Khmer News in En

Laos Cracks Down on Trafficking on Border With Thailand

Lao authorities are tightening controls at a crossing on the border with Thailand, posting warning signs and interviewing travelers in a bid to end the exploitation of young Lao citizens for sex or labor in the neighboring country.

Speaking to RFA’s Lao Service, a Lao border officer at the Vangtao-Song Mek checkpoint  in Champassak province said that officials now try actively to help travelers “before they cross the border.”

“We are campaigning and giving them information, and we are distributing flyers to anyone going into Thailand,” the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We may also refuse permission to cross to anyone who is underage,” he said.

Signs posted at the border crossing now warn travelers lured into Thailand by the promise of high-paying jobs, “Do not listen to strangers who can entrap you in prostitution and hard labor.”

“We can help you with counseling, shelter, food, and job training,” the signs say.

Lao officers working on the border also take time to speak directly to young Laotians hoping to leave the country, asking their age and the reasons for their travel, RFA’s source said.

Authorities tell would-be emigrants to be sure they have the proper documentation–including passports, visas, and work permits–required to find jobs in Thailand.

“Many Lao workers are being sent home every day,” RFA’s source said.

“Most of them don’t have work permits. They only have passports, and they go there as tourists and then work illegally.”

“So we tell them that it is dangerous and problematic to go to Thailand like that.”

Many work without papers

According to Thailand’s Ministry of Labour, there are around 170,000 Lao workers working legally in the country out of around 2.7 million documented migrant workers—mainly from Myanmar and Cambodia.

While the ministry does not provide figures for undocumented workers from specific countries, it estimates that 2 million migrants are working in Thailand without papers. Reports suggest that more than 200,000 of those illegal migrant workers are from Laos.

Meanwhile, Laos is suffering from a shortage of workers—including skilled workers—but Laotians prefer to work in Thailand because they receive nearly double the pay they get at home.

On June 23, Thailand enacted a royal decree imposing jail terms of up to five years and a fine of up to 100,000 baht (U.S. $2,941) on illegal workers in the country.

The decree was suspended following backlash from employers and migrant advocates, but thousands of workers had already fled the country, fearing arrest and deportation.

Thailand has been widely criticized by rights groups for its treatment of migrant workers, who are often exploited by unscrupulous employers and labor brokers.

“Thailand is a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking,” the U.S. State Department said in its 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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US Lawmakers Call For Sanctions List, Review of Trade With Cambodia Amid Crackdown

The Committee on Foreign Affairs for the U.S. House of Representatives has called for a list of individuals and businesses in Cambodia who should be subject to sanctions and plans to review trade agreements with the country as part of a bid to pressure its government to reverse restrictions on democracy ahead of a general election next year.

At a subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, lawmakers heard testimony concerning policies to support democracy and human rights in Cambodia from Kem Monovithya, the daughter of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Kem Sokha, who was arrested in September for allegedly collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.

Kem Monovithya, who is also a member of the CNRP’s permanent committee, noted that as a signatory to the Paris Peace Accords of 1991, which ended civil war and guaranteed free and fair elections in Cambodia, the U.S. “has a legal and moral responsibility to ensure that Cambodia does not fall back into an outright dictatorship,” citing the charges facing her father, the dissolution of the CNRP last month, and a months-long crackdown on NGOs and the media.

In addition to recent announcements by Washington that it was enacting visa bans on individuals in Hun Sen’s government responsible for limiting democracy and withdrawing financial support for the July 2018 elections, she called on the U.S. to place “targeted financial sanctions” on government officials through the Specially Designated Nations (SDN) list and through the Global Magnitsky Act.

By placing Cambodian officials on the SDN list, the U.S. State Department and Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) under the Treasury Department would block their assets and prevent U.S. nationals from doing business with them.

