US ambassador concerned over souring relations

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Incoming US Ambassador Patrick Murphy. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Incoming US Ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy voiced concerns over deteriorating relations between Cambodia and the US during a recent visit to the Kingdom.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Sunday said he recently met with Mr Murphy in Phnom Penh, where the incoming envoy requested that the government not link the prosecution of any former CNRP officials to the US.

Former CNRP leader Kem Sokha has been charged with treason over a 2013 news interview in which he said the US had been helping him push for regime change in the country since the 1990s. He is accused of colluding with the US to overthrow the government through a colour revolution.

Asked about Mr Murphy’s recent comments to Mr Kheng, US embassy spokeswoman Emily Zeeberg yesterday said that the position of the US remains the same, referencing Mr Murphy’s official visit to the Kingdom in December 2017.

“As Mr Murphy said to the press in December 2017 following his meeting in Phnom Penh with Interior Minister Sar Kheng, the United States is concerned with democratic backsliding and Cambodia needs to take genuine measures to improve the bilateral relationship,” Ms Zeeberg said yesterday in an email.

“The United States has consistently and repeatedly called for the government of Cambodia to drop all charges against Kem Sokha, remove restrictions on the political rights of him and other opposition figures, and engage political opposition leaders in an urgent dialogue aimed at building genuine national reconciliation,” Ms Zeeberg added. “This remains US policy.”

Mr Sokha was released on bail last week. His bail conditions bars him from making trips abroad and from meeting with former opposition officials or individuals, especially foreigners, linked to his treason case.

He was also confined to a four-block radius surrounding his home in Tuol Kork district’s Boeng Kak II commune.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the government highly valued and respected the US for building and strengthening bilateral relations between the two countries, but noted that the government could not meddle with the judiciary.

“The government has no rights to order the court to make arrests, lay charges or drop charges against former opposition members. The court has made the decision independently, and it is not related with the ruling party,” Mr Siphan said.

He added the US government should help provide lawyers or legal assistance to Mr Sokha and his former party officials to battle the charges or prosecution if they believed they are innocent.

“The US government should look at themselves and especially what they did in Cambodia during 1975. The US failed to bring its democratic leadership to Cambodia because the US itself has many problems to solve,” Mr Siphan added.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the ruling party will not open any dialogue with the former CNRP leaders because their party was dissolved.

“The ruling party is implementing the law. They violated the law. They are charged and sentenced, why do we have to negotiate? It’s clear that the party no longer exists,” Mr Eysan said.

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said Cambodia implicated the US in Mr Sokha’s alleged plot to overthrow the government.

“The US ambassador’s request to our government to drop all charges against Kem Sokha means that there was no such plot and those charges must be dropped lest there are consequences on the relations between the two countries,” Mr Mong Hay said.

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