Amid fears of a potential reprise of anti-opposition violence that flared in October, a US Embassy spokesman yesterday called on the government “to ensure that no one is threatened, punished, or harmed in Cambodia” if a planned anti-Hun Sen rally takes place as scheduled next week in California.
The statement follows a call from rights group Human Rights Watch for Washington to “publicly demand” the government retract perceived threats of reprisal made publicly ahead of the prime minister’s trip to a US-ASEAN summit next week.
Dubbed the “Rally Against the Tyrant Hun Sen”, the planned demonstration is the brainchild of activist group the Cambodian-American Alliance, and is set to take place on Monday outside the summit in Rancho Mirage, California, where the prime minister will be in attendance. The group has said that it expects as many as 1,000 protesters to attend.
Last month, Hun Sen warned that any demonstrations during his US visit could result in retaliatory ruling party rallies directed against opposition leaders in Cambodia. The warning bore an eerie resemblance to similar predictions made by the premier after he was greeted by anti-ruling party protesters on an October trip to Paris.
In that instance, barely 24 hours after Hun Sen foreshadowed ruling party protests in a speech, two Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers were savagely beaten outside the National Assembly following a pro-government rally, while the house of CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha was surrounded by a mob and pelted with rocks.
Human Rights Watch’s statement, released in the wee hours on Wednesday, called on Washington to hold the Cambodian government to account. “The US government should say publicly that it won’t allow a leader with a proven record of violence to chill speech in the US,” HRW Asia director Brad Adams said in the statement.
In an email yesterday, Jay Raman, a spokesman for the US Embassy in Cambodia, said Washington “regularly raises issues of human rights” in “public and private” with the government and called for any response to the US demonstration to be peaceful.
“It is our clear position that the right to assemble and demonstrate in the US has been around for a long time – it’s the hallmark of an open society – and we would urge the Cambodian government not to take any [retaliatory] action,” Raman said in an earlier interview.
“I won’t comment on what action we would take if there were any [retaliatory] action here,” he added.
Saying the embassy response was “good” but “didn’t go far enough”, HRW Asia deputy director Phil Robertson said the statement failed to address “the culture of fear that has been created by the CPP’s intimidation”.
“The US should be signaling no more business as usual with Hun Sen, not inviting him to summits and issuing run-of-the-mill statements,” he said via email.
Kem Monovithya, CNRP’s deputy public affairs head and daughter of the party’s deputy president Kem Sokha, said the US “absolutely” had a duty to condemn the threats.
“It is American citizens who will be demonstrating and the prime minister is there on the invitation of the US administration, so they do have a moral responsibility” to speak out against the threats, she said.
Monovithya said she believed the US should hold the Cambodian government responsible for any violence that happens here related to the California protest.
“Otherwise, it’s a big embarrassment to the US administration,” she said.
In addressing safety concerns, Monovithya said her party was still waiting to hear back after requesting last week to meet with the Ministry of Interior to discuss arranging security “precautions” for opposition figures.
“We’re trying to avoid what happened in October, basically,” she said.
The request followed a widely circulated Facebook post by a prominent ruling party social media activist and soldier, who suggested that the California protests would cause CPP supporters to “pull [Sokha] out of his car like the two CNRP lawmakers last time” and “burn down” his home, remarks Monovithya labelled a “specific threat”.
Monovithya said that her party’s request to the ministry was made between “high-level CNRP” members and the Interior Minister Sar Kheng, but ministry spokesman Kheiu Sopheak yesterday claimed to know “nothing about this request”.
He then went on to cite undisclosed “evidence” that past anti-Hun Sen demonstrations in Paris and New York had been funded by the CNRP. Sopheak’s remarks came just days after the prime minister’s son, Hun Manith, cited unspecified proof that the opposition was similarly funding the planned California demonstration – despite staunch assurances to the contrary by the party.
When contacted yesterday, CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith reiterated previous disavowals, but added that “the CNRP supports HRW’s request”.
Ruling party spokesman Suos Yara said he was unaware of any retaliatory protests planned. He added that “anything from a political organisation or civil society, as long as it respects the law, we welcome it”.