The Magnitsky act, passed by Congress in 2012, was initially intended to punish Russian officials responsible for the death of Russian tax accountant Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009 by prohibiting their entrance to the U.S. and their use of its banking system, but the scope of the act was expanded in 2016 to allow sanctions for foreign government officials implicated in human rights abuses throughout the globe.

Kem Monovithya also called for the suspension of all aid to Cambodia’s government, the continuance of democracy assistance programs for civil society, a review of Cambodia’s eligibility for preferential trade status, coordination with other importers of Cambodian goods to pressure Hun Sen to reverse course, and the convening of signatories of the Paris Peace Accords to review Cambodia’s violations of the treaty.

“The current oppression, if allowed to continue, will generate political instability as repressed dissent boils over; this will eventually trigger economic instability that will take the country backwards,” she said.

Without an effective response, Cambodia’s government will believe that “international assistance and trade relationships are a one-way obligation, where [it] is entitled to foreign aid and investment but not obligated to fulfill any responsibility to defending its democratic stability and the rights and freedoms of its people.”

Lawmakers respond

Following Kem Monovithya’s testimony, Subcommittee Chairman Ted Yoho noted that the European Union, the U.S., Canada, and Japan account for more than 70 percent of Cambodia’s exports, and suggested that the countries could work together to pressure Hun Sen to end restrictions on democracy.

“We’ll also send the information to the Cambodian government that you either choose to do business with the United States of America following these principles that we’ve all signed on to [as Paris Peace Accord signatories], or you do business with somebody else,” he said.

The Florida congressman noted that Hun Sen had recently been courting Chinese aid and investment, which Beijing generally offers without prerequisites, saying “I think it’s time we start playing that hand because we see the hand that China is forcing and it’s not in the favor of democracy.”

After the hearing was adjourned, California Congressman Alan Lowenthal told RFA’s Khmer Service that the recent actions of Cambodia’s government were seen as “very troubling.”

“The situation is deteriorating rapidly and there must be responses now to Hun Sen or else democracy will be lost in Cambodia,” he said.

“I think that out of today’s hearing we will begin that discussion about what … kinds of sanctions we can put on Cambodia. We need to talk to our friends in both Europe and also in Asia to see whether we can all work together. It’s not just the United States, but we’ve seen that when sanctions have worked … it was because the world all spoke with one voice.”

Lowenthal said that Hun Sen’s recent crackdown was part of a bid by the strongman, who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades, to eliminate free and fair elections next year “because he’s concerned with the outcome” following a strong showing by the CNRP during the country’s June commune elections.

“We must work with other nations to support the reestablishment of the opposition party, and we must send [election] observers, and we must hold Hun Sen’s feet to the fire that he agreed to free and fair elections, and now he doesn’t want to hold [them],” he said.

“What happens in Cambodia must be decided by the Cambodian people and … right now the Cambodian people are being held hostage by the prime minister and the world must speak out.”

The European Union recently followed the U.S. in withdrawing funding for next year’s election.

On Wednesday, Patrick Murphy, deputy assistant secretary of state for Southeast Asia, told reporters in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh that the U.S. is “advising that these steps that have taken place here that have backtracked on democracy could be reversed,” according to a report by Reuters news agency.

The most senior U.S. official to visit since the CNRP was dissolved warned that Cambodia still had time before next year’s election to “conduct an electoral process that is legitimate.”

During his visit, Murphy met senior officials but no government ministers. He also met civil society groups.

Rejecting recognition

Also on Wednesday, Hun Sen maintained that he does not need the international community to recognize the results of next year’s election, while delivering a speech to more than 10,000 garment workers in Phnom Penh.

“Whether we have the opposition party or not, the next election will proceed as planned,” he said.

Meanwhile, he said, democracy and the principle of pluralism in Cambodia “must not be held hostage by anyone.”

“Be aware that there is no mention in Cambodian laws, including the Constitution, that election results need to be recognized by any president of any foreign country or the Secretary General of the United Nations,” he said.

