A US State Department warning that the “integrity” of Cambodia’s upcoming July election is questionable and new moves afoot to freeze the assets of officials involved in the nation’s political clampdown have underscored the two sides’ fast deteriorating relations.

America has spearheaded the international community’s reaction to Cambodia’s slide towards a one-party state, which culminated with the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha on treason charges last September.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the only viable electoral competitor to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, was forcibly dissolved two months later. Over 100 CNRP members were also banned from politics and many fled the clampdown into exile.

America responded to the CNRP’s dissolution, by immediately cut funding to the country’s National Election Committee. Further cuts were announced in February, affecting Cambodia’s Tax Department as well as some military and local government programs.

US-Cambodian diplomatic friction goes back further. The political crackdown, led by Hun Sen, was foreshadowed by ramped up anti-US and anti-Western rhetoric. The strongman premier accused the US of various human rights violations, both past and present, and warned America not to meddle in Cambodia’s internal affairs.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks to the media after registering for next year's local elections, in Kandal province, Cambodia September 1, 2016. REUTERS/Samrang Pring - RTX2NRDV
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (c) speaks to the media after registering for a local election in Kandal province, September 1, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring 

In retrospect, the nationalistic messaging was seen as a way to preempt criticism of the clampdown to come by undermining America’s self-reputed championing of rights and democracy.

The anti-US rhetoric was mobilized while Hun Sen simultaneously cozied up to China, with the emerging regional powerhouse happy to accept Cambodia as a pliant client.

After the CNRP’s dissolution, US Representative Ed Royce declared Cambodia a “one-party dictatorship”, while the unfazed Hun Sen dared Western donor nations to withdraw their aid and assistance, boasting that China would happily fill the vacuum.

On May 14, party registration for the national election closed with the CNRP unsurprisingly absent.

“The United States deeply regrets the Royal Government of Cambodia’s decision to prohibit leading figures from the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) from participating in the July 2018, national elections,” said a May 17 US State Department press release.

The statement also called for the immediate release of Kem Sokha and reinstatement of CNRP candidates.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed the State Department’s denunciation, insisting that Cambodia is a “sovereign nation.”

“We are not under anyone,” he said in an interview on May 19. Siphan, a dual Cambodian-American citizen, claimed the dissolution of the CNRP was consistent with the “rule of law.”

Member of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Ouk Pich Samnang reacts inside a police vehicle on his way to attend a verdict announcement at the appeal court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Samrang Pring
Jailed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) member Ouk Pich Samnang inside a police vehicle on his way to an appeal court hearing, Phnom Penh, May 10, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

While Hun Sen has continued to blast America in local speeches and domestic media, spokesmen like Siphan have somewhat softened their tone to international media outlets.

Despite the regime’s frequent accusations that America conspired with the CNRP to overthrow the Cambodian government in a so-called “color revolution”, Siphan said the US is not Cambodia’s enemy. “We have a lot of cooperation, we are not against the US,” he said.

With the CNRP crippled if not decimated, the CPP government may no longer feel the need to ramp up its heavy-handed assault, especially on the global stage, some analysts suggest.

Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Los Angeles-based Occidental College, said the regime is “perfectly capable of cognitive dissonance” and willing to mobilize whatever rhetoric is convenient at a point in time.

While Cambodia might be backing down to an extent, the US is on a punitive offensive.

On May 17, the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs committee approved legislation drafted by Congressman Ted Yoho which would impose asset freezes on senior government and military officials that have “directly and substantially undermined democracy in Cambodia.”

Supporters of Kem Sokha, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), stand outside the Appeal Court during a bail hearing for the jailed opposition leader in Phnom Penh, Cambodia September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Samrang Pring
Supporters of jailed CNRP leader Kem Sokha outside a court during a bail hearing, September 26, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

If passed, the bill must be enacted into law within 180 days, although it is not yet clear when the House will vote on the legislation.

The Cambodia Democracy Act 2018 states that democracy has failed in Cambodia despite “decades of international attention and assistance,” and condemns the deteriorating situation for political rights, civil society and the free press.

The legislation’s co-sponsor, Alan Lowenthal, called the bill a “major step” towards holding Hun Sen and his associates accountable.

“I believe these sanctions will get the attention of the Cambodian government,” Lowenthal said in a statement, stressing that the US and world must act urgently. “I also believe that our action today will encourage other members of the international community to take similar actions and bring additional pressure to bear on Hun Sen.”

