As international condemnation of the Supreme Court decision to dissolve the main opposition party continued to pour in yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen invited the United States and its allies to withdraw aid to the Kingdom, citing confidence in China’s continued support.
Perhaps the most forceful response to Thursday’s ruling came from the US, which Hun Sen has accused of conspiring with the opposition to overthrow the government.
Opposition leader Sokha is languishing in a Tbong Khmum prison on widely decried “treason” charges and his Cambodia National Rescue Party – which won more than 44 percent of the vote in the 2013 elections and was preparing to challenge the ruling party at next year’s poll – was officially dissolved by the Supreme Court last week. The complaint was filed by the Ministry of Interior with charges based on recent amendments to the Law on Political Parties. More than 100 party officials are now banned from politics for five years.
On Thursday, the US announced it would cut its pledged funding for the 2018 election and suggested sanctions could follow.
US Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Friday the court decision “destroys any pretense of democracy”. Royce accused Hun Sen of running a “thuggish regime” and instituting a “one-party dictatorship”.
“It won’t be accepted,” Royce said.
Concrete action was also hinted at by Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the European Union.
“An electoral process from which the main opposition party has been arbitrarily excluded is not legitimate,” a Thursday statement from the EU reads, going on to link “respect of fundamental human rights” with access to the bloc’s preferential Everything But Arms trade scheme.
Sweden, meanwhile, pledged to “review the forms of our engagement in Cambodia”, and the UK said it would “consider with partners . . . further steps”.
Canada and Australia only encouraged the government to act democratically, without threatening any changes in the two countries’ relationship with the Kingdom.
In a speech yesterday, Hun Sen welcomed sanctions, bragging that China would fill the gaps and saying that the US is “afraid China is taking its seat”. Analysts have long maintained that China’s economic support, which is not linked to human rights or democratic values, has emboldened Hun Sen to disregard Western criticism.
“I welcome the US to cut aid to the National Election Committee,” he said in a speech to garment workers. The US had pledged $1.8 million in funding over two years in April.
“You could not even overthrow me, so now you join to kill democracy in Cambodia . . . When aid is cut, all domestic NGOs will die. Go ahead and kill your children.
“We cannot lose our independence and sovereignty because we just want little donations.”
In a press conference on Friday, spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Geng Shuang called Cambodia “a good neighbour, good friend, good partner and good brother”.
“China . . . has been supporting Cambodia in following a development path that suits its national conditions and the Cambodian government’s efforts in safeguarding national security and stability,” he said.
International rights organisations, meanwhile, condemned the ruling, with Global Witness’ Emma Burnett seemingly suggesting that the development ecosystem of the early 1990s – in which international aid flooded Cambodia and the Paris Peace Accords built the foundation of a liberal democracy – had collapsed.
“Billions of aid dollars have been spent on supporting Cambodians to develop a democratic system that respects the rule of law and basic human rights. Today’s news suggests that that project has failed,” she said on Thursday.
Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement that the move was “a naked power grab canceling the votes of millions of Cambodians . . . and rendering next year’s national elections meaningless”.
Calling the dissolution a “watershed moment”, Adams urged a “strong and concerted international response”. Among the sanctions recommended by HRW are asset freezes, travel bans on senior officials and suspension of all technical assistance for the elections.
Phil Robertson, Adams’ deputy, said HRW is also calling for sanctions that would limit elites’ access to international banking.
“A bank doing business with a listed person would have to decide whether to give up that person’s business, or stop doing business with the US banking industry,” he explained.
Mu Sochua, deputy president of the CNRP, said she believed the US’ pulling of election funds would only mark the first step of international action.
“More will come and stronger,” she said.