“Our election is simply enough and legitimate, as long as Cambodian voters turn out to the polling stations and cast their votes.”

Last week, Hun Sen maintained that his country is governed by a multi-party democracy and said elections scheduled for next year would go on as planned, despite the recent dissolution of the only opposition party that posed a serious challenge to his rule.

In addition to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the now-defunct CNRP, around 15 minor political parties are actively registered to participate in the country’s elections, but none have attracted a comparable number of supporters.

Slightly more than 7 million Cambodians, or more than 90 percent of registered voters, turned out for commune council polls in June, which saw the CPP win nearly 51 percent of all votes and the CNRP receive nearly 44 percent, while the rest went to 10 other parties.

Responding to Hun Sen’s speech on Wednesday, Kan Savang, coordinator of election observers for the Committee on Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), said that while a ballot without the main opposition party can proceed, it will lack legitimacy.

“International sanctions have been mounted not only against the government but also the National Election Committee after the U.S. and EU cut assistance to this electoral body,” he said.

“Japan, which is a key donor, I believe will reconsider its assistance as well. Any election conducted under the current political oppression will not be seen as free and fair, nor legitimate in the eyes of the international community.”

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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EU Halts Funding to Cambodia’s National Election Committee

The European Union on Tuesday said it is suspending financial assistance to Cambodia’s National Election Committee, citing the dissolution of the main opposition party by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of general elections next year.

The EU stressed that because the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been “arbitrarily excluded,” the general elections in July 2018 “cannot be seen as legitimate.”

On Nov. 16, Cambodia’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the CNRP be dissolved for its part in plotting a “coup” against the government. The move banned 118 party officials from politics for five years and essentially eliminated any competition to Hun Sen.

The EU said it was “glad” to support the electoral process that led to Cambodia’s commune/sangkat (villages) council elections on June 4, which it said “were widely recognized as having been professionally run” by the NEC and “having reached high standards of transparency and credibility.”

“Since then, however, a series of actions has been taken by the authorities against the main opposition party…” the EU’s brief statement said.

“The decisions to dissolve the CNRP, and the subsequent reallocation of its National Assembly and commune/sangkat seats to other parties denies the choice of those who voted for the party in the elections of 2013 and 2017,” it said.

Som Sorida, deputy secretary-general of the NEC, which oversees national elections in Cambodia, responded to the announcement by pointing out that the committee has already budgeted enough funds, materials, and human resources to prepare for both Senate and National Assembly elections next year, and that the government has already approved the spending packages.

He told the government-linked Fresh News that China, a staunch supporter of Hun Sen’s government, will serve as the main provider of assistance to the NEC should it encounter any financial difficulties in the run-up to the vote.

The amount of funding provided by the EU ahead of the elections is insignificant, he said, adding that the bloc provided only U.S. $5 million for the commune council elections earlier this year. The EU had pledged U.S. $12 million for election preparations for this year and 2018.

George Edgar, EU ambassador to Cambodia, said during International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10 that respect for human rights and democratic principles are considered key elements of cooperation agreements between the EU and Cambodia.

Cambodian political analyst Meas Ny said the EU’s decision indicates its dissatisfaction with the political crackdown by the Cambodian government.

With no funding for election monitoring from the EU, the 2018 elections will be vulnerable to irregularities, and the independence of the NEC will be called into question, he said.

“Any government formed after such an election will not be legitimately honored in the international arena,” Meas Ny told RFA’s Khmer Service. “Hence, this will make the [government] severely dependent upon China.”

Once the ruling CPP is totally dependent upon China, the party’s popularity will wane, he said.

Smith weighs in

In a related development, Rhona Smith, United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, called on Monday for the restoration of multiparty democracy and the assurance of freedom for civil society and the media to operate in the country.

Smith expressed concern about the dissolution of the CNRP and warned that restricting Cambodians’ voices could “ultimately threaten the stability” in Cambodia.

“This has denied a significant portion of the population of their right to take part in public affairs through their freely chosen representatives,” Smith said in a statement.

