Updated: 9:12am, Monday March 26, 2018

The United States has passed a $1.3 trillion spending bill that looks to cut funding for Cambodia unless the country releases all political prisoners and reinstates the opposition CNRP. The provisions in the bill on Cambodia call for US programs to counter the influence of China – whose ever-increasing presence in the country was highlighted on Friday as Prime Minister Hun Sen praised Chinese aid while inaugurating a road it had funded.

The omnibus bill, which averts a US government shutdown, was signed into law by US President Donald Trump, who initially threatened to veto the legislation.

The mammoth document says none of the funds made available to assist the Cambodian government will be forthcoming unless the secretary of state reports that Cambodia is “taking effective steps” to respect the rights enshrined in Cambodia’s Constitution.

That includes the “restoration of the civil and political rights of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, media, and civil society organizations”, and “the restoration of all elected officials to their elected offices”.

The bill also says US funding is dependent on the “release of all political prisoners, including journalists, civil society activists, and members of the opposition political party”.

The CNRP – the main challenger to Hun Sen’s long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party – was forcibly dissolved last year ahead of the upcoming elections this July, stripping opposition lawmakers and elected local government officials of their roles and driving many abroad.

The CNRP’s leader, Kem Sokha, was jailed on suspicion of “treason”. Two other political party leaders have been arrested, along with journalists, human rights defenders and environmentalists.

Opposition leader Kem Sokha is escorted by police following his midnight arrest in Phnom Penh last September. AFP

The bill also attempts to curb China’s influence in Cambodia by saying that unlocking funds depends on Cambodia strengthening “regional security and stability, particularly regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the enforcement of international sanctions with respect to North Korea”.

Funds will be made available, however, for “democracy programs” into research and education surrounding the Khmer Rouge, while excluding the Khmer Rouge tribunal, and money will be poured into “programs in the Khmer language to counter the influence of the People’s Republic of China in Cambodia”.

That influence was on display on Friday during a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Chinese-funded road, with Prime Minister Hun Sen welcoming increased aid from the growing power.

“It helps to strengthen the political independence of Cambodia as well. This point is very important as I and CPP leaders found common consensus in our foreign policy with China,” he said.

Hun Sen lauded China’s noninterference policy when it came to the Kingdom, making a thinly veiled reference to the United States’ critique of local affairs.

“China talks less, but it does a lot and it is different from others talking much, doing less,” he said.

The US Embassy in Phnom Penh said it was reviewing the appropriations bill but that it illustrated local concerns over the diminishing democratic space within the country. “We continue to call on the Cambodian government to reverse course by reinstating the opposition, releasing Kem Sokha, and allowing members of civil society and the media to resume their constitutionally-protected activities,” said embassy spokesman David Josar in an email.

US President Donald Trump speaks about the spending bill during a press conference in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House on Friday. Nicholas Kamm/AFP

When asked if Cambodia would release political prisoners to access the US funding, government spokesman Phay Siphan replied: “In a word, no.”

“The US is not our boss. Cambodian people are our boss. We respect the court [and] we cannot take any money to overrule our Constitution or our court,” he said. “We stand very firm to protect what we call rule of law.”

The UN special rapporteur to human rights on Cambodia recently lamented the Kingdom’s “rule by law” – whereby the legal system is used for political ends – while international observers have repeatedly decried Cambodia’s corrupt courts.

Siphan maintained Cambodia did not abide by the edicts of any foreign country, but maintained the US was still “a friend, not a foe”.

When asked about what is widely seen as Cambodia’s “pivot to China”, which has seen Cambodia scuttle Asean consensus on the South China Sea in the past, Siphan denied any untoward interference.

“China has nothing to do with Cambodia,” he said. “They cannot order us [around].”

Sam Rainsy, whose newly formed Cambodia National Rescue Movement has been seeking targeted sanctions from the international community, welcomed the provisions in the spending bill as “good news” and said he hoped that more would follow.

Mu Sochua, a deputy opposition president who fled the country in October, said the bill showed it was “time to put statement into action”.

The bill also allocates funds to continue restricting visas “to individuals involved in undermining democracy in Cambodia, including the family members of such individuals”, a policy announced by the Department of State on December 6 last year.