Khmer News in En

Cambodia Deploys Security Forces Ahead of Court Ruling on Opposition Party

Cambodia’s government is building up the presence of security forces across the country in anticipation of a public outcry in response to a court decision that could see the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) dissolved in the lead up to next year’s general election.

CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested on Sept. 3 for allegedly collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and Cambodia’s Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to disband the CNRP for its alleged involvement in the “conspiracy” on Nov. 16.

International rights groups urged the Supreme Court to assert its independence from the CPP and dismiss the case against the opposition, but armed forces continued to stream into Cambodia’s urban areas Wednesday, suggesting the decision to dissolve the CNRP was a done deal a day ahead of the hearing.

More than 300 security personnel conducted exercises at police headquarters in the seat of western Cambodia’s Battambang province on Wednesday morning before being deployed to various posts around the city.

In a video clip posted on the website of the provincial police, Battambang governor Nguon Ratanak instructs the troops to crack down on anyone who protests the outcome of Thursday’s decision, expressing concern that “people may be easily fooled and incited to stand up against the government by political groups.”

The buildup of security personnel in Battambang and other parts of the country followed an order earlier this week by Interior Minister Sar Kheng to create provincial “standby working groups” from Nov. 15 “monitor and settle on a prompt basis … various issues of concern in connection with any acts of trickery aimed at overthrowing our legitimate government.”

Last week, the Cambodian National Police General Commissariat’s Central Department of Public Orders, instructed subordinate branches to establish 24-hour standby groups of combat-uniformed security forces ready to “mobilize” when the Supreme Court hears the CNRP dissolution case.

Residents of Battambang told RFA’s Khmer Service Wednesday that they were intimidated by the buildup, and viewed it as an encroachment on their rights.

“I feel very bad that we are being deprived of our freedoms of speech and assembly,” said one resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“I don’t want [the authorities] to do this, but I can’t say anything for fear that I might be mistreated.”

Another resident called the troop deployment a “pretext to suppress the people” from voicing criticism of how the government is running the country, which he said was “illegal.”

“The government is violating both national and international law with what they are doing,” said the resident, who also asked to remain unnamed.

“Now they’re trying to cover up their wrongdoings by repressing people who want to stand up against them. The people should not be prohibited from protesting peacefully.”

Cambodian government and military officials have made numerous threats to use force against anyone who protests the dissolution of the CNRP or demonstrates against the results of elections.

In May, ahead of Cambodia’s commune ballot, Tea Banh warned that the army would “smash the teeth” of anyone protesting a win by the CPP and quickly suppress any opposition protests like those that followed the CNRP’s loss in national elections in 2013.

Call to resist

Also on Wednesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Cambodia’s Supreme Court to “resist government pressure” to dissolve the CNRP and urged the country’s international donors and supporters to state that dissolution of the party would delegitimize general elections scheduled for July 2018.

The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts, though the U.S. embassy has rejected any suggestion that Washington is interfering in Cambodian politics, and Human Rights Watch said in its statement that the government’s case against the CNRP fails to prove the party’s illegality.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen seems afraid that he will lose elections scheduled for 2018, so he is using the nuclear option to destroy the opposition,” said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director.

“Although the Supreme Court is effectively an organ of the ruling party, it has a historic chance to show some independence and uphold the rule of law.”

Hun Sen has announced that when the CNRP is dissolved, its parliamentary seats will be redistributed to other government-aligned political parties, and has pressured CNRP officials who were elected in the June commune ballot to defect to the CPP.

Since Kem Sokha’s arrest, more than half of 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.

Human Rights Watch suggested that the “planned dissolution” of the CNRP is “part of a massive, broader crackdown by Hun Sen and the CPP against all forms of peaceful dissent” that has also seen the government orchestrate the closure of independent media outlets and restrict nongovernmental organizations in recent months.

“Hun Sen is in the process of destroying pluralism, free speech, and all other human rights gains since the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991,” Adams said.

“Donors and diplomats have a choice: do nothing while the chances for democracy are extinguished, or send the message that there will be serious political, economic, and diplomatic consequences if Hun Sen returns Cambodia to a de facto one-party state.”

The government crackdown on Wednesday claimed former RFA reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Socheameta, who were detained on suspicion of “illegally collecting information for a foreign source,” although Ministry of Interior spokesperson Khieu Sopheak has declined to comment on what evidence led authorities to arrest the two men.

