CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua, who fled the country last year, praised the potential new sanctions while also recommending additional economic pressure.

“These sanctions are a must to restore democracy,” she said. “The international committee as a whole should follow and speak with one voice.”

Kem Monovithya, Sokha’s daughter and a high-ranking CNRP official, said she was “encouraged” by the measures.

“I am also optimistic that the US administration will implement these measures on time to have an effect on the organisation of the July elections,” she said.

The bill would also authorise the use of US funds for Khmer-language programs to “educate the people of Cambodia”.

The proposed programs would contrast China’s role in supporting the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and that of the US in “providing assistance for the development of Cambodia”. It does not mention that the US government, along with China, recognised the Khmer Rouge as representatives of the Cambodian government at the United Nations from 1979 until 1993.

The Senate recently approved a bill, also cosponsored by Durbin and Cardin, imposing sanctions on Myanmar for the alleged “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya minority.

The legislation authorises around $100 million in aid to Rohingya victims, issues visa bans on “military officials responsible for human rights abuses”, and orders a detailed report on ethnic cleansing with the possibility of a “hybrid tribunal” to try those responsible.

Updated: 7:01am, Monday 12 February 2018

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