She noted that CNRP leader Kem Sokha, who was arrested in September for allegedly collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the CPP, remains in prison, while several other CNRP members have fled the country because of intimidation by authorities and pressure to switch their party affiliation to the CPP.

The government has also silenced independent media outlets critical of it and restricted the activities of international and domestic NGOs.

“With general elections due in July 2018, I call on the government to restore the space for any Cambodians to exercise the right to stand for election without fear or intimidation,” Smith said.

Army neutrality

Hun Sen on Monday reaffirmed that his armed forces would definitely protect his government and said that there is no “army neutrality” principle for his government or the state in response to remarks by former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, who recently encouraged soldiers to stop listening to the prime minister and to commanders’ orders to shoot and kill innocent civilians.

Sam Rainsy was CNRP president until went into exile in November 2015 in the face of arrest warrants issued by courts beholden to Hun Sen.

“We must make it clear that the army’s neutrality does not exist in relation to the state, political parties, and civil society,” Hun Sen told attendees at the inauguration of a training school for military espionage and intelligence professionals on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

“The [army’s] neutrality only exists equally among political parties taking part in democratic elections,” he said. “Yet, when it comes to the violation of state laws, the army will stay on the side of the state to protect the state, and such [illegal] activities will never be allowed to occur.”

In July, Cambodian political analyst Ros Ravuth warned that if a national army aligns itself politically, it will forfeit its neutrality, and such action could prompt a military coup if an opposition party wins future elections.

Color revolutions

Hun Sen went on to say that army neutrality will not exist for any political party that stages a “color revolution” to try to overthrow his government. He accused the West of trying to stage such an event in Cambodia.

Color revolutions refer to a series of popular movements that used nonviolent protests under colored banners to topple governments in countries of the former Soviet Union during the 2000s.

Hun Sen, who has made previous speeches about suppressing those who would like to start a color revolution aimed at toppling his administration, also said that in countries where the revolutions have occurred, efforts were made to ensure army’s neutrality so that the overthrow would be successful.

Some political analysts say Hun Sen’s accusations against the West are nonsense and are only a pretext by the ruling party to show to voters that the prime minister is a good leader who has successfully prevented a color revolution from occurring in Cambodia.

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay called Hun Sen’s comments about a color revolution groundless, and said that he is using them as a pretext to crack down on those who oppose him.

He also noted that there is no existing law that stipulates that the army will not be allowed to take a stance of neutrality. Instead, the law requires the army to remain neutral when performing its duties and prohibits it from engaging in activities that directly benefit or oppose any political parties or candidates.

“The issue is that our commander-in-chief and commanders of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces are members of the [ruling] party, and most of them serve as senior members,” he told RFA.

Because Hun Sen serves as CPP president and a member of the National Assembly, he must suspend his role as commander-in-chief to serve civilian affairs, Lao Mong Hay said.

In genuinely democratic countries that uphold the rule of law, the powers of the government are determined by law, and the head of government cannot do anything according to his own will, he said.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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Overseas Cambodians Rally in Washington to Protest Hun Sen

More than a thousand Cambodians living in the United States, Canada, and France demonstrated in front of the Cambodian embassy in Washington on Sunday to demand that Cambodia release political opposition leader Kem Sokha from prison.

Rallying earlier at the White House, they also urged stronger U.S. pressure on Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen to reverse the Southeast Asian nation’s retreat from democracy and slide into authoritarian rule.

Speaking at the rally, Kem Monovithya—daughter of jailed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Kem Sokha—said that while the U.S. and other concerned countries may do their best to help Cambodia, the real power to effect change in the country lies in the hands of the Cambodian people themselves.

“The bottom line is that you yourselves should be prepared to decide what you want your country to be,” she said.

Pa Nguon Teang, executive director of the Phnom Penh-based Cambodian Center for Independent Media, called the demonstration on International Human Rights Day a message to Hun Sen that Cambodia’s people will not accept living under a dictatorship.

