Prime Minister Hun Sen said the government has improved democracy, rights and the rule of law in Cambodia — despite “external pressures” — and there was “no justifiable reason” for outsiders to call for “restoring democracy and human rights” in the country.
In a speech marking 41 years since the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen said on Tuesday that every attempt by “bad elements” to push for regime change had failed due to government measures to defend the nation’s peace and development.
“Notably, the patriotic spirit to defend national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity was raised high despite external pressures, while the democratic process and rule of law strengthened, and every person’s rights widened,” said the premier, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who turned against Pol Pot’s genocidal regime.
Western nations, including the U.S., have criticized Cambodia since 2017 over “setbacks to democracy” following the dissolution of the main opposition party, arrest of its leader on treason charges and a crackdown on civil society and independent news media that were critical of the government.
Officials have accused opposition CNRP president Kem Sokha of colluding with the U.S. in an attempt to overthrow the government. Both Sokha and the U.S. have denied the allegations. He was jailed in September 2017 and later released to de facto house arrest; his court restrictions were reduced last year, but he is not allowed to engage in political activities or leave the country. Sokha’s first trial hearing is scheduled for January 15.
CNRP leaders last year pledged to “restore democracy” in Cambodia, with party co-founder Sam Rainsy vowing, but later failing, to return to the country in November to lead a people-power movement in an effort to unseat Hun Sen.
Rainsy has lived abroad since 2015 to avoid criminal convictions that he calls politically motivated. Dozens of other CNRP members and supporters have fled the country in fear of arrest since 2017.
In his speech on Tuesday, Hun Sen, who will have led the nation for 35 years next week, touted the leadership of the ruling CPP, which “led the struggle to liberate the Cambodian nation from the regime of genocide,” and “continues to live and share sufferings and happiness with our people,” he said, according to an English translation of his prepared remarks.
Cambodian forces, including some who would later lead the ruling CPP, and Vietnamese allies ousted the Khmer Rouge in January 1979.
The prime minister said any “attempts to distract Cambodia from democracy and the rule of law by forcing it not to implement its own law would be unacceptable.”
Hun Sen and other officials often hit back at criticisms of government prosecutions of CNRP members and supporters, including leader Kem Sokha, by claiming that the authorities are simply following legal procedures.
According to the premier, “The truth has clearly revealed that democracy, rights and freedom of the Cambodian people [are] respected, kept, and uplifted steadfastly in the Cambodian national and people’s interests.”
“There would be no justifiable reason for reiteration by external circles about restoring democracy and human rights in Cambodia,” he added.
Since the CNRP’s dissolution in 2017, foreign powers, such as the U.S. and E.U., have repeatedly raised concerns over the nation’s political and rights situation.
In a statement marking Victory Over Genocide Day on Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh said that the U.S. “remains firmly committed to supporting the Cambodian people and their aspirations for reconciliation, prosperity, democracy, and independence.”
In a letter on November 1, U.S. President Donald Trump asked Hun Sen to “put Cambodia back on the path of democratic governance.”
“As a first step, I hope you will re-evaluate certain decisions taken by your government,” Trump said.
Hun Sen later replied to Trump, stating that Cambodia and the U.S. have been through “ups and downs” together, but their bonds of friendship could still be renewed.
The prime minister’s ruling CPP swept the 2018 national election, which was marked by the absence of the outlawed CNRP, seen as the only viable opposition challenger. The U.S. criticized the poll as neither free nor fair.
Meanwhile, next month, the E.U. is set to announce its decision on whether to suspend Cambodia’s access to duty-free trade to the European bloc. The “Everything But Arms” preferential trade scheme may be withdrawn if Cambodia is found to have failed to comply with international human rights conventions.
Former CNRP official Meach Sovannara told VOD that the international community’s demands to restore and respect human rights and democracy were justified, and would help Cambodia avoid an internal crisis.
The ongoing efforts to push away the opposition party, which had support from nearly half the country’s voters in 2017 local elections, is making Cambodia fragile and dividing the nation, Sovannara said.
“The dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the arrest and imprisonment of the main opposition party’s leader … until now is a political crisis. It is still in deadlock,” he added.
Soeng Senkaruna, spokesman for local rights group Adhoc, said the international community’s appeals were meant to direct politicians to follow the spirit of the Paris Peace Agreements.
The 1991 agreement requires politicians to compete for power with transparency through elections, to stop collecting people to hold weapons and kill each other like in the past, according to Senkaruna.
“The problem — that politicians insist not to return to and follow the principles of human rights and democracy — is the reason that caused war in the country,” he said.
Political analyst Em Sovannara earlier this week expressed concern that Cambodia will find it difficult to restore its image on the world stage if it continues to go against the international grain, which is set by the U.S. and E.U.
“The strategy being used by the E.U. has been done for a long time ago, since during the Cold War. They came out on top then, and they’re using that now,” Sovannara told VOD.
“The U.S. and Europe have used this strategy; they are a strong alliance that has come out on top against some dictatorial regimes,” he said.
(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)