Stacked court

Observers have questioned whether the Supreme Court, which is filled with senior members and close affiliates of the ruling party, will be able to come to a fair decision on the case against the CNRP.

The court’s chief justice Dith Muny is a member of the CPP’s top-level Permanent Committee and vice chief of justice Khim Ponn is a member of the CPP’s Central Committee, while other top court officials are related to Hun Sen’s family through marriage or have close ties to the CPP.

Yoeung Sotheara, a legal officer with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), said the court is too closely linked to the government to rule on the case.

“Legally speaking, for justice to be done and seen to be done, any adjudicating judges or court officials who have a conflict of interest in the case would have to recuse himself,” he said.

He noted that the CNRP had not assigned any lawyers to defend the case, suggesting that the party “has no faith in judicial proceedings before courts that have always ruled against it.”

But CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan rejected concerns that the court would be unable to exercise independence in the case.

“It is common that the ruling party would appoint judges and judicial officials—there is nothing wrong in this,” he said.

“The court proceedings won’t be based on political interference. The court will adjudicate on the case based on evidence, applicable laws and the people’s wishes. One should refrain from making any comments that can be viewed as pressuring the court.”

Hun Sen has publicly stated at least three times in the past two months that he was absolutely certain the CNRP would be dissolved on Nov. 16, in one case offering odds of 100 to 1 to anyone willing to bet against it.

Sok Eysan said Hun Sen’s statements were “based on legal and factual grounds that there is a 100 percent certainty of the CNRP’s guilt,” but added that they were just the prime minister’s “personal view.”

“I don’t think such remarks have any influence on the court decision—I don’t believe the court will use his remarks as its reason to dissolve the opposition party.”

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

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US Rejects Charges of Interfering in Cambodian Politics, But Criticizes Crackdown

U.S. diplomats pushed back on Tuesday against Cambodian government accusations that the United States has meddled in Cambodia’s internal affairs, calling the charges unfounded and harmful to improved and productive relations between the two countries.

Meeting with Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn on the sidelines of East Asia Summit talks in the Philippine capital Manila, W. Patrick Murphy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia, and Matt Pottinger, Deputy Assistant to the President, voiced concern over Cambodia’s deteriorating political climate.

“[They cited] restrictions on the free press, civil society, and the political opposition,” the United States Mission to ASEAN said in a Nov. 14 statement.

“The U.S. delegation also pointed with deep concern to the continued detention of Kem Sokha, the leader of the political opposition,” the statement said.

Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha was arrested on Sept. 3 for allegedly collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and Cambodia’s Supreme Court is expected to decide on Nov. 16 whether to disband the CNRP for its alleged involvement in the “conspiracy.”

On Nov. 10, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen dismissed threats of sanctions by U.S. Senator Ted Cruz over the jailing of Kem Sokha on charges of treason, saying American laws cannot be applied to his country and rejecting the need for international recognition of elections set for 2018.

U.S. Senators John McCain and Dick Durbin have meanwhile drafted a resolution in support of a bill urging the U.S. State Department and Treasury Department to block the assets of senior Cambodian officials and prevent U.S. nationals from doing business with them.

Stepped-up pressure

Cambodian authorities are meanwhile stepping up pressure on elected members of the political opposition to defect to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), threatening them with loss of their jobs in the event their own party is dissolved, sources say.

On Nov. 14, officials in the Kampong Trach district of southwestern Cambodia’s Kampot province took into custody two CNRP commune chiefs and a commune council officer who had previously resisted efforts to force them to defect, a local source told RFA’s Khmer Service.

Boeng Sala Khang Cheung commune leader Srey Ann, Kampong Trach Khang Lech commune leader Cheng Tann, and commune council assistant Prum Ngean were released only after agreeing to sign a document pledging them to join the CPP, district council member Him Neang told RFA.

“They have never committed any crimes, and they go to work every day,” he said. “They were made to sign a contract, and they are terrified now.”

“I am also being targeted now. People are asking for my address,” he said.

Also speaking to RFA, Kampot province police chief Mao Chanmeakthurith denied knowledge of the incident, adding that in any case many voluntary changes of party affiliation by CNRP party members have already occurred.

Officials have meanwhile put local CNRP offices under watch, with four security personnel sent to monitor the daily activities of the executive director of the Kampong Trach district office and at least 18 armed officers deployed in front of CNRP offices in Kampot town, sources say.