“If the government makes no move to reconsider its actions in a timely manner, there will be more mass protests [in Cambodia] too,” he said.

“Hun Sen has robbed the CNRP of its legitimate seats [in the country’s parliament],” Montreal resident Soeu Sokhom said.

“He has dissolved the opposition party and betrayed the over three million Cambodians who voted for the CNRP” in local elections held earlier this year, she said.

“We strongly disagree with what he has done to the political opposition and to our country,” she said.

Widespread condemnation

Hun Sen has faced widespread condemnation in recent months over his government’s move to formally dissolve the CNRP, his only effective political opposition, as well as for orchestrating the closure of independent media outlets and cracking down on nongovernmental organizations ahead of national elections scheduled for next year.

Speaking in front of the Cambodian embassy on Sunday, CNRP deputy president Eng Chhai Eang said “We ask Hun Sen’s government to reverse its decision and allow the CNRP to engage in politics as normal.”

“We also demand the immediate and unconditional release of Kem Sokha and all political prisoners.”

Cambodia’s ambassador to the U.S. should work to represent Cambodia’s people and not the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) controlled by Hun Sen, he said.

“We hope Hun Sen will address our concerns in a timely manner in order to avoid more international sanctions.”

Writing on social media on Monday, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan rejected the demands raised by protesters on Sunday, adding, “Any protests by Cambodians abroad have violated the rules of law and democracy of Cambodia.”

“The dissolution of the CNRP was done according to judicial procedures,” he said.

Cambodian Council of Ministers spokeman Phay Siphan meanwhile threatened the use of force against demonstrations in Cambodia itself.

“We and the armed forces are prepared to suppress all such forms of protest,” he said.

Visa restrictions

Hun Sen’s crackdown on his opponents has also brought condemnation from Washington and restrictions on travel visas to the United States by Cambodian government officials.

Writing in support of the restrictions, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who has emerged as a strong critic of Hun Sen’s actions, called the visa curbs “a good first step toward restoring democratic gains in Cambodia and a much-needed response to China’s growing influence in Phnom Penh.”

“Hun Sen faces a simple choice: release opposition leader Kem Sokha, allow Sam Rainsy to return, reinstitute the Cambodia National Rescue Party, lift his ban on open broadcasting and free speech — or risk further punitive action from the United States,” Cruz wrote on the blog Texas GOP Vote.  

Sam Rainsy was the CNRP president until went into exile in November 2015 in the face of arrest warrants issued by courts beholden to Hun sen.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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Cambodia’s Opposition Appeals Supreme Court Ruling For Dissolution

Cambodia’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on Friday filed an appeal to reverse a ruling by the nation’s highest court to dissolve it, saying the decision was “politically motivated” and amounted to a national tragedy.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court on Nov. 16 unanimously ruled that the CNRP be dissolved for its part in plotting a “coup” against the government, banning 118 party officials from politics for five years and essentially eliminating any competition to Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of a general election scheduled for July 2018.

Since the decision, the National Assembly has redistributed the CNRP’s 55 seats to other government-aligned political parties, while Hun Sen has pressured the party’s nearly 5,000 elected commune and 800 provincial/municipal level councilors to defect to his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) or lose their jobs.

CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrith on Friday filed an appeal against the Supreme Court ruling to dissolve the opposition party, telling RFA’s Khmer Service his intention is to “stop the ruling party from arbitrarily distributing” the CNRP’s commune and provincial/municipal councilor positions to other parties.

He also called for all 118 CNRP officials who were banned from politics to be allowed to resume their positions and return to politics.

“I have filed the appeal, but I haven’t been informed of how things will proceed,” he said.

“I believe now that the court has received the appeal, it will take some time to look into it. I expect to be notified about the case through our lawyer.”

