Cam­bo­dia op­po­si­tion seeks US help amid crack­down

The Myanmar Times - - Views - MATTHEW PENNINGTON news­room@mm­times.com

CAM­BO­DIA’S leader is de­stroy­ing a po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion move­ment that threat­ens his three-decade grip on power and he’s ac­cus­ing Amer­ica of plot­ting his down­fall. An in­flu­en­tial op­po­si­tion fig­ure is in Wash­ing­ton and is won­der­ing if she’ll get any help at all.

Prime Min­is­ter Hun Sen talks about ne­far­i­ous US de­signs to un­seat him, but the United States re­jects that claim as base­less. Ex­perts say his at­tacks are driven by a fear of los­ing elec­tions next year.

Op­po­si­tion leader Kem Sokha is im­pris­oned and his party seems likely to be dis­solved this week by Cam­bo­dia’s high­est court. His daugh­ter, a spokes­woman for the Cam­bo­dia Na­tional Res­cue Party, is urg­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion to act quickly to try to sal­vage democ­racy in the South East Asian na­tion.

“Hun Sen thinks the world is not pay­ing at­ten­tion and that no­body is pre­pared to do any­thing about it,” said Monovithya Kem, who wants the United States to im­pose sanc­tions on Cam­bo­dian of­fi­cials com­plicit in the crack­down.

Monovithya said about 20 law­mak­ers, out of the party’s 55 in the 123-mem­ber Na­tional Assem­bly, have fled Cam­bo­dia since Kem Sokha was ar­rested Septem­ber 3 and charged with trea­son, which car­ries a sen­tence of up to 30 years in prison. Monovithya and her sis­ter also fled, fear­ing ar­rest. The govern­ment ac­cuses them of con­spir­ing with the CIA.

It’s not un­usual for Cam­bo­dian politi­cians to de­monise the US. There’s fer­tile his­tory to draw on.

US se­cret bomb­ing dur­ing the Viet­nam War is of­ten blamed for the rise of the Kh­mer Rouge, whose late 1970s geno­ci­dal rule killed onequar­ter of the Cam­bo­dian pop­u­la­tion. Af­ter a Viet­namese in­va­sion top­pled the Kh­mer Rouge, the US voted for a coali­tion in­clud­ing the for­mer rulers to re­tain Cam­bo­dia’s United Na­tions seat in­stead of giv­ing it to the Viet­nam-backed govern­ment.

Since Cam­bo­dia emerged from civil war in the 1990s, how­ever, the US has been a more be­nign pres­ence. Since 1991, it has pro­vided US$1.8 bil­lion (K2.46 tril­lion) in aid for de­vel­op­ment and democ­racy pro­mo­tion and $60 mil­lion in mil­i­tary as­sis­tance, US govern­ment data show. Hun Sen’s el­dest son was even ed­u­cated at West Point.

But in re­cent years, the Cam­bo­dian leader’s re­la­tion­ship with Wash­ing­ton has be­come in­creas­ingly ac­ri­mo­nious. In that time, Cam­bo­dia’s re­liance on nearby China, which avoids crit­i­cis­ing oth­ers’ hu­man rights records, has in­ten­si­fied.

“US in­flu­ence in Cam­bo­dia is at an all-time low,” said John Sifton, Asia ad­vo­cacy di­rec­tor for Hu­man Rights Watch in Wash­ing­ton.

He said the US re­tains some power and lever­age, par­tic­u­larly through vot­ing rights at the World Bank and Asian De­vel­op­ment Bank that pro­vide aid for the im­pov­er­ished coun­try. Amer­ica also is a big mar­ket for Cam­bo­dian tex­tiles. Still, US of­fi­cials aren’t sure they can change Hun Sen’s cal­cu­lus.

“Au­thor­i­tar­i­ans don’t give up power eas­ily,” Sifton said. “He still has China. He still has Viet­nam. He still has ASEAN mem­bers who will stand be­side him.”

Through 32 years in power, Hun Sen has mas­tered how to side­line po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents. In 1997, he ousted a co-prime min­is­ter in a bloody coup. In re­cent years, he’s used Cam­bo­dia’s pli­ant ju­di­cial sys­tem.

To avoid in­ter­na­tional reprisals, he’s of­ten struck last-minute po­lit­i­cal com­pro­mises. He al­lowed for­mer op­po­si­tion leader Sam Rainsy to con­test the last na­tional elec­tions in 2013 when Hun Sen nar­rowly re­tained power in a flawed vote. Rainsy now lives in ex­ile.

As Hun Sen now looks ahead to a July vote, he’s mount­ing per­haps his big­gest as­sault on Cam­bo­dian democ­racy since the coup. The govern­ment filed a law­suit with the Supreme Court for the op­po­si­tion party to be dis­solved, al­leg­ing it con­spired to top­ple his ad­min­is­tra­tion. The court is due to rule on Thurs­day.

Hun Sen said last week he was will­ing to wa­ger 100-to-1 that the party will be dis­solved.

Speak­ing to The As­so­ci­ated Press, govern­ment spokesman Phay Siphan claimed to have ev­i­dence prov­ing Amer­i­can agents have con­spired with the op­po­si­tion. The govern­ment has pre­vi­ously pub­li­cised a video clip show­ing Kem Sokha giv­ing a speech in which he de­scribes a grass-roots po­lit­i­cal strat­egy to chal­lenge Hun Sen, with US sup­port.

US Am­bas­sador Wil­liam Heidt has dis­missed the al­le­ga­tion as “in­ten­tion­ally in­ac­cu­rate, mis­lead­ing and base­less.”

Heidt was sum­moned to Wash­ing­ton this past week for con­sul­ta­tions amid calls from US law­mak­ers for visa bans and pos­si­ble fi­nan­cial sanc­tions on Cam­bo­dian of­fi­cials in­volved in the crack­down. It’s a course sup­ported by Hu­man Rights Watch and other ac­tivists.

Cam­bo­dia’s govern­ment also has tar­geted civil so­ci­ety and me­dia, shut­ter­ing ra­dio sta­tions with pro­gram­ming from US-funded Ra­dio Free Asia and Voice of Amer­ica. The Na­tional Demo­cratic In­sti­tute, which helped train po­lit­i­cal par­ties and elec­tion mon­i­tors, was kicked out of the coun­try.

Con­vict­ing Kem Sokha and dis­solv­ing his party would set back the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Ph­nom Penh fur­ther. But it’s un­clear whether that would be the step lead­ing to Amer­i­can sanc­tions.

The fence-sit­ting frus­trates Monovithya Kem as she lob­bies for US ac­tion now, not af­ter a court rul­ing that dis­man­tles the op­po­si­tion.

If the party is dis­solved, she said, “there is ab­so­lutely no way the elec­tions next year will be free and fair.”

– As­so­ci­ated Press

Photo: AP

Cam­bo­dian Prime Min­is­ter Hun Sen ar­rives at Clark In­ter­na­tional Air­port in the Philip­pines on Satur­day.

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