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

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Cambodia Establishes ‘Standby Working Groups’ to Prevent Unrest Ahead of CNRP Court Date

Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Monday ordered the creation of provincial “standby working groups” to prevent any unrest, as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government cracked down on potential protests ahead of an expected court ruling on whether to dissolve the country’s main opposition party.

Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha was arrested on Sept. 3 for allegedly collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and Cambodia’s Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to disband the CNRP for its alleged involvement in the “conspiracy” on Nov. 16.

In a letter issued Monday, Sar Kheng—who is also Cambodia’s deputy prime minister—ordered all provincial and municipal governors to place authorities on call from Nov. 15 to “monitor and settle on a prompt basis … various issues of concern in connection with any acts of trickery aimed at overthrowing our legitimate government.”

Sar Kheng’s order followed one issued last week by the Cambodian National Police General Commissariat’s Central Department of Public Orders, and signed by department head Sek Phoumy, which instructed subordinate branches to establish 24-hour standby groups of combat-uniformed security forces ready to “mobilize” when the Supreme Court hears the CNRP dissolution case.

The Ministry of the Interior also said over the weekend that any demonstrations held at the Supreme Court in the capital Phnom Penh would be blocked by authorities.

Civil society groups called Monday’s order a restriction on freedom of expression in Cambodia, where Hun Sen’s government has faced widespread condemnation in recent months over its actions targeting the CNRP, as well as for orchestrating the closure of independent media outlets and cracking down on nongovernmental organizations ahead of general elections slated for July 2018.

Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service, executive director for the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability (ANSA) San Chey said the Ministry of the Interior had effectively banned any protests while the Supreme Court reviews the case against the CNRP, adding that the measure violates Cambodia’s constitution and signals a “climax” in political tensions in the country.

“As a matter of fact, this measure was issued in order to prevent any possible protests, and also to intimidate opposition party supporters,” he said.

“I believe that if, by [the hearing date], there are any restrictions or blocking of people traveling from one place to another, it will constitute a serious violation of the rights and freedom of our citizens.”

Cambodian political analyst Meas Ny told RFA he was not surprised the government had implemented such measures to protect itself from the country’s many opposition supporters, who mostly view the charges against Kem Sokha and the CNRP as politically motivated.

“In dissolving a party with a support base of … nearly 3 million people—like it or not, the authorities must take serious precautions,” he said.

“These three million people constitute a huge number. Should each of them show up [on Nov. 16] and lay down to block the roads, the government won’t know how to deal with the situation. The concerns expressed by the government are valid, because this is not a minor issue.”

The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts, though the U.S. embassy has rejected any suggestion that Washington is interfering in Cambodian politics.

U.S. lawmakers threatened to bring sanctions against members of Hun Sen’s government if Kem Sokha was not released from jail by a Nov. 9 deadline for voters to register for the July ballot, saying the elections would lack legitimacy without the CNRP, but the prime minister has countered that American laws cannot be applied to his country and rejected the need for international recognition of the polls.

Confident of win

Also on Monday, government lawyers submitted to the Supreme Court a 62-page brief, four additional packages of evidence—bringing to 26 the total number of packages—and a list of all elected CNRP lawmakers and officials who would be subject to a five-year ban on taking part in politics, as part of the case they are building against the opposition party in anticipation of Thursday’s hearing.

Speaking to reporters after leaving the court, government lawyer Ky Tech said the Ministry of Interior’s legal team was assured of a victory that would lead to the shutdown of the CNRP.

“Since our evidence is concrete, strong and abundant, our lawyers assess that we have a nearly 100 percent chance of winning—that the court will examine this case and decide in our favor by dissolving the CNRP,” he said.

However, Kem Sokha’s lawyer Hem Socheat questioned what reason the plaintiffs had in submitting additional evidence, which he told RFA was useless in a political case.

“In a criminal case, evidence can constitute either witnesses or objects related to an offense, but this is a political case, so I don’t know what kind of evidence can be relevant,” he said.

He added that a court decision on whether to dissolve the CNRP is directly linked to the charges against Kem Sokha, who has yet to be tried.

“As for Kem Sokha, he is accused of committing an act of treason, but has the court determined that he is guilty? Not yet. So on what basis will the court determine whether to dissolve the CNRP?”

Pledge to return

Meanwhile, former CNRP President Sam Rainsy said over the weekend that he plans to return to the party on Nov. 16, regardless of whether the Supreme Court rules to dissolve the opposition or not.