Ou Chanrith said he believes that the Supreme Court lacks dependence from the ruling party, but felt the need to ask for a reconsideration of the decision because it would “cause a tragedy for the nation” if not reversed.

“We do not recognize the Supreme Court’s ruling to dissolve the opposition party,” he said.

“The dissolution of the CNRP is politically motivated.”

Local political analyst Lao Mong Hay said it is highly unlikely that the CNRP would win its appeal, particularly because the opposition party didn’t bother to take part in the proceedings during the original ruling.

“When the CNRP was summoned to the hearing, they didn’t show up, and the ruling was then rendered,” he said.

“The CNRP appears to be inconsistent, initially claiming they didn’t recognize the ruling, but now pursuing an appeal. I don’t think it’s a good move.”

But Ou Chanrath explained that he filed the appeal as a way of “expressing his resentment” of the ruling, and said he would “leave it to the court to decide and the public to judge.”

CPP spokesperson Sok Ey San dismissed the CNRP’s appeal as “useless.”

“He has the right to file an appeal, but it’s useless to appeal a final decision,” he said.

“A Supreme Court ruling cannot be overturned.”

Detained lawmaker

Also on Friday, Choung Choungy, a lawyer for jailed CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An, expressed frustration over the “very slow process” of the Supreme Court in addressing an appeal of his client’s sentence.

“The legal documents were submitted a long time ago, but the Supreme Court keeps changing the dates of the hearing time and again,” he said.

“I have no idea as to when there will be an actual hearing.”

Um Sam An was handed a two-and-a half year sentence by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in October 2016 for “inciting discrimination” and “inciting social instability” for posts on the lawmaker’s Facebook page accusing the CPP of failing to stop land encroachment by Vietnam and using improper maps to demarcate the border between the two former colonies of France.

Months earlier, Hun Sen had ordered police to arrest anyone accusing the government of using “fake” maps to cede national territory to Vietnam, which invaded and occupied Cambodia in 1979 to overthrow the rule of the Khmer Rouge.

Am Sam Ath, head of investigations for local rights group LICADHO, told RFA that “justice delayed is justice denied” in Um Sam An’s case.

“The longer the delay in the proceedings, the more infringement on the rights of the accused occurs,” he said.

“The accused hopes that a decision is made expeditiously so that he can be freed sooner. The delay in proceedings while the accused remains in custody longer hurts his family the most, both financially and emotionally.”

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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Cambodia Calls on US to Reconsider Visa Restrictions, Despite Ongoing Crackdown

Cambodia’s government on Thursday urged the U.S. to reconsider visa restrictions announced in response to an ongoing crackdown against the political opposition and freedom of expression, but maintained that the move would not influence the internal affairs of the nation.

On Wednesday,  Washington announced visa restrictions on “individuals responsible for undermining Cambodian democracy” in response to the September arrest of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha on charges of “attempting to topple the government” and a decision by the Supreme Court last month to dissolve his party for its alleged role in the “conspiracy.”

The U.S. State Department said the move was part of a series of “concrete steps” aimed at pressuring Cambodia to “reverse course” that included a decision last month to withdraw funding for general elections set for July 2018, adding that in certain cases family members of the individuals deemed responsible for the crackdown would also be subject to visa bans.

“Reinstating the political opposition, releasing Kem Sokha, and allowing civil society and media to resume their constitutionally protected activities … could lead to a lifting of these travel restrictions and increase the potential for Cambodia’s 2018 electoral process to regain legitimacy,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement accompanying the announcement.

On Thursday, ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesperson Sok Ey San called on the U.S. to reconsider the visa restriction, accusing the State Department of “having double standards” by contradicting what he called U.S. President Donald Trump’s “policy of non-interference” in the affairs of sovereign states.

“It affects our feelings, and the U.S. [government] should reconsider this issue, because Cambodia is a tiny country that doesn’t possess even tiny missiles, let alone nuclear weapons,” he said.

“Therefore, we request this superpower country to kindly permit tiny Cambodia to live in peace.”

