CNRP Lobbies Western Nations for ‘Further Sanctions’ Against PM Allies

12 min read
Justice Minister Keut Rith at the National Assembly on April 10, 2020, in this photograph posted to National Assembly President Heng Samrin’s Facebook page.
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As CNRP supporters prepare to hold anti-China protests in 20 cities around the world on Friday, the outlawed opposition says it’s also waging a campaign calling on more Western governments to sanction Cambodian officials — including the justice minister — over alleged human rights violations or corruption.

Government officials dismissed the CNRP’s moves as attention-seeking, cast doubt on the efficacy of a “culture of sanctions” as well as the likelihood of development partners joining in on sanctions, and questioned whether the opposition’s strategy actually served Cambodians. A political analyst said the CNRP was imitating the U.S.’ anti-China rhetoric, continuing a practice of adapting its messaging to resonate with Western governments.

CNRP leaders say they are advocating for the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia to use anti-corruption “Magnitsky” laws, including visa restrictions and asset freezes, against more than a dozen Cambodian generals, other officials, businesspeople and their family members who the opposition party and rights watchdogs have accused of various abuses — from land grabbing and deforestation to corruption and murders — dating back decades.

In addition to two generals, Kun Kim and Hing Bun Heang, and tycoon Try Pheap, whom the U.S. government has already sanctioned from 2018 to last month over alleged corruption and rights violations, Justice Minister Keut Rith, another top official and ally of Prime Minister Hun Sen, has landed on the CNRP’s sanctions-soliciting radar — over his anti-democratic legal maneuvering, said Mu Sochua, a deputy CNRP president.

Rith was a legal adviser to Hun Sen on the government’s amendments to the Law on Political Parties, which was used to dissolve the CNRP in 2017, as well as on court cases against various opposition members, she said.

“He is an obstruction to justice and undermines democracy,” Sochua said.

Rith, who was promoted to the minister position this year, has spoken of improving the judicial process, and touted the necessity of a controversial state of emergency law that passed in April. He was now among officials whose finances the CNRP was lobbying Western nations to target, according to Sochua.

In a statement on Thursday noting the Friday anniversary of the 1991 signing of the Paris Peace Agreements which officially ended years of conflict in Cambodia, the CNRP said the 19 nations that signed the peace accords needed to “[a]ct now or lose Cambodia forever.” The statement describes alleged “illegal commitments” made by the Cambodian government to host Chinese military assets in Cambodia which violated both the 1991 agreement and the Constitution.

“That the People’s Republic of China is even one of the state parties to the 1991 agreement made its unscrupulous dealing with Hun Sen more deplorable,” the CNRP said.

Since 2018, the U.S. government has expressed concern that a Cambodian naval base on the coast of Preah Sihanouk could be converted to host the Chinese military, an allegation that both Cambodia and China have repeatedly denied.

Early this month, the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said the Cambodian government had demolished a U.S.-built facility at the Ream base, citing satellite imagery, and suggested that the development “raises questions about rumored Chinese access.” Cambodia later confirmed the demolition and said China was funding a rebuild.

The Wall Street Journal reported last year that Cambodia had secretly agreed to give China’s military exclusive access to the base. The report, citing unnamed U.S. and other officials, said the deal allowed China to “post military personnel, store weapons and berth warships.”

Now, the CNRP is echoing similar U.S. concerns, claiming “undeniable evidences” that Cambodia has granted China exclusive access to Ream.

Further up the cost in Koh Kong province, a mega-resort development has raised similar suspicions of possible military use by China. 

Noting the U.S. sanctioning in September of Chinese firm Union Development Group (UDG), which is developing the massive Dara Sakor resort and a nearby airport, the CNRP also said on Thursday that “Further Magnitsky sanctions are urgently needed.”

“The international community must act in coordination to prevent China from further compromising Cambodia’s neutrality,” the statement said.

China was “exploiting the need of the Hun Sen regime for external support to colonise Cambodia, so posing a threat to the security of the whole Southeast Asian region,” the CNRP added.

The U.S., for a second time, also sanctioned former senior military commander Kun Kim in September under its global Magnitsky law, this time citing Kim’s alleged link to and financial gain from UDG, which “through Kim, used Cambodian military forces to intimidate local villagers and to clear out land necessary for UDG to build the Dara Sakor project,” the U.S. Treasury Department said.

