Cambodia’s uneasy relationship with the US took a turn for the worse as Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon headed a list of officials facing visa bans in a feud over repatriation of convicts.
Meanwhile the US issued a travel warning for Cambodia a day after Ambassador William Heidt called for Kem Sokha’s release.
The US issued a travel warning for Cambodia and has barred top Cambodian officials from non-diplomatic visits to America as relations between the countries turn sour.
The visa ban, part of an row over repatriation of Cambodians with criminal records, affects Foreign Ministry officials from the level of director-general up to Minister Prak Sokhonn.
The travel warning, issued last night, says: “Recent developments, including the arrest of a political figure, the expulsion of an American NGO and its foreign staff, and anti-American rhetoric by officials, may raise the overall tensions in the country.
“Although the embassy has no specific information regarding any planned demonstrations or security issues at this time, we urge all US citizens to exercise caution.
“Even demonstrations or events intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence without warning.”
The warning and visa ban come amid US criticism of the arrest of CNRP leader Kem Sokha, and Prime Minister Hun Sen accusing America of meddling in Cambodian affairs.
The US Embassy said the visa restrictions were in line with Homeland Security rules applying to a country that refused to accept or was unreasonably delaying the return of its nationals.
As of yesterday, the embassy suspended issuing B1, B2 and B1/B2 visas for ministry officials.
B1/B2 visas are for people travelling to the US temporarily for business, pleasure or medical treatment.
B1 visas apply to travellers consulting business associates, attending scientific, educational, professional or business conferences, settling an estate or negotiating contracts.
The B2 visa is for recreational travel, including tourism, visits to friends or relatives, medical treatment and activities of a fraternal, social or service nature.
Last night the ministry said Cambodia regretted the US move to put it on a list of unco-operative countries.
It did not conform with the spirit of good cooperation on the repatriation program.
The ministry had proposed temporary suspension of the agreement covering repatriations with a view to addressing humanitarian and rights concerns of the returnees raised by members of Cambodian community in the US.
The ministry said it wished to underline that the proposal did not aim to terminate the agreement.
A ministry official declined to say how many people might be affected but the ministry website lists 24 positions from the level of director-general to minister.
This year, Cambodia has agreed to receive 34 deportees, however only eight have been repatriated so far. From 2002 until last year, 549 people were forced to return to Cambodia.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has urged the US to amend the agreement covering the repatriations with a new one based on rights arguments.
On Tuesday, US Ambassador William Heidt said claims that America was helping Mr Sokha to achieve regime change were without serious evidence.
He called for Mr Sokha’s release, saying that if elections were held now no credible observer would certify them as free and fair.
Legal professor Sao Deluxe said the US was creating more tension while Cambodia and the US Embassy were at odds over the Prime Minister’s accusations of US interference in Cambodia.
However, he added that the visa suspension would not greatly affect the relationship between the countries because it applied only to foreign ministry officials and not citizens.