Senator John McCain (L) speaks as Senator Joe Lieberman looks on during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, 2011. Photograph: Reuters
A dozen senior US lawmakers have sent a damning indictment of Prime Minister Hun Sen to newly re-elected President Barack Obama, accusing the Cambodian premier of links to high-profile cases of illegal logging and a raft of human-rights abuses.
The highly provocative and thinly sourced letter, signed by five senators and seven members of Congress, urges Obama to speak out against rights abuses – including a killing it alleges is connected to a firm with links to Hun Sen – during his upcoming visit to Cambodia for the ASEAN Summit.
It frames these events as being “in the wake of the Arab spring”, warns of growing Chinese influence and is signed by the likes of former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, Democrat Barbara Boxer and independent Joe Lieberman, all high-ranking US senators.
“In April, respected environmental organiser Chhut Wutty was killed by a military policeman while documenting illegal logging – a major source of revenue for Hun Sen and businessmen associated with him,” it reads.
“In May, a 14-year-old girl was killed in Prama, a poor rural village in northern Cambodia, during a protest against eviction operations expropriating land on behalf of a company with connections to Hun Sen.
“The Prime Minister [Hun Sen] is increasingly using politically controlled courts to facilitate these land seizures and bolster his unpopular rule.”
The letter, dated October 31 and obtained yesterday by the Post, calls for Obama to pressure the Cambodian government into letting opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy return to Cambodia ahead of the July, 2013 national election.
And it calls for Obama to push for the release of jailed Beehive Radio station owner Mam Sonando as well as for reform to Cambodia’s electoral system — demands that, in their totality, read almost identically to the newly formed CNRP’s electoral platform and the agenda of several prominent rights groups.
Son Chhay, the SRP whip who will be joining the CNRP when it is registered as the country’s main opposition party next year, confirmed that senior party officials had been meeting with lawmakers in Washington and lobbying them on Cambodian rights issues.
The timing of the letter is potentially volatile, with the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh looming on the horizon.
Past meetings this year have been charged with tension, with acrimony pouring from some ASEAN members and partners incensed by perceptions that China had imposed its agenda on the talks by controlling a servile beneficiary, Cambodia — a charge Phnom Penh vehemently denied.
But government spokesmen were tempered in their responses yesterday, politely affirming America's right to criticise Cambodia while dismissing the veracity of some of the claims made in the letter.
Tith Sothea, a spokesman from the Council of Ministers’ Quick and Press Reaction Unit, said the US senators should examine Cambodian law in depth before asking for the release of someone such as Mam Sonando.
“Cambodia has independence and sovereignty for deciding about something [judicially], so the report of the US senate members is not right,” he said, echoing what has become a default government response to any suggestion of political manipulation of the courts.
Last month, Sonando was found guilty of masterminding a so-called secessionist plot and sentenced to 20 years jail in a trial widely derided by rights groups and foreign governments as a politically motivated sham.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said, speaking from his personal view, that Cambodia welcomed people expressing their opinions on Cambodia, especially US policymakers, but would prefer it if Obama raised any concerns he had during bilateral meetings.
“I really appreciate that US politicians maintain much attention on Cambodia. We still appreciate the co-operation and good relations between the two nations so far, and we keep respecting each other, the interests of the United States and our interests. We are partners,” he said.
Siphan said some of the issues that had been raised in the letter were out of date and the government would welcome the opportunity to explain to Obama how they were gradually being resolved.
The Post attempted to contact almost all of the signatories to the letter yesterday, as well as representatives of Obama, but none of them could respond immediately.
The US is not the only foreign power that has waded into the debate over Cambodia’s human rights situation. Other countries that have spoken out received belated tongue-lashings from government officials.
After the European Parliament issued a damning resolution last month that sang much to the same tune as the US's letter – condemning a raft of different human-rights abuses in Cambodia – a diplomat from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs blasted them with accusations of bias and falsification.
The Australian Senate passed a similar resolution, which was more diplomatically dismissed by the Cambodian charge d’affairés there, Kimsour Savannary, as based on the biased and flawed views of opposition CNRP leader Sam Rainsy and UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia Surya Subedi.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said yesterday the US letter was more or less identical to these prior critiques.
“Whether it is weighty enough to get newly re-elected President Obama to act remains to be seen,” he added. “They could have got the US Congress and Senate to pass a similar resolution as the European Parliament. That would be very weighty indeed.”
Mong Hay, who has previously met John McCain in Washington, said the senator and his Democrat counterpart and co-signatory Senator Patrick Leahy had long been supporters of the Sam Rainsy Party.
But he said they possessed their own acute knowledge of Cambodian affairs, particularly McCain, who was jailed in Hanoi after he was shot down flying a fighter plane, and has maintained a watchful eye on Asian politics ever since.
Sam Rainsy has recently been in the US as part of a world tour wooing foreign support in his quest to have criminal convictions against him quashed so he can participate in the July, 2013 election and various other democratic reforms he has proposed.
Should he return, Rainsy faces 12 years in jail for a spate of charges related to a 2009 incident in which he uprooted demarcation posts on the Vietnamese border that he claimed illegally encroached on Cambodian territory.