US Urges New Government to Make Progress on Democracy

Prime Minister Hun Manet on Aug. 28 had a two-hour meeting with U.S. Ambassador Patrick Murphy and the Senate Appropriation Committee to discuss cooperation. Photo: U.S. Embassy in Cambodia / Facebook

PHNOM PENH – The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh urged the new Cambodian government to respect human rights, make progress on democratic standards and release prominent opposition figures and activists.

The embassy nevertheless renewed its longstanding commitment to the Cambodian people.

Prime Minister Hun Manet on Aug. 28 had a two-hour meeting with U.S. Ambassador Patrick Murphy and the Senate Appropriation Committee to discuss cooperation.

During the discussion, the U.S. delegation welcomed cooperation on regional and global matters and urged Hun Manet to support democracy and human rights, reopen civic and independent media, and release political opponents and activists free Kem Sokha and U.S.-Cambodian dual national Theary Seng.

Kem Sokha, the former president of the court-dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), was sentenced to 27 years in jail in March 2023 for “treason” and is serving his sentence under house arrest.

Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer and human rights activist, was sentenced on June 14, 2022, for “plotting” and “incitement to create social unrest” and is serving a six-year prison term in Preah Vihear provincial prison.

“The Ambassador and visiting delegation emphasized a longstanding U.S. commitment to the Cambodian people and their aspirations for a more prosperous, democratic, and independent country where all voices are heard and respected,” the U.S. Embassy said on its Facebook page following the meeting.

Ambassador Patrick Murphy tweeted that he had constructive engagements with PM Hun Manet and his new officials. “The United States is committed to the Cambodian people and urges government leaders to advance human rights and protect the Kingdom’s sovereignty,” he wrote.

Prime Minister Spokesperson Meas Sophorn could not be reached for comments.

Government Spokesperson Pen Bona could not comment on the matter, referring to the PM spokesperson.

Katherine Diop, the U.S. Embassy spokesperson said the United States respects an independent and sovereign Cambodia. “The U.S. government will continue to engage with the Cambodian government to advance our shared objectives in the Kingdom and the Indo-Pacific region, including ASEAN and global issues,” she said.

Meetings with country representatives

Hun Manet, the newly-appointed prime minister, said despite some dissents on some issues, Cambodia and the U.S. are committed to finding ways to cooperate, adding that the meeting indicates the country recognizes the authority of the new government.

“They met me at the Peace Palace and addressed me as the Prime Minister. They also showed the will to cooperate with the new government, so what else do you expect?” he said on Aug. 19 during a meeting with factory workers in Phnom Penh.

“The new government was born because of the support of the Cambodian people and recognized by the international.”

He continued that on the same day, he met with representatives of four different countries or block of countries, including outgoing EU ambassador Carmen Moreno, South Korea’s Minister of Agriculture Chung Hwang Keun, Deputy Minister of Timor-Leste Francisco Kalbuadi Lay and U.S. Senate Committee.

“If the government is illegally born, no one would want to cooperate and work with,” he said.

In a letter dated Aug. 25, Ursula Von Der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, extended her “congratulations” on Hun Manet's appointment as prime minister and recalled that the “[EU] and Cambodia have a long history of partnership and cooperation” which she’s committed to continue in the future.

Cambodian-American political scientist Ear Sophal said the meeting between the new head of government and the U.S. Embassy does not indicate that the U.S. government considers the elections to be free and fair, nor that the government has been democratically elected.

It is important to note that the U.S. administration expressed its wish for the government to uphold democracy and free Kem Sokha and Theary Seng, he said.

“We all know they are wrongfully detained, full stop,” Sophal said. “It's actions that matter, not words: When will they be released? Why not today? And if not today, why not tomorrow? Of course, the authorities will ballyhoo the recognition but that, again, is only because there is no choice but to meet with the government.”

On July 23, the day of the general election, the U.S. Department of State issued a statement to announce visa restrictions on certain individuals – the list has not been made public – and the freeze of several new assistance activities. Such decisions were motivated by the fact the elections were seen as “neither free nor fair” by the U.S., following the ban of Cambodia’s main opposition party, the Candlelight Party.

“We will continue to work with Cambodian and other partners to implement our existing assistance programs,” Embassy Spokesperson Diop pointed out.

She recalled that the U.S. remains Cambodia’s largest export market and argued that the trade relationship between the two countries should be “mutually beneficial, transparent, balanced and adhere to the highest standards, including labor rights.”

Cambodia previously benefited from the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which granted tax incentives to the country’s exports to the United States. But the program expired on Dec. 31, 2020, and has not been reauthorized by the U.S. Congress since then.

This article has been modified to add comments from U.S. Embassy's spokesperson.

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