US Lawmakers Pass Legislation Targeting Political Repression in Cambodia

U.S. lawmakers and Cambodian opposition figures welcomed the bipartisan passage Tuesday of legislation calling for sanctions on Cambodian officials found responsible for suppressing political opposition in the authoritarian Southeast Asian country.

Titled the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2021, H.R.4686 would bar entry to the United States by senior Cambodian officials deemed responsible by the U.S. president for having “directly and substantially undermined democracy in Cambodia.”

The bill if signed into law by the U.S. president would also restrict financial transactions and freeze assets held by targeted officials in the United States, California Congressman and co-chair of the Congressional Cambodia Caucus Alan Lowenthal said in a Sept. 28 press release.

“Despite repeated actions taken by both the United States and the international community, the authoritarian regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen continues to reject the democratic promises and processes he agreed to in the 1991 Paris Peace Accords,” Lowenthal said, referring to an agreement marking the end of the war with Vietnam that ousted Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.

“From shuttering or co-opting the free press, to banishing political opponents, to eliminating free and fair elections and then repeatedly declaring himself the people’s choice, the Hun Sen regime continues to do everything in its power to destroy any hope of democracy in Cambodia.”

Sanctions under the Cambodia Democracy Act, which would go into effect within 180 days of the bill being signed into law, “are the price Hun Sen and his regime must pay for their relentless assault on the freedoms of the Cambodian people,” Lowenthal said.

Speaking to RFA on Wednesday, Mu Sochua—acting president of Cambodia’s banned opposition group the Cambodia National Rescue Party—said she hopes that Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 35 years, will reconsider his efforts to block democratic progress in Cambodia before the bill is signed into law by President Biden.

“This gives time for Hun Sen to think again about his abuses and iron-fist rule, which the international community has condemned,” she said, adding, “The government needs to understand what the people need.”

“They want real peace, independent courts, and freedom,” Mu Sochua said, calling on Hun Sen to stop Cambodia’s ongoing arrests of opposition politicians, environmental activists, and other dissenting figures.

“Hope is being destroyed,” she said.

'An unjust bill'

Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan lashed out at the proposed legislation in a posting on his Facebook page on Wednesday, calling the bill unjust.

“This discriminates against Cambodia, which is committed to democracy and is working hard to build a rule of law,” he said.

“The bill may not be signed into law by President Biden, though,” Phay Siphan said, adding that a June visit to Cambodia by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had been meant to strengthen cooperation between the two countries for their mutual benefit.

However, the State Department said following her visit that Sherman had urged Cambodia’s government to drop “politically motivated” court cases against its critics, and had expressed concern over Hun Sen’s broader crackdown on the country's political opposition and civil society.

Global sanctions regime

In a separate action on Dec. 8, the European Union announced that it had adopted a global human rights sanctions regime that would allow for travel bans and the freezing of assets of individuals or entities deemed responsible for acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and other serious human rights abuses.

The regime, which could be used to counter political repression in Cambodia, marks the first time the bloc has put in place such measures targeting international actors, and is based on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, a U.S. law named for a Russian corruption whistleblower who died in prison.

The EU had earlier stripped Cambodia of its preferential trade terms following the arrest of CNRP president Kem Sokha in September 2017 and the Supreme Court’s decision two months later to ban his party for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government.

The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.

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