Gov’t, West ex­change barbs amid ten­sion

The Phnom Penh Post - - NATIONAL - Leonie Ki­jew­ski, Mech Dara and Ananth Baliga

AS IN­TER­NA­TIONAL con­dem­na­tion of the King­dom’s wors­en­ing po­lit­i­cal cli­mate con­tin­ued yes­ter­day, For­eign Min­is­ter Prak Sokhonn painted a pic­ture of a West­ern demo­cratic or­der in de­cline, telling a crowd of uni­ver­sity stu­dents that Cam­bo­dia’s for­eign pol­icy fu­ture lay with China and Rus­sia.

Stop­ping short of nam­ing the United States – which the gov­ern­ment has ac­cused of con­spir­ing to or­ches­trate regime change along with jailed op­po­si­tion leader Kem Sokha – Sokhonn told hun­dreds of stu­dents dur­ing a lec­ture at the Royal School of Ad­min­is­tra­tion that “big coun­tries” were al­ways “win­ning” at the ex­pense of smaller ones.

“I have made the com­par­i­son be­tween a buf­falo and a dog, which cross the road in their own ways . . . When the dog pre­pares to cross the road, it runs back and forth. But the buf­falo walks across the road with­out be­ing con­cerned about any­thing . . . be­cause it is big and has power,” he said.

“The world’s af­fairs are not dif­fer­ent … when they are big, what they say is al­ways right, and we are the ones who have dif­fi­cul­ties.”

He then praised China and Rus­sian President Vladimir Putin’s lead­er­ship, be­fore tak­ing a shot at West­ern democ­ra­cies.

“We have no­ticed that the West has be­come weak. I don’t say this look­ing down on them; this is what an­a­lysts and ob­servers noted. The US has be­come weak; and look at Europe – it has dif­fi­cul­ties in solv­ing com­plex and un­count­able prob­lems since the Bri­tish walked out,” he said. “We have friends and peo­ple who love and help,” he added, re­fer­ring to un­named coun­tries, “but also one who is an­gry with us.”

Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials across the board sim­i­larly dug in their heels.

In re­sponse to ris­ing ten­sions be­tween the US and Cam­bo­dia, the US on Wed­nes­day is­sued travel warn­ings to its cit­i­zens in Cam­bo­dia, prompt­ing gov­ern­ment spokesman Phay Siphan to tell gov­ern­ment mouth­piece Fresh News that the warn­ing was “ill in­ten­tioned”, and a “dis­tor­tion of re­al­ity”.

In an in­ter­view, Siphan said the no­tice, which warned of es­ca­lat­ing an­tiUS rhetoric, served “to scare tourists”.

“Its in­ten­tion is to cre­ate ten­sion be­tween Cam­bo­dia and the United States,” he said.

Fresh News, mean­while, pub­lished a pur­ported let­ter from “the vic­tims of 1970” – an ap­par­ent ref­er­ence to the coup led by Lon Nol, whose regime was sup­ported by the US – taunt­ing the su­per­power to evac­u­ate its cit­i­zens if it felt the sit­u­a­tion was so grave.

“In view of the wors­en­ing sit­u­a­tion in Cam­bo­dia, as the US Em­bassy has is­sued a state­ment that its cit­i­zens should be cau­tious in Cam­bo­dia, the US should take a he­li­copter to trans­port its cit­i­zens from Cam­bo­dia, as it did in April 1975,” the let­ter read.

Rather than the date of the Lon Nol coup, how­ever, the let­ter refers to the date Lon Nol was top­pled by the Kh­mer Rouge, which killed as many as 1.7 mil­lion Cam­bo­di­ans.

Yes­ter­day, the For­eign Min­istry also dis­missed the UN High Com­mis­sion for Hu­man Rights’ Zeid Ra’ad Al Hus­sein’s crit­i­cism of its rights breaches as a “mis­judg­ment”. The state­ment ar­gues that he had not con­sid­ered legal as­pects and that “an in­di­vid­ual that com­mit­ted trea­son and con­spir­acy with for­eign power, an NGO that de­lib­er­ately con­ducted ac­tiv­i­ties with­out legal per­mis­sion, a news­pa­per that did not pay tax” – ref­er­ences to the jailed Sokha, the ex­pelled Na­tional Demo­cratic In­sti­tute and the shut­tered Cam­bo­dia Daily, re­spec­tively – could not be ex­empt from law en­force­ment.

