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Sokhonn raises issue of returnees with US official

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Deputy Assistant to the US Secretary of State Patrick Murphy (right) and Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sakhonn attend a meeting yesterday at the Foreign Ministry in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

Sokhonn raises issue of returnees with US official

With tensions between the US and Cambodia running high in recent months, Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhonn met with a visiting US State Department official yesterday, taking the opportunity to once again request a reworking of a controversial repatriation agreement that has seen America to deport hundreds of Cambodians back to the Kingdom.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Murphy declined to take questions after his meeting with Sokhonn, telling reporters he and Sokhon had a “very nice discussion”.

Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said Sokhonn reiterated a desire that America cease deporting Cambodians with criminal convictions under the current agreement, which was inked in 2002.

“It is necessary to amend the agreement because there have been criticisms from people in Cambodia, from Cambodian people in the US, and the people sent back because they are victimised twice,” said Sounry.

The deportation agreement has been criticised as a violation of human rights, with detractors pointing out that, despite not holding US citizenship, many of the Cambodians being forcibly returned were born in refugee camps, grew up in America and have no ties to the Kingdom.

Earlier this month, eight deportees arrived in the capital, and more than 550 have arrived in Cambodia since 2002.

Murphy’s visit coincides with a war of words between the two governments, with Prime Minister Hun Senrepeatedly demanding that US President Donald Trump forgive an outstanding pre-Khmer Rouge debt and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs having released a document this month accusing the US of being part of a campaign of misinformation against Cambodia’s human rights and democracy track record.

According to Sounry, neither the debt nor the document were discussed during the meeting.“Sokhonn told [Murphy] that Cambodia really appreciates all kinds of aid and assistance from the US to Cambodia over the past two decades,” he added.

That aid, however, may be in question, as a leaked budget proposal shows plans to drastically cut foreign aid to scores of countries, including Cambodia.

Murphy also met yesterday with opposition leader Kem Sokha, who presented a “balanced picture” of both the positives and negatives of Cambodia’s current political climate, Murphy said.

Sokha’s cabinet chief, Muth Chantha, said that Murphy expressed some concerns about the “negative” aspects, but would not elaborate on them.

“The US will seriously look into the situation to see if the opposition party could operate freely and . . . without harassment,” he added.

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