The UK’s Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, has called on the Kingdom to release former opposition leader Kem Sokha and remedy an alleged backsliding of democracy.
However, responding to such comments, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the fate of Cambodia is to be decided by the Kingdom itself.
Field’s first visit to the Kingdom will see him having meetings until Thursday. He will hold talks with top government officials, civil society members and the private sector.
Wednesday saw him at talks with Prime Minister-designate Hun Sen, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn and Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron, where discussions centred around the July 29 national polls and bilateral ties between the two nations.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won a landslide victory in one of the most contentious national elections in recent memory due to the non-participation of the court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and its voter boycott calls.
It was revealed last week that the CPP swept all 125 seats in the National Assembly, marking the first time in modern history that the legislative body will be controlled by a single party.
Western critics have slammed the election, calling it a “sham”, while many Southeast Asian nations joined India, China and Russia among others in expressing support for the result of the polls.
After his meeting with officials at the capital’s Peace Palace on Wednesday, Field held a brief press conference with journalists at the British Ambassador’s residence.
“I had a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen. I said to him: ‘Let me be candid. We saw the commune elections which took place in June last year. We thought the right path to democracy was continuing.
“‘[But] we were very disappointed and rather dismayed, I have to say, that it was not a fully participatory [general] election. There was an outlawing of a major opposition party.
“‘Kem Sokha has been imprisoned. We continue to request that he should be released. We should open up the political space as far as possible.’”
Commenting on the royal pardon for land rights activist Tep Vanny, the release of analyst Kim Sok and the release on bail of former Radio Free Asia (RFA) Oun Chhin and Yeang Sothearin on espionage charges, Field expressed optimism over the political situation in the Kingdom.
“I said to the prime minister this morning: ‘We want to see progress. We want to see the road to democracy being restored in Cambodia. We will continue to work closely. We remain friends with the Cambodian people.
“‘Sometimes, the road towards freedom is not entirely a linear path. I hope that this downward step will be followed by a doubling of efforts to strengthen that road to democracy, not just for this country, but for the 16 million [people] who live here’,” he said.
On Thursday, Field will visit the headquarters of Halo Trust Cambodia in Siem Reap province to meet demining teams which are being funded by the UK.
During his tour of Southeast Asia, he had also met leaders from Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei and Thailand. After his time in the Kingdom, Field will move on to diplomatic meetings in Laos.
Responding to the British diplomat’s comments on the elections, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he hadn’t gotten enough information about the poll to make his comments.
“[Field] has never been in Cambodia [before this visit]. He only heard about Cambodia from others. And he did not receive complete information on the Kingdom.
“He knew [about the country] only through reports or newspapers whose authors do not reside in Cambodia. So this is an opportunity for us to explain matters to him,” he said.
Regarding the request for Kem Sokha’s release, Siphan stressed that the government cannot and does not interfere with the judiciary.
“Cambodia is an equal partner with other countries. Demanding that we do something interferes in our internal affairs. When he requested [Sokha’s release], he had not received proper information and did not pay attention as a partner,” he said.
During talks with Sokhonn in the afternoon, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Ket Sophann said Field expressed support for Hun Sen’s move to create the Consultation Forum – a committee of opposition party leaders brought into the fold of government as advisers.
“He also supported the spirit of reconciliation which was created by Samdech Prime Minister [Hun Sen] and the [Consultation Forum],” Sophann said.
Lecturer and special adviser for international affairs at Naresuan University Paul Chambers said Field “simply expressed the opinion of perhaps the world’s oldest liberal democracy, the UK, that the July 29 elections in Cambodia were extremely deficient”.
“The comment reflected the international community’s disappointment with Cambodia’s path toward diminishing political space and dictatorship,” he told The Post.