Speaking at a workshop on human rights and democracy in Cambodia in California on Nov. 11, Sam Rainsy, who resigned from the CNRP in February in order to preserve the party in the face of a law that bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party, said he would return to the party as a regular member, and not in any leadership position.

“I request to return to the CNRP because once I resigned from the party, but it was a forced resignation so that the CNRP would not be dissolved,” he said.

“If the CNRP is to be dissolved, I request to return to the party. What [the government is] planning in dissolving the CNRP exists only on paper, but they can’t dissolve the hearts of more than three million Cambodians.”

Sam Rainsy has been living in exile since 2015 to avoid convictions many see as politically motivated.

It was not immediately clear whether the former CNRP chief intends to return to Cambodia to rejoin the party, but he made clear his support for Kem Sokha as the CNRP’s president.

“I still recognize Kem Sokha as the president of the CNRP, and lately he has confirmed his honesty, dignity and integrity,” he said.

“I just want to be a simple member of the CNRP, who supports the party as you all do.”

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

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Cambodia’s Hun Sen Dismisses Threats of US Sanctions, Need For International Recognition

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday dismissed threats of sanctions by U.S. Senator Ted Cruz over the jailing of opposition leader Kem Sokha on charges of treason, saying American laws cannot be applied to his country and rejecting the need for international recognition of elections set for 2018.

In a letter to Cambodia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Chum Bun Rong dated Oct. 23, Cruz had expressed “deep concern” regarding the Sept. 3 arrest of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha for allegedly collaborating with Washington to overthrow the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), calling it an “attempt to undermine the Cambodian people’s faith in their democratic process.”

Cruz said at the time that if Hun Sen did not release Kem Sokha by Nov. 9—the voter registration deadline for Cambodia’s July 2018 general elections—it would be “impossible for any impartial observer or nation to certify that elections in your country have been free and fair” and he would push for sanctions banning Cambodian government officials from travelling to the U.S.

On Friday, Hun Sen dismissed the Texas lawmaker’s threats as interference in Cambodia’s sovereign affairs, saying “there is no such thing as international standards when it comes to politics” and that there is no need for “outsiders” to legitimize the outcome of elections in his country.

“Each country must resort to its own version of standards based on the reality on the ground,” he said, speaking to a group of Cambodian and Japanese exchange students during his meeting with delegates of the 2017 Ship for Southeast Asian and Japanese Youth Program at the Peace Palace in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.

“We cannot copy a foreign standard to apply in a Cambodian context. Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliamentary form of government.”

Hun Sen echoed an earlier statement by Chum Bun Rong in response to Cruz’s letter, saying Kem Sokha had been arrested in accordance with Cambodia’s Criminal Code and suggesting his actions would evoke a similar response under U.S. law, pointing to the example of Paul Manafort—the former campaign manager of U.S. President Donald Trump who was indicted last month on conspiracy charges related to money laundering.

“An arrest has just been made in the U.S. for a person who is accused of treason—he was the campaign manager of U.S. President Donald Trump,” he said.

“We can also do that, because we need to apply our own laws too.”

The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts, though the U.S. embassy has rejected any suggestion that Washington is interfering in Cambodian politics. Cambodia’s Supreme Court plans to rule on whether to dissolve the CNRP for its alleged involvement in the “conspiracy” on Nov. 16.

Hun Sen’s government has faced widespread condemnation in recent months over its actions against the opposition party, as well as for orchestrating the closure of independent media outlets and cracking down on nongovernmental organizations.

But the prime minister said his country is “still committed” to a policy of “liberal, multi-party democracy,” and vowed that next year’s elections would go on, with or without international backing.

“You have threatened us that you will not recognize the next national election, but it isn’t important if that election is or is not recognized by an outsider,” he said.

“Most importantly, it is enough for the legitimacy of the government as long as the election is recognized by our Cambodian people. It has never been necessary to beg foreign countries to recognize any of our elections. We don’t need such support.”

US support

On Friday, Kem Sokha’s daughter Kem Monovithya told RFA’s Khmer Service during an interview in Washington that she had received significant support from U.S. lawmakers for her campaign to bring pressure on Hun Sen to release her father, end his persecution of the opposition, and lift restrictions on the media and NGOs.

“As a result, a draft bill from the Senate Financial Committee is in the pipeline and slated to be adopted by the end of the year … [that] includes visa bans on specific government officials who are involved in the violation of human rights and democracy in Cambodia [to prevent them] from traveling to the US,” she said.