Meanwhile, Sochua told VOD that protest slogans on Friday would voice opposition to a Chinese military presence in Cambodia, and call on China to respect the Paris Peace Agreements and the Constitution.

“We know there will be arrests, but the Paris Peace Accords is exactly about this, the right to public assembly and freedom of speech and all that,” she said, claiming there would be at least 300 CNRP supporters at a Phnom Penh protest despite Hun Sen’s warning on Wednesday against participating in protests “ordered from overseas.” Dozens of CNRP members and supporters have been arrested in recent months in relation to alleged political organizing and protests.

Rithy Uong, president of CNRP Overseas, said the party would also hold protests in seven U.S. cities and five in Canada on Friday. Sochua said demonstrations were also planned in Australia, New Zealand, France, South Korea and Japan.

Lobbying for ‘Magnitsky’ Sanctions

Named for Russian lawyer and auditor Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison in 2009 under questionable circumstances after reporting a supposed large-scale corruption scheme involving tax officials and police in Russia, Magnitsky laws allow governments to freeze bank accounts and other assets held by those accused of corruption and human rights abuses.

The U.S. Global Magnitsky Act of 2016 allows the U.S. government to restrict visas, freeze assets, and block business interactions between U.S. banks and businesses, and sanctioned individuals. The U.K. and Canada have similar laws, while Australia is considering its own version.

Sokha Ly, the president of the CNRP’s Montreal branch, said they had advocated to the Canadian government for targeted sanctions or asset freezes against Rith, Bun Heang and Pheap, as well as 12 generals named “Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen” by Human Rights Watch over their alleged crimes, including Kim, and other individuals from Canada who Ly declined to name.

Sochua said the CNRP was also focusing on those named in anti-corruption watchdog Global Witness’s 2016 report “Hostile Takeover,” which describes how a political-business patronage system in the country has allowed the premier’s family members to enrich themselves.

According to Ly, CNRP supporters in Canada aimed to lobby the Canadian government to “put pressure on the Hun Sen regime so that it respects human rights, right of expression, civic and political rights, democratic rules and neutrality, especially the conditions guaranteed by the Paris Peace Accords.”

Ly said CNRP members continued to call for the restoration of the party, holding of fresh, free and fair elections in Cambodia, and the release of “political prisoners” and party president Kem Sokha, who has faced court prosecution since 2017 after being accused of treason, a charge he denies.

“We met various senior [Canadian] officials and those in charge of human rights, economics and politics,” Ly said, adding that their requests were well received and some Magnitsky law measures were in progress.

But Angela Savard, spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said in regards to sanctions, the Canadian government did not comment on specific cases.

“Canada is judicious in its approach regarding when to deploy sanctions and/or draw on other courses of action in our diplomatic toolkit, based on foreign policy priorities,” Savard said in an email.

Canada continued to be concerned about Cambodia’s political situation, the spokesperson added, citing the 2017 dissolution of the CNRP and “troubling” use of a law to distribute parliamentary seats held by the opposition to other political parties. Most CNRP seats went to the ruling CPP.

“The use of the judiciary to harass, intimidate and eliminate the opposition — including … Kem Sokha, and to repress civil society and the press is not a mark of free, fair and just elections,” Savard said.

Calling for a Magnitsky Law in Australia

Asked about the CNRP trying to have him sanctioned by foreign governments, Justice Minister Keut Rith on Thursday declined to answer questions, and instead asked a reporter who he worked for and his reason for working as a journalist.

“I get a salary from the Cambodian government and people, and work to serve the people’s interests,” Rith told VOD.

He said “the people and our country’s interests” were most important.

“Other people [may] request whatever [from foreign nations]; it is their issue, but do they serve the people’s interests?” Rith said, before declining further questions.

In Australia, CNRP branches, however, have continued to ask Canberra to pass its own Magnitsky law and use it to sanction Cambodian officials implicated in various human rights abuses.

In a January petition to the chair of Australian Parliament’s Human Rights Subcommittee, five CNRP branch presidents in Australia expressed support for the country adopting a Magnitsky law.

