US calls on Cambodia to 'undo' opposition party ban
WASHINGTON, Nov 18, 2017 - The United States Thursday demanded Cambodia reverse its ban on the country's main opposition, warning the dissolution of the party would strip 2018 elections of legitimacy.
Washington hit out after Cambodia's Supreme Court, effectively controlled by strongman premier Hun Sen, outlawed the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and banned more than 100 of its politicians, accusing the party of plotting to overthrow the government.
The US joined a chorus of condemnation from the European Union and activists following the ruling that essentially allows Hun Sen's party to run uncontested in next year's polls.
The verdict is the culmination of a strangling of dissent in Cambodia, with CNRP president Kem Sokha jailed for treason in September as part of a crackdown that has also seen media outlets shuttered, journalists jailed and activists harassed.
The United States blasted Thursday's ruling as a setback for democracy in Cambodia, calling for the government to "undo its recent actions against the CNRP (and) release imprisoned CNRP leader Kem Sokha."
In a statement, the White House said leaders must also "allow opposition parties, civil society and the media to maintain their legitimate activities."
"On current course, next year's election will not be legitimate, free, or fair," the statement said, adding the US would pull support for Cambodia's National Election Committee.
The US has previously rejected Cambodia's allegations of American involvement in plotting to oust the government as baseless.
Although US President Donald Trump met with Hun Sen at a regional summit last week, the US leader did not comment on the brewing political crisis.
- EU rebuke -
Washington's condemnation came after the European Union said next year's elections have been stripped of credibility with the CNRP pulled from the race.
"A situation in which all parties, including the CNRP, their leaders and their supporters are able to carry out freely their legitimate functions, must be swiftly restored," an EU spokesperson said in a statement.
It warned that "respect of fundamental human rights" is a prerequisite of Cambodia's duty-free access to the bloc's markets.
Cambodia largely relies on trade with the US and EU to bolster economic growth following a savage civil war that ended in 1975.
Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who defected, has ruled the country since 1985 and says he has brought much-needed peace and stability to the impoverished nation.
But he is also accused of squeezing out his rivals through well-timed crackdowns and dubious court cases.
Analysts say he has been emboldened by financial backing from Beijing, which has lavished the country with investment that has made it less dependent on aid from Western democracies.
A government official said Friday the decision to dissolve the CNRP -- the country's only viable opposition party which nearly unseated Hun Sen in 2013 elections -- was in line with the law.
"It is regretful that the US official stance was made without consideration of the evidence and the court ruling," Huy Vannak, an Interior Ministry undersecretary of state, told AFP.
He said he hoped the US and the EU would continue working with Cambodia, adding that the CNRP sought to "destroy" the country.
- 'Unjust' -
The CNRP said it still considers itself a legitimate party and plans to stand in next year's election, even though more than half its 55 lawmakers have fled the country.
Rights groups slammed Thursday's ruling, with HRW saying the decision signalled the "death of democracy" and Amnesty International calling it a "blatant act of political repression".
Observers say the current climate of repression is harsher than previous clampdowns, with Hun Sen foregoing even the pretense of respecting human rights and a free press.
In addition to assaults against the CNRP, his government has shut down a series of outspoken NGOs and independent news outlets, including the respected Cambodia Daily.
In Cambodia's sleepy capital Phnom Penh, life returned to normal Friday for some residents too scared to protest the verdict delivered at Thursday's heavily-guarded trial.
"Most people don't support the court's decision but I just stay quiet," tuk-tuk driver Ly Huor told AFP, vowing to vote next year.
"It's very unjust. It's like they are robbing the will of the people."