The U.S. House of Representatives has passed legislation to apply sanctions on Cambodian officials deemed responsible for undermining democracy in the Southeast Asian nation, drawing condemnation from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime, which said the move would damage bilateral relations.
The Cambodia Democracy Act of 2019—originally introduced by Representative Ted Yoho of Florida in April—was passed late on Tuesday, and would level asset blocking sanctions on government, military or security officials who have assisted in implementing a crackdown on the opposition, NGOs and the media in recent years, or committed related human rights violations.
In a statement on Tuesday, Yoho noted that Prime Minister Hun Sen has “clung to power for decades” and used “violence, threats, and sham prosecutions” against the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), including by directing the Supreme Court to dissolve the party and ban 118 of its elected officials from politics in November 2017 for its alleged role in a plot to overthrow the government.
By dissolving the country’s only viable opposition, and instituting the wider crackdown, Hun Sen paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
“The Cambodia Democracy Act of 2019 will push back against the Hun Sen regime’s undermining of democracy and related human rights abuses by applying financial sanctions to the figures who carry out this despicable agenda and codifying the Administration’s existing visa restrictions for these individuals,” Yoho said.
“I look forward to the bi-partisan legislation being sent to the Senate and eventually becoming law. It is time to hold the Hun Sen regime accountable for their actions.”
The Cambodia Democracy Act seeks to promote “free and fair elections, political freedoms and human rights in Cambodia,” and cited multiple reasons for the leveling of sanctions, including “the undemocratic rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, the enactment of the NGO law, restrictions on the media, the arrest of [CNRP president] Kem Sokha and the dissolution of the CNRP, six unfair and unfree elections since 1991 and doubtful 2018 elections.”
The bill still requires debate and approval in the Senate before it can be signed into law by U.S. President Donald Trump.
The passage of the bill in the House follows the May 14 introduction of the “Cambodia Accountability and Return on Investment Act of 2019” by senators Lindsey Graham, Dick Durban and Marco Rubio, which says that Congress will not authorize funds to assist Cambodia’s government unless it immediately release Kem Sokha from de facto house arrest, where he awaits a trial on charges of “treason.”
It also follows an announcement by the U.S. State Department, a month after the Supreme Court’s dissolution of the CNRP, of visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country.
On Tuesday, government spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed what he called “groundless allegations” in the Cambodia Democracy Act and urged U.S. lawmakers to reconsider the bill, saying it could damage relations between Washington and Phnom Penh.
“The bill is based on groundless allegations—this is an act against peace, stability and harmony in Cambodia,” he said.
“The U.S. must reconsider its stance towards Cambodia in the interest of maintaining a good relationship and benefits between the two countries.”
Relations with the West have increasingly soured since Cambodia’s general election and, in addition to measures taken by the U.S., the European Union has warned Hun Sen’s government that it “must show real, credible improvement” on human rights during a monitoring period ending in mid-August if it hopes to avoid losing tax-free entry of its exports into the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also issued a statement on Tuesday expressing the government’s disappointment over the passage of the bill.
“The Foreign Affairs’ spokesman strongly denies all of these groundless allegations against the Cambodian government,” the statement said.
“[The allegations] are out of date, political and based on double standards,” it said, adding that Cambodia “remains committed to democracy, pluralism and rule of law.”
The ministry’s statement also reiterated the government’s stance on Kem Sokha’s case, saying it is a “matter of the court” and necessary to ensure Cambodia’s “peace, stability and independence.”
Neither Phay Siphan nor the foreign ministry spokesman specified which allegations they considered groundless.
Political analyst Em Sovannara on Tuesday welcomed the passage of the Cambodia Democracy Act, which he said would force Cambodia to adopt international recommendations of governance.
“When this bill becomes law, it will force the government to return to a democracy,” he said.
A villager in Takeo province named Kien Sokun also applauded the bill’s passage, saying it shows that “what the U.S. wants is for the government to behave and fix its mistakes from the past.”
Pon Saory, the general secretary and spokesperson of CNRP’s operations in exile told RFA that the passage of the Cambodia Democracy Act is “part of our and other Cambodians abroad efforts to push for democracy in the country.”
He said that acting CNRP President Sam Rainsy is traveling to Washington this week as part of a campaign to encourage Senate lawmakers to also approve the bill, which will also see a rally staged by the party on Capitol Hill.
“We will call for a rapid debate for the bill on the Senate floor,” he said, adding that party members will also request additional support from Washington for Sam Rainsy’s planned return in September to Cambodia, where he faces jail time for multiple convictions he says are politically motivated.