U.S. Senators John McCain and Dick Durbin have also drafted a resolution in support of the bill urging the U.S. State Department and Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) under the Treasury Department to consider placing all senior Cambodian officials on a list of Specially Designated Nationals (SDN), she said, blocking their assets and preventing U.S. nationals from doing business with them.

“These sanctions are significant to impact the top brass of the ruling elites—they will frustrate them from their travel and business transactions with the U.S. and allies,” Kem Monovithya said.

“To sum up, the bill and resolution, which I believe will be passed 100 percent, have one thing in common: a demand for free and fair elections.”

While Hun Sen is “pretending he isn’t under pressure,” Kem Monovithya expressed confidence the measures would force him to reconsider his strategy.

“The government officials who are listed in the SDN will be affected—they will be concerned,” she said.

“[Additionally] Cambodia cannot stand alone without international assistance. Cambodia’s economic growth is contributed to foreign support.”

She noted that Hun Sen has expressed hope that Cambodia can become a member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), whose heads of government—including those from the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, Canada, Australia, and Mexico—are currently meeting in Da Nang, Vietnam.

“That shows his reliance on international recognition and status,” she said of the prime minister, who traveled to Vietnam later on Friday to attend an informal dialogue between APEC leaders and heads of state from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—of which Cambodia is a member.

She said she had also enlisted the support of officials from the United Nations and European Union, who agreed to bring up Cambodia’s political situation during the ASEAN summit.

Call to defect

In the meantime, Kem Monovithya said, Hun Sen is “buying time” and attempting to “cajole and buy CNRP members to defect” to the CPP ahead of next year’s elections, threatening them with the loss of their jobs in the event that their own party is dissolved.

“[But] very few CNRP members have taken his bait,” she said, because “the CNRP is still strong.”

“Our supporters and members who serve the national interest do not sell their wisdom … Simply put, Hun Sen’s attempts to fool CNRP members into defecting to the ruling party have failed.”

Last week, Hun Sen called for members of the CNRP to leave and join the CPP in a video clip posted on his Facebook page, and opposition officials told RFA they had been invited to attend a viewing by local authorities, but refused.

“Hun Sen does not want a free and fair election—he is certain that if such an election is held he will lose it,” Kem Monovithya said.

“Shamelessly he has resorted to all means of political repression … to weaken and if possible dissolve the CNRP,” she added.

“He is buying time so that he can continue to demoralize the opposition party members, who he hopes will buy what he is selling, but time is running out for him because our members and supporters are strong and determined.”

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

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Asia-Pacific Summits Seen as Chance for Trump to Reassure Anxious Countries on US Policies

U.S. President Donald Trump’s ongoing trip to key Asian countries this month can help clarify his policies and reassure countries in the region concerned both about changes in Washington and China’s growing power, experts on Southeast Asia said.

At the same time, Trump’s silence on human rights problems ranging from China’s treatment of dissidents to the alleged ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar make it important for other leaders to raise these issues at two annual Asia-Pacific summits, a rights expert said.

Trump and other world leaders are attending a series of summits in Asia on Nov. 10-14, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Danang, Vietnam, which culminates with an economic leaders meeting. He will also attend the East Asia Summit in the Philippines.

The president’s visit to Southeast Asia “will highlight the strength and the importance of the relationship and many of the issues that confront the region — everything from hoping for increased trade with the United States [to] economic development, but also issues in democracy and human rights which are also very important and something that we care deeply about,” said Congressman Joaquin Castro (D-TX), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the 20-member Congressional Caucus on ASEAN.

The Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) is a regional grouping that promotes economic, political, and security cooperation among its 10 members – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Castro spoke briefly on Wednesday at an event on Capitol Hill where a panel of experts discussed U.S.-ASEAN relations in security, defense, trade, and human rights on the eve of Trump’s visit.

Trump’s 12-day trip to Asia, which began on Nov. 5, is taking him to five Asian nations — Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

In Japan and South Korea, Trump called on leaders to increase pressure on North Korea, and the threat that the nation’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program poses, with tougher sanctions and tighter military cooperation.

Though Trump praised China for taking some measures against the rogue nation, he also pressed Beijing to do more to rein in North Korea by scaling back its dealings with Pyongyang and sending back North Korean workers.

The threat posed by North Korea will dominate Trump’s meetings with ASEAN members during the various summits as well, experts said.

