US Diplomat Pushes for Democratic Improvements Ahead of Elections

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Prime Minister Hun Sen and US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman meet at Phnom Penh’s Peace Palace on June 1, 2021, in a photo posted to Hun Sen’s Facebook page.

A senior U.S. diplomat asked the Cambodian government to release political prisoners and restore democratic norms ahead of the 2022 and 2023 elections, she said during a conference call Wednesday.

The U.S. State Department’s deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, met Hun Sen at Phnom Penh’s Peace Palace on Tuesday in a quick visit to the country. She raised U.S. concerns over a Chinese presence at Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province, Cambodia’s democratic backsliding, and opposition leader Kem Sokha’s ongoing treason trial, according to a U.S. State Department press release.

Sherman held a conference call with journalists on Wednesday to speak about her visit to the region. When asked if she had received any assurances that the dissolved CNRP would be reinstated, she said the Cambodian government should reopen the country’s civic and political space ahead of upcoming elections.

“My message was clear from the United States and I hope that the prime minister is reading it carefully,” she said during the call.

The country’s main opposition CNRP was banned by the Supreme Court in 2017.

Sherman also emphasized the importance of human rights and workers’ rights protections as fundamental to the countries’ bilateral relations.

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan said Sherman’s call was only a “request” and that political and human rights activists were being tried based on facts and Cambodian laws.

“It is following [legal] procedures. Without facts, we can do nothing, and if there are facts without the law, then we can do nothing too,” he said.

The Tuesday meeting with Sherman was the first high-level meeting between Cambodia and the U.S. since the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden this year.

Sherman directly addressed the presence of Chinese military personnel at Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province and wanted an explanation as to why U.S.-built facilities at the base had been demolished without notice. 

“[A] PRC military base in Cambodia would undermine its sovereignty, threaten regional security, and negatively impact U.S.-Cambodia relations,” a statement released after the meeting reads.

The U.S. has been critical of construction activity at Ream Naval Base, after the Wall Street Journal reported in July 2019 that China’s People’s Liberation Army had signed a deal to have a military presence at the naval base.

Sherman met with opposition leader Sokha on Tuesday, according to a tweet from the U.S. Ambassador Patrick Murphy, and also interacted with civil society groups and journalists.

Hun Sen took to Facebook to highlight the issue of the wartime debt from the Lon Nol era, adding that three repayment options had been proposed to Sherman. The government offered to pay the debt gradually, cap the interest rate at 1 percent, or have 70 percent of the debt cycled back to the country as development assistance.

Ny Sokha, local rights group Adhoc’s head of human rights, said that while it was encouraging the two sides addressed the human rights situation, it was unlikely to improve unless the ruling party was open to contesting elections against a strong opposition.

“I think what matters is the will of the government, especially the current ruling party; whether they are willing to resolve the political crisis, human rights issues, and economic issues in Cambodia or not,” Sokha said.

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