“CNRP branches in Australia believe that Soft Diplomacy or Carrot and Stick approach by the Australian Government and the International Communities is not an [effective means] in encouraging the Hun Sen’s Government to restore democracy and respect Human Rights,” the petition says. “Therefore CNRP branches in Australia vehemently support legislation comparable to the United States Magnitsky Act.”

The petition adds that due to his determination to maintain power, “Hun Sen has sold Cambodia’s sovereignty to China.”

Hemara Im, president of the CNRP branch in Victoria and one of the petition signers, said CNRP groups in Australia were working with the Australian government to enact legislation similar to the U.S. Magnitsky law, and asking Australia to invoke Article 29 of the Paris accords, which provides a mechanism for signatory nations of the agreement to convene when gross abuses of human rights occur in order to ensure respect of the accords.

In addition to organizing a demonstration at the Chinese Embassy in Canberra on Friday, Im said local CNRP supporters were sticking to one objective: achieving real multiparty democracy in Cambodia.

“Because we believe that only real democracy as enshrined in the Kingdom’s Constitution can bring prosperity and dignity to all the Cambodian people,” Hemara said. “Without real democracy, Cambodia will be heading in the wrong direction.”

According to Australian parliamentarian Julian Hill, deputy chair of the Foreign Affairs and Aid Sub-Committee, any Magnitsky law enacted in Australia would apply globally and not target any single country.

“However I’d expect that senior officials from Hun Sen’s gangster regime in Cambodia may be captured by sanctions such as Australian visa bans and asset freezes,” Hill said in an email, adding that measures could extend to sanctioned individuals’ close family members.

Already Sanctioned by the US

While the U.S. has been critical of Cambodia’s moves to squash the political opposition, civil society and the independent media, and has already sanctioned ex-military commander Kun Kim — twice — Bun Heang, the head of Hun Sen’s elite bodyguard unit, and timber tycoon Try Pheap, a U.S. Embassy spokesperson did not answer a question about whether the U.S. was considering further actions against officials, businesspeople or companies in Cambodia.

Chad Roedemeier, an embassy spokesperson, said through economic and trade sanctions, the U.S. seeks to “impose significant consequences on those who commit serious human rights abuse or engage in corruption.”

An Australian Embassy spokesperson said their government “regularly raises issues relating to democracy and human rights” directly with Cambodia.

The U.K. Embassy said it continues to support Cambodia’s development, which is “best served when Cambodians are able to engage and express opinions on issues that affect the country.”

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan said Cambodia was a sovereign nation with its own courts, and the countries that the CNRP was seeking to sanction Cambodian officials were just development partners that could not control Cambodia.

“The culture of sanctions has no impact,” he said, claiming that sanctioning Cambodia was equivalent to sanctioning Asean, the regional bloc.

In addition, current cooperation between the Cambodian government and the four Western nations was good so those governments would not do anything that negatively impacts Cambodia, according to Siphan.

In soliciting sanctions, the “outlawed group” — a common way for officials to refer to the banned CNRP — had crossed a redline, he added.

“They just want those [Western] countries to pay attention to them,” Siphan said. “Those countries have their trade relations with Cambodia and Asean, and political cooperation with Cambodia and Asean, so the countries’ interest is bigger than the outlawed group.”

Sebastian Strangio, author of In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century and Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said CNRP leaders have sought international support for their political struggles against Hun Sen for years.

Party co-founder Sam Rainsy has long honed his messaging to align with key Western capitals, Strangio said in an email.

“For example, the recent sharp turn in U.S. perceptions of China has been mirrored in Rainsy’s recent statements on China’s influence in Cambodia, which echo closely the rhetoric of China hawks in the Trump administration,” he said.

While this clearly reflects the “very real problems with certain Chinese investments inside Cambodia,” Strangio noted that up until a few years ago Rainsy rarely mentioned Chinese investments in Cambodia, but instead focused on money coming from Vietnam. 

As Cambodian politics has “reflected an international ideological struggle” since the end of the Cold War, today domestic politics is once again caught in a battle between superpowers, according to Strangio.

“Rainsy seeks Western support against Hun Sen, in part by depicting Cambodian politics as one front in a global struggle against authoritarianism, while Hun Sen leans ever more on China to safeguard his hold on power.”

Additional reporting by Mech Dara and Danielle Keeton-Olsen

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