“The entire Asia region, as you all know, is being overwhelmed with the question of what becomes of what has essentially been the stare down between the United States and North Korea,” Castro said. “So we will need to marshal the support of all nations, not only in Asia, but [also] around the world to tackle that problem, and that’s another topic of discussion that will come up between President Trump and the leaders of the ASEAN nations.”

Security and defense policy

As for security and defense policy, ASEAN nations will be looking for the president to define what the U.S.’s role in the region will be, said David Shear, senior advisor for Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asia at McLarty and Associates.

“Asians are gripped by uncertainty right now,” he said.

“They are gripped by uncertainty flowing from China’s rise and the increasingly assertive Chinese foreign policy in the region; they are uncertain because of North Korea, of course, [but] they are also uncertain because they don’t know what America’s role in the region in the future is going to be,” he said. “And they will be looking to the president to answer that question.”

Trump will press ASEAN leaders to strengthen their implementation of United Nations Security Council resolutions and trade restriction on North Korea, Shear said.

“Southeast Asia remains a weak link in our effort to pressure North Korea, and the president will be doing everything he can to strengthen that link,” he said.

China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea, where it has claimed disputed territory and built military infrastructure, will be another topic that Trump will address at the APEC summit as part of a wider defining of American policy in the Indo-Pacific region, Shear said.

Trump’s nine-month-old administration has not yet outlined a full Asia policy, he said, adding that the U.S.’s position in the region has suffered as a result.

“The Southeast Asians will be looking for us to better define our approach to the South China Sea and to the region in general,” said Shear, a former assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs from 2014 to 2016 and a former diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam.

Though the Indo-Pacific concept is not new, Shear said the administration adopted it to demonstrate the importance the U.S. places on relations between the western Pacific and South China Sea as well as the Indian Ocean.

“There’s a strong strategic link between the two — a strong link between what we do with our allies and partners in the Pacific and what we would like to do with Indians in the Indian Ocean,” he said.

A third topic that Trump will touch on with ASEAN leaders is counterterrorism, especially when he meets with president Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, where the U.S. military has provided advice to the country on freeing the southern city of Marawi from ISIS attackers, he said.

Trump will also spend time at the summits in Southeast Asia discussing U.S. commercial relations in the region.

Two-way trade between the U.S. and ASEAN generates more than U.S. $200 billion a year, and the market for American exports of goods and services to the region is in excess of U.S. $100 billion annually.

“These are very commercially significant opportunities for U.S. businesses,” said Marc Mealy, vice president of policy for the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, a U.S.-based regional trade association.

Mealy said that Southeast Asia’s young population, rising level of rural-to-urban migration, and growing market for U.S. services are current draws for American businesses.

“People sometimes ask me why American companies are really active in Southeast Asia, and the simple reason is that that is where the growth in the world is taking place,” he said.

“For U.S. companies, ASEAN is an important market,” he said. “It’s probably one of the most globally competitive sets of markets.”

Trade agreements

In January, the Trump administration pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — the largest regional trade pact in history — and declared an end to the U.S. pursuit of multilateral trade pacts, instead opting for bilateral agreements with allied nations.

Twelve Pacific Rim countries — the U.S., Vietnam, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico and Peru — signed the TPP in February 2016 after seven years of negotiations, agreeing to lower tariffs and to the establishment of a dispute settlement mechanism for trade.

“Having pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the region cries for a systematic American approach to economics and trade in the region,” Shear said.

ASEAN countries are now moving ahead on the TPP without the United States and are negotiating a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — a proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between ASEAN members and six states with which the regional group has existing trade accords, namely Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.

Experts said these trade deals will have broader implications for the U.S.-ASEAN trade relations.

The meetings in Southeast Asia will be an opportunity for Trump to gain a broader understanding of the trade-related issues and dynamics in the region, said Barbara Weisel, a managing director of international economic policy firm Rock Creek Global Advisors.

She said there seems to be some urgency for ASEAN nations to move ahead on the TPP and RCEP following the U.S. pullout from TPP “because countries realize that it’s important for them to demonstrate that they still value trade liberalization and the benefits that it has brought to their countries in terms of economic development.”

“The administration keeps talking about bilateral agreements, and I think there will be some elaboration of this approach in the statements that the president will make, but certainly not a reconsideration of the withdrawal from TPP,” said Weisel, who was the lead U.S. negotiator on the trade deal.

“It remains to be seen how the countries in the region will respond to the overtures that the U.S. makes on bilateral agreements,” she said.

