US Ambassador William E Todd yesterday waded into the debate over the June 5 expulsion of 29 lawmakers from the National Assembly, despite senior government officials warning foreign observers and diplomats to stay out of the issue last week.
Todd, in a personal weekly column published in English and Khmer on local news websites, responded to a reader’s question about why the United States had questioned Cambodia’s democratic process.
“We believe the action taken by the National Assembly limits the space for competing political parties in Cambodia, is contrary to the spirit of democracy, and risks tarnishing Cambodia’s image on the world stage,” he wrote.
The expulsion was “troubling”, he added, given that the world hopes to see “an electoral process that is free from political interference” in the lead-up to July’s election.
“Rather than enabling an honest, straightforward discussion of issues, the National Assembly has chosen to take away the opposition’s voice in parliament,” Todd continued.
A US State Department announcement on June 8 that criticised the expulsion prompted Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lawmaker Chheang Vun to label the comments as “unacceptable” last week and re-assert Cambodia’s sovereignty in a specially-convened press conference.
On the same day, Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong also told Australian Ambassador Alison Burrows behind closed doors that Cambodia did not appreciate foreign “interference” in its internal affairs, according to the ministry spokesperson.
Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan responded to Todd’s words in a softer tone yesterday, emphasising that the decision to strip the lawmakers of their positions was based on law.
“I respect the United States’ voice of concern about this issue but they should be part of strengthening the rule of law . . . and not politicising this issue,” he said.
“The US should help the opposition to behave themselves in the context of [the] state of law.”
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Koy Kuong echoed a similar sentiment in his response.
“The National Assembly implements the law and internal rules of parliament . . . democracy without law is anarchy,” he told the Post.
“Cambodia is an independent country and we have our own law.”
The ruling party has claimed opposition parliamentarians broke the law by joining new political parties, while the opposition, legal experts and rights groups have challenged the constitutionality of the move made by the assembly’s permanent committee – composed entirely of CPP members.
Since 2009, the US government has spent more than $50 million on initiatives targeting democracy, human rights and good governance in Cambodia, according to State Department data.
Other large governance donors including Australia, France and the EU have remained silent on the issue, despite repeated requests for comment.