Cambodian officials identified as being involved in undermining democracy are already banned from traveling to the US following a December decree from the State Department.

There are now bills in both the US Senate and House that would impose asset freezes, although the Senate bill goes even further by requiring that the US oppose loans to Cambodia from international financial institutions. It also bans any negotiations on the more than US$500 million debt Cambodia owes America dating back to the 1970s.

Cambodian officials’ assets are difficult to track given that asset “declarations” sit in a closed envelope in the government’s Anti-Corruption Unit. Some high-ranking officials like Siphan are dual US-Cambodian citizens.

Cambodia-Sun Chanthol-Minister of Transport-Youtube
Cambodian Public Works and Transport Minister Sun Chanthol at prominent US think tank CSIS. Photo: Facebook

Others, like Public Works and Transport Minister Sun Chanthol, were educated in America; many senior CPP members, including Hun Sen, have sent their children to the US for studies. While Siphan denies that Hun Sen has any assets in America, a 2016 report by Global Witness linked his family to certain top-ranking American companies.

Kem Monovithya, daughter of the imprisoned Kem Sokha, has been lobbying the international community for help ever since her father’s arrest, with apparent more success in the US than Europe or elsewhere.

“We are grateful that the US government and Congress have been applying various tools with the hope to salvage Cambodia’s democracy,” she said in a message Friday, urging the rest of the world to follow suit. “Millions of Cambodians call on the rest of the international community to stand on the right side of history.”

Spokesman Siphan downplayed the significance of the proposed asset freezes, claiming: “the Prime Minister, he isn’t worried about that.” He said the US has the right to pass any laws as it sees fit, and that he didn’t expect the freezes to impact him personally.

“I am not a corrupt official, I am not against the US, I am not a terrorist, I am not undermining democracy,” he said.

Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a political scientist who specializes in Cambodia, said asset freezes would have “greater potential for achieving democratic concessions” than the aid cuts instituted so far. She said US aid could easily be replaced with Chinese funds.

Garment workers hold petrol bombs after clashes broke out during a protest in Phnom Penh January 3, 2014. Cambodian military police opened fire with assault rifles on Friday to quell a protest by stone-throwing garment factory workers demanding higher pay, killing at least three people, witnesses said. Military police spokesman Kheng Tito, however, said only one protester was killed.      REUTERS/Samrang Pring (CAMBODIA - Tags: BUSINESS TEXTILE CIVIL UNREST POLITICS) - RTX170K8
Garment workers hold petrol bombs after clashes broke out during a protest in Phnom Penh, January 3, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring 

Opposition figures have previously advocated for the US to consider sanctions against Cambodia’s garment industry, something Noren-Nilsson said would constitute a “different level” of pressure.

Garment workers have been prone to stirring unrest in the past. In 2013, for instance, garment strikers joined forces with the CNRP to dispute that year’s election result, culminating in massive street protests in Phnom Penh that were eventually put down with lethal state force.

“Inevitably it would hit vulnerable garment workers hard,” she said. “At the same time, it is undeniably the measure with the greatest potential to make the government modify its course of action – even though such an outcome is by no means a given. You could say that the US decision on this depends on its willingness to gamble on these factors.”

Sam Rainsy, a CNRP co-founder now residing in exile, has said this is a gamble worth taking and warned Cambodians to brace themselves for harsher foreign measures in the future.

“Anything peaceful must be done to help put an end to the despotic, inhumane and anachronistic Hun Sen regime,” he said in an email to Asia Times.

Sam Rainsy, then president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, speaks to his supporters upon his arrival in Phnom Penh on 19, July 2014. Photo: AFP/Kimlong Meng/NurPhoto
Sam Rainsy speaks to supporters in a July 2014 file photo. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Kimlong Meng

Rainsy also said Hun Sen “is holding his people hostage and blackmailing donor nations” by flaunting the negative effects sanctions would have on average Cambodians.

“I am calling on the Cambodian people to be prepared for some additional hardship in our current fight for a democratic and peaceful change,” he said. “As in any battle for a just cause, a short-term sacrifice may be required to secure a better future.”

While the US hasn’t threatened the garment industry specifically, officials have warned that further action is on the cards.

Sophal foresees more sanctions coming after the July elections, which he doesn’t expect the US to recognize as free, fair or legitimate. “It’s clear as day the US will reject the results of the election and I expect more sanctions as Cambodian democracy is not only undermined but completely gutted.”