“Po­lit­i­cal and civil rights, me­dia free­dom, free­dom of as­so­ci­a­tion and ex­pres­sion are fully pro­tected in Cam­bo­dia,” the state­ment con­tin­ues.

Phil Robert­son, Hu­man Rights Watch’s deputy Asia di­rec­tor, dis­missed the ar­gu­ment as “laugh­able and sad”.

“PM Hun Sen has ef­fec­tively weaponized his po­lit­i­cal con­trol over the courts to at­tack tar­gets like Kem Sokha and NGOs like ADHOC, mean­ing that all the var­i­ous civil and po­lit­i­cal rights that the [Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs] says they re­spect are in fact at risk on a daily ba­sis,” he said in an email, call­ing on donors to re­con­sider their sup­port to “a po­lit­i­cally men­da­cious part­ner”.

Con­cerns were not lim­ited to the US. Swedish State Sec­re­tary for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment Co­op­er­a­tion, Ul­rika Modéer, in a ra­dio in­ter­view last week said the coun­try’s aid to Cam­bo­dia was be­ing re­viewed. Yes­ter­day, Swedish Am­bas­sador Maria Sar­gren in an email said they were fol­low­ing de­vel­op­ments with “great con­cern” and had voiced their ap­pre­hen­sions both through the EU and uni­lat­er­ally.

“It is im­por­tant to un­der­line, though, that Swe­den has at this point not taken any de­ci­sion re­lated to dis­con­tin­u­ing or de­creas­ing any of our aid pro­grammes in Cam­bo­dia,” she said.

Also echo­ing con­cerns by the High Com­mis­sioner, the Euro­pean Par­lia- ment passed a res­o­lu­tion yes­ter­day that “strongly con­demns” the ar­rest of op­po­si­tion leader Kem Sokha, ask­ing for his im­me­di­ate re­lease.

They also de­plored “pub­lic state­ments by the Prime Min­is­ter and high­rank­ing of­fi­cials about Kem Sokha’s sup­posed guilt, which breach the pre­sump­tion of in­no­cence and the right to a fair trial”.

De­spite not di­rectly call­ing for eco­nomic sanc­tions, sev­eral par­lia­men­tar­i­ans in the de­bate prior to the adop­tion of the res­o­lu­tion high­lighted that the EU in­vested large sums in Cam­bo­dia. David Martin, of Group of Pro­gres­sive Al­liance of So­cial­ists, re­minded Cam­bo­dia “that we are a sig­nif­i­cant part­ner”, and that it was “par­tic­u­larly con­cern­ing” to see demo­cratic val­ues “un­der at­tack”.

Fed­er­ica Mogherini, high rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the EU for for­eign af­fairs, noted that the EU had in­vested 10 mil­lion in elec­tion re­forms, and would “mon­i­tor closely” all de­vel­op­ments.

Mogherini said if re­stric­tions of civil so­ci­ety and the op­po­si­tion con­tin­ued, this could call into ques­tion the le­git­i­macy of elec­tions. “If in­vited by the gov­ern­ment, the EU would be ready to con­sider the de­ploy­ment [of an elec­tion ob­ser­va­tion mis­sion],” she said.

Yet, Siphan said the gov­ern­ment wasn’t in­ter­ested. “We don’t care about free and fair elec­tions [as de­fined by for­eign­ers], we care about free and fair elec­tions for our own peo­ple,” he said. “Let Cam­bo­dia en­joy our in­de­pen­dence.”

But Michaela Šo­j­drová, of the Group of Euro­pean Peo­ple’s Party, said the sit­u­a­tion had noth­ing to do with for­eign in­ter­fer­ence. “The prime min­is­ter wants to bring in a dic­ta­tor­ship,” she said.

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For­eign Min­is­ter Prak Sokhonn speaks on Cam­bo­dian for­eign pol­icy yes­ter­day at Ph­nom Penh’s Royal School of Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

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