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U.S. Embassy says it doesn’t support opposition – only ‘multi-party democracy’

The U.S. Embassy said Thursday it doesn’t “support any particular individual, institution, or political party” in Cambodia, and only wants the country to have “an inclusive, multi-party democracy.”

The statement from Embassy spokesperson Stephanie Arzate on Thursday followed a public warning from Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier this week of a break in diplomatic relations if “Cambodia’s foreign friends” support opposition party groups and politicians. 

“Promoting democracy and respect for human rights is central to U.S. foreign policy in Cambodia and around the world,” Arzate said in response to an inquiry from Radio Free Asia. “We support the Cambodian people and their sustained aspirations for an inclusive, multi-party democracy that protects human rights as enshrined in the Kingdom’s constitution.”

Speaking at a hospital inauguration in Tbong Khmum province on Monday, Hun Sen alluded to recent lawsuits and criminal court verdicts against prominent opposition party politicians. 

“You have to choose between an individual group that breaks the laws and the government,” he said. “Please choose one. If you need those who were penalized by law, please do so, and you can then break diplomatic relations from Cambodia.”

In recent months, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and Hun Sen have been working to silence and intimidate opposition figures ahead of the July general elections through a series of arrests and lawsuits.

In the same remarks on Monday, Hun Sen said he would continue to hunt and eliminate opposition groups – who he accused of committing treason – out of the political arena. 

In one high-profile example, opposition party leader Kem Sokha was sentenced to 27 years for treason last month in a decision widely condemned as politically motivated. 

The charges stemmed partly from a 2013 video in which he discusses a strategy to win power with the help of American experts. The United States Embassy has rejected any suggestion that Washington was trying to interfere in Cambodian politics.

Cambodia’s Defense Minister Tea Banh says that if countries want to hold joint military exercises with Cambodia, they should invite it to do so and should also cover the costs. Credit: Associated Press file photo

Ammo, fuel, explosives

Defense Minister Tea Banh laid down his own challenge to foreign countries, saying that if any nation wants to hold joint military exercises with Cambodia, they should invite Cambodia to do so and should also cover the costs.

Cambodia and China are currently holding joint military exercises – focusing on security operations during major events and humanitarian relief – at the Military Police Training Center in Kampong Chhnang province. The Golden Dragon exercises run from March 23 to April 8.

Earlier in March, the two nations staged their first-ever joint naval drills in waters off Sihanoukville in southwest Cambodia. The province is home to the Ream Naval Base that China is helping Cambodia to develop. 

Tea Banh said the Chinese military has provided ammunition, explosives, gasoline and other military equipment for the joint drills. Additionally, the Chinese military will hand over all military equipment to Cambodia once the drills have been completed, he said. 

China has been the only country to reach out to Phnom Penh about joint exercises, the minister said at a ceremony on Wednesday. Other countries have only complained about Cambodia’s military, but have taken no action, he said.

“If you truly have a genuine intent, please come have a real discussion about this,” he said. “How much would you responsibly be able to cover for the costs of expenses of a joint exercise?”

Military ties between China and Cambodia have deepened in recent years, with Beijing providing aid, equipment and training. In 2021, the United States imposed an arms embargo on Cambodia over concerns about “deepening Chinese military influence” in the country.

Wei Wenhui, China’s southern regional commander, said at Wednesday’s ceremony that China and Cambodia are important countries in the region with responsibility for safeguarding security and prosperity.

He added that China promotes the development of peace in the world and pursues a policy of defense – not hegemony, or perpetual expansion or influence.

The United States is committed to working with partners in the region to support a common vision for freedom and openness in the Indo-Pacific, Arzate told RFA via email on Thursday when asked about Tea Banh’s remarks. 

Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.