The decision made by the State Department “clearly shows the U.S. is using its influence to put pressure on Cambodia on behalf of the opposition party,” Sok Ey San said, referencing accusations that Kem Sokha had colluded with Washington to bring down the CPP, which the U.S. embassy has denied.

He reiterated that Kem Sokha’s arrest, the decision to dissolve the CNRP, and other actions his government has taken against NGOs and the media in recent months were simply meant to “reinforce the rule of law,” and that the CPP had “made great efforts to build Cambodia into a country that truly respects democratic principles.”

Sok Ey San said that if the U.S. will not reconsider the visa restrictions, “it is not a problem,” and noted “there are many other meetings outside the U.S. that [Cambodia] can join.”

Cambodia has increasingly looked to China for loans and investment, preferring Beijing’s policy of offering assistance without conditions, unlike the U.S., which has called on Phnom Penh to improve its human rights record.

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan said the restriction of visas “appears to be in opposition to the democracy that Cambodia has worked so hard to build over the past 20 years” and could “undermine stability” in the country, calling the decision “disappointing.”

“Nevertheless, they must serve their own interests, even though those whom they support are among a rebel group who have been working against state institutions, the courts, the Senate and the National Assembly,” he said.

“We are not concerned about this,” he added.

Other reactions

Local political analyst Lao Mong Hay welcomed the visa restriction as a “sign that democracy may be rescued in Cambodia,” and expected the decision to have an effect on the government’s strategy in the lead up to the 2018 ballot.

“This is a positive measure—a step that may push our leaders to reconsider the actions that they have taken and that affect democracy in Cambodia,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.

Former CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who has been living in self-imposed exile since 2015 to avoid convictions on charges widely seen as politically motivated, also welcomed the restriction, but urged the U.S. and other members of the international community to take additional measures against the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 32 years.

“The measures taken by the U.S. … is appropriate considering the bad deeds committed by this leader against his own citizens and democrats,” he said in an interview via Skype from Paris.

“They are appropriate since they do not affect the interests of regular citizens. They only affect the interests of the dictator, members of his clique, and their families.”

On Wednesday, Hun Sen maintained that his country is governed by a multi-party democracy and said elections scheduled for next year would go on as planned, despite the dissolution of the CNRP—the only opposition party that posed a serious challenge to his rule.

He also accused Sam Rainsy—who resigned in February this year in a bid to preserve the CNRP in the face of a law that bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party—of “treason” for calling on Cambodia’s military to disobey the prime minister’s orders to kill protesters, and said the former CNRP chief will face additional legal action for his comments.

Australian lawmaker

Also on Thursday, Australian Labor Party lawmaker Mark Butler, a member of the House of Representatives for Port Adelaide, South Australia, called on Australia’s parliament and federal government to take strong measures against Hun Sen’s government to push for the release of Kem Sokha and the normalization of democracy in Cambodia.

“The large Cambodian-Australian community here in Australia is obviously distressed by what is happening in Cambodia,” Butler said in a speech on the floor of parliament, noting that a number of Cambodian-Australians had come to Australia’s legislature earlier this week to support CNRP deputy president Mu Sochua in her campaign to rally support for free and fair elections in Cambodia.

Since Kem Sokha’s arrest, some 20 CNRP lawmakers, along with deputy presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang and a number of party activists, have fled Cambodia fearing retaliation by the CPP following important electoral gains by the opposition in June’s commune ballot, which are seen as pointing to a strong showing in next year’s vote.

Butler noted that the European Union, which last month threatened to withdraw preferential trade status for Cambodia in response to the crackdown, and the U.S. have pressured Hun Sen to end restrictions, and said he had written to Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop “asking her what concrete actions our country is considering to support democracy in Cambodia.”

“The first step must be the immediate release of Mr. Kem Sokha,” he said.

“It’s time Australia took action to support democracy in Cambodia.”

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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