On Friday, the U.S. president said in a speech in Danang that the U.S. was ready to make bilateral trade deals with any country in the Indo-Pacific region based on “mutual respect and mutual benefit” and will not tolerate trade abuses.

As the U.S. builds a framework for trade and investment policy in Southeast Asia, it also will seek to establish a set of rules by which all nations are expected to play and push for their enforcement, Weisel said.

“ASEAN countries generally don’t like to take strong action against one another, so they are looking for help from us for ways to consider what action can be taken,” she said. “Any decisions will occur in multilateral and bilateral negotiations. We need to find like-minded countries to work with us on this.”

Weisel also said the U.S will need to spend more time working with ASEAN trading partners on issues not covered by global trading system or by rules that already exist, especially with China as the largest trading partner of all countries in the region.

“The China model has growing appeal to the region, especially with the perception that the U.S. has pulled back from the region,” she said.

“And that it has a model in the absence of an alternative is attractive,” she said. “What this means is that the U.S. needs a more comprehensive strategy” that calls for collaborating more closely with ASEAN nations about trade concerns and challenges.

“We won’t succeed on our own by imposing rules unilaterally,” she said.

Human rights a no-go

The Trump administration has said it will not broach the issue of human rights with authoritarian leaders in Asia during the president’s trip, despite what John Sifton, deputy Washington director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), calls an “unprecedented level of human right violations in Southeast Asia this year.”

Trump’s national security advisor H.R. McMaster told reporters at a daily White House briefing on Nov. 2 that it did not help to “yell about these problems.”

“What the President is doing is being effective,” he said at the time.

Among the major violations in the region are the crisis in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state where a military crackdown has forced more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to neighboring Bangladesh; Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s silencing his political opposition in the run-up to national elections in 2018; and the war on drugs in the Philippines in which Duterte has encouraged the killing of drug dealers and addicts.

Sifton said the summits offer an opportunity for other government leaders, such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to venture where the U.S. won’t tread and to address these matters.

“These [summits] are opportunities for these leaders to raise human rights issues with the hosts and with other participants and try to solve some of the problems,” he said.

Sifton also noted that the APEC Summit is being hosted by Vietnam, which has more than 100 political prisoners, including those convicted of spreading propaganda against the state or criticizing the government.

“What we’re asking is that visiting government officials who care about human rights raise these cases with the Vietnamese authorities and tell them to stop arresting and prosecuting government critics and ask them why it is a crime in Vietnam to criticize the government,” he said.

On Thursday, HRW issued a call for world leaders at the meetings in Southeast Asia to address Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis and the deteriorating human rights situations in Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

The evidence of atrocities committed by the Myanmar military against Rohingya in northern Rakhine is “unimpeachable,” Sifton said, noting that the country’s powerful armed forces as well as its civilian government are in a state of denial about the crimes against humanity committed there.

The solution is for independent observers to be allowed into the area to find out what happened, he said, though the Myanmar government has so far refused to let in a U.N.-appointed investigative commission.

“That is the one call we are pressing governments to unite on both in Danang and in Manila,” he said.

“HRW believes in using relationships to incentivize governments to change their behavior” on human rights issues, Sifton said, whether these are economic agreements or deals to sell weapons or to provide military training.

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US Senator Dismisses Cambodia’s Defense of Decision to Jail Opposition Chief

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz has rejected the Cambodian government’s defense of its decision to imprison opposition leader Kem Sokha ahead of his trial on charges of “treason,” and vowed to uphold a threat of banning Cambodian officials from traveling to America if he is not freed “immediately.”

In a letter to Cambodia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Chum Bun Rong dated Oct. 23, Cruz had expressed “deep concern” regarding the Sept. 3 arrest of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha for allegedly collaborating with Washington to overthrow the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), calling it an “attempt to undermine the Cambodian people’s faith in their democratic process.”

Cruz said at the time that if Prime Minister Hun Sen did not release Kem Sokha by Nov. 9—the voter registration deadline for Cambodia’s July 2018 general elections—he would push for sanctions banning Cambodian government officials from travelling to the U.S.

The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power with the help of U.S. experts, though the U.S. embassy has rejected any suggestion that Washington is interfering in Cambodian politics. The Supreme Court plans to rule on whether to dissolve the CNRP for its alleged involvement in the “conspiracy” on Nov. 16.

On Tuesday, two days before Cruz’s ultimatum expired, Chum Bun Rong responded to the senator urging him to “view the current situation in Cambodia from our perspective,” adding that the democratic process in his country could only be preserved if “the rule of law is maintained and fully implemented” for the sake of stability.

The ambassador explained that Kem Sokha had been arrested in accordance with Cambodia’s Criminal Code and suggested his actions would evoke a similar response under U.S. law, pointing to the example of Paul Manafort—the former campaign manager of U.S. President Donald Trump who was indicted last month on conspiracy charges related to money laundering.

He also defended the government’s right to “uphold the law” when it forced the closure of English language newspaper The Cambodia Daily over a sudden tax debt and several local radio stations that had relayed content from Radio Free Asia and other U.S. broadcasters for allegedly failing to report their activities to the Information Ministry in recent months.

“It is not fair that the Cambodian Government is criticized and threatened with punitive action for taking legal action to protect its own security, peace, independence and sovereignty, just as any other nations would do,” Chum Bun Rong wrote at the time, adding that “it does not bode well … for Cambodia and its future if we are forced to make choices that go against our national strategic interests.”

The following day, Cruz said in a statement that the ambassador’s response amounted to “dismissive excuses and empty platitudes,” calling the Cambodian government’s bid to assuage the U.S. “deeply concerning” and vowing to act on his threat of a travel ban if Kem Sokha was not released by Thursday.

“If specific conditions are not met, including releasing Kem Sokha, allowing radio stations to resume broadcasting at their discretion, and allowing democratic organizations to operate within Cambodia, it will be impossible for the United States and our allies to recognize the legitimacy of [the 2018] elections,” he wrote.

“Hun Sen must take the first step toward meeting these conditions by freeing Kem Sokha. And he must do so immediately,” added the Texas lawmaker—who is a member of the Senate’s Judiciary, Commerce, and Joint Economic committees.

“Otherwise, I will work with my colleagues in Congress and in the administration to see that, as an initial response, specified government officials responsible for these actions are prevented from traveling to the United States.”

The correspondence between Cruz and Chum Bun Rong came as a panel of experts—including recently nominated Assistant US Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Randy Schriver, analysts, and Kem Sokha’s daughter Kem Monovithya—convened on Tuesday in Washington and called on America and other world powers to impose sanctions against Hun Sen’s government.

Cambodia reactions

On Thursday, Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan suggested Cruz’s proposed sanctions would constitute interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs, but would have no effect on his government.

“This is simply an empty threat by the U.S. side,” he said, speaking to reporters in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.

“Cambodia is implementing its own laws. We won’t bow down or beg anything from Senator Ted Cruz, who is acting only to benefit himself.”

But Yoeurng Sotheara, legal and investigative officer for electoral watchdog Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), told RFA’s Khmer Service Thursday that pressure from abroad could have a devastating effect on an impoverished country like Cambodia, which he said cannot afford to be isolated from the international community it relies on for aid.

He urged Cambodia’s government to reconsider the measures it had taken against the CNRP and the country’s media outlets in order to reduce political tension and ensure a free and fair election next year.

“Do we want live like an isolated country or do we want to live freely so our people enjoy rights and prosperity, as well as long-term political stability,” he asked.

“We will regret that democracy had been built for more than 20 years [since Cambodia implemented democratic elections following the Khmer Rouge era] but was destroyed in a blink of the eye, leaving all of our progress returned to zero.” 

Asia summits

Senator Cruz’s deadline came as New York-based Human Rights Watch called on world leaders to press Hun Sen to drop his government’s “baseless legal attacks” on the CNRP and free Kem Sokha and other opposition politicians jailed on “trumped-up charges” ahead of summits in Asia scheduled for Nov. 10-14.

Heads of government from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)—including the United States, China, Japan, Russia, Canada, Australia, and Mexico—will be meeting in Da Nang, Vietnam, on Friday, while leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be meeting in Manila, Philippines, on Nov. 12, along with ASEAN side-summits involving the U.S., E.U., Japan, and South Korea.

Most of the leaders plan to then attend the annual East Asia Summit in Angeles, north of Manila, on Nov. 13-14.

In a statement Thursday, Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, urged the international community to speak out against Hun Sen’s bid to eliminate his opposition and maintain political control of the country he has ruled for nearly 33 years.

“As ASEAN meets, democracy is failing in Cambodia,” Adams said.

“Cambodia’s friends should denounce Hun Sen’s efforts to reinstate one-party rule and demand that he drop the bogus legal cases against the political opposition and its leaders.”

Reported by Nareth Muong and Sovannarith Keo. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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