Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen is facing more pressure to reform from the US. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Eight US lawmakers wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week to call on the outgoing Trump administration to impose targeted sanctions against senior Cambodian officials and look into revoking the country’s trade privileges.

With US-Cambodia relations deteriorating once again in recent months, after attempts at rapprochement last year, and Washington at near fever-pitch over rumors that Chinese troops could one day be stationed in the country, this letter raises fears that it may be a last diplomatic overture from the Americans before more serious reprisals follow.

“The US government must respond in concert with its allies to send a strong message to [Prime Minister] Hun Sen that his crackdown on opposition and freedom of speech is unacceptable,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter earlier this week.

“We urge you and the State Department to convey this message in both your private and public communications with the Cambodian Government without delay.”

They also specifically called on the US State Department and Treasury to impose “targeted sanctions” under the Global Magnitsky Act or other means against senior officials of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), “including the top leadership of the police and gendarmes, both of which are involved in the escalating wave of arrests.”

“We further recommend that the US Trade Representative undertake an immediate review of Cambodia’s tariff privileges in light of the worsening environment for labor leaders and unions,” they added.

The letter also comes amid one of Cambodia’s most severe waves of repression in recent times, in which more than 50 members allegedly associated with a now-banned opposition party and civil-society figures have been called to appear before courts in late November on charges of treason.

Mary Lawlor, the UN’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. Photo: AFP/Cemil Oksuz/Anadolu Agency

Mary Lawlor, the UN’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, criticized Cambodia for “systemic detention and criminalization” of human rights defenders in a report earlier this week.

“I am alarmed by credible reports that at least 21 human rights defenders have been subjected to threats, arbitrary arrests and detentions in the past three months,” she said.

The flurry of international criticism and renewed interest from Washington in sanctioning senior Cambodian officials has sparked worry in Phnom Penh, which has yet to officially comment on the letter.  

“The fact that the letter calls for a review of trade privileges and strong pressure on Hun Sen’s government is deeply worrisome,” said Kimkong Heng, co-founder of Cambodian Education Forum and a visiting senior fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

Cambodia already lost trade privileges with the European Union (EU) in August, following a two-year review by Brussels into the erosion of democracy in Cambodia. Tariffs have now been reinstated on a fifth of its exports into European markets, a major concern for Cambodia’s vital garment manufacturing sector that sells the majority of its goods to EU states.

This stemmed from the CPP-aligned Supreme Court’s decision in late 2017 to forcibly dissolve the country’s only viable opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), as well as to strip its politicians of their seats in parliament and to arrest party president Kem Sokha on charges of treason. All these charges arose from spurious allegations that the CNRP was plotting a US-backed coup.

Without the CNRP on the ticket, the ruling CPP that has been in power since 1979 went on to win all parliamentary seats at the 2018 general election, turning Cambodia into a de-facto one-party state.

With the economy already expected to contract by about 4% this year because of the pandemic-induced economic crisis, according to the ADB, and only marginally grow in 2021, Cambodia “cannot cope” with more trade pressure from the US, Kimkong said.

These are not good times for the Cambodian government. As well as a failing economy, many senior officials, including Hun Sen, have been forced into quarantine and the capital has been put on high alert following the visit last month of Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, who the day after leaving Phnom Penh tested positive for Covid-19.

Taken on November 3, 2020, this photo shows Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) welcoming Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto. Szijjarto later tested positive for coronavirus in Thailand, a day after he jetted in from Cambodia. Photo: AFP/STR

Despite these problems, the government has simultaneously ratcheted up its repression of journalists, activists and civil society figures.

Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer and known critic of the Hun Sen government, was summoned to appear before a court on November 26 on charges of treason and incitement to commit a felony, which could result in a 12-year prison sentence.

More than 50 other individuals were this month also called to appear before the courts on treason charges, most because of their association with the now-banned CNRP.

Somehow finding time for these new cases, Cambodia’s courts still say the pandemic means they cannot restart Kem Sokha’s trial, which has been delayed repeatedly over the last three years.

Cambodia’s Permanent Mission in Geneva naturally denied the accusations made this week by Lawlor, the UN’s special rapporteur, and claimed she had not followed strict protocol when reporting her findings.

But analysts note that while the latest letter to Pompeo has no legal implication, it signifies a renewed interest in Washington about Cambodia’s political conditions.

Attempts to sanction senior Cambodian officials or remove its trade privileges were put before the US Congress in 2018 and 2019, but several bills have failed to progress across both houses.

This letter was the first major salvo from Congress this year and many of its signatories have a history of appealing for political progress in Cambodia.  

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey were co-sponsors of the Senate’s Cambodian Accountability & Return on Investment Act of 2018. Congressmen Ted Yoho and Alan Lowenthal have also rebuked Cambodia’s political situation over recent years.

“The letter itself is not surprising; most of the signatories are from the Massachusetts and California delegations – the two states where the vast majority of the Khmer-American population resides and where CNRP support is quite strong,” said Bradley J Murg, senior advisor and distinguished senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

“At the same time,” he added, “it is a further indication that the status quo of the relationship is clearly no longer sustainable.”

There has been no official response from Phnom Penh regarding the US lawmakers’ letter and government spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment.

While Congress has paid more attention to Cambodia’s human rights fiasco and the erosion of its democracy, the State Department and Pentagon have focused almost entirely on how Cambodia’s close alliance with China affects the US’ position in the region.

One of the buildings funded by the US pictured during a government-organized media tour to the Ream naval base in Preah Sihanouk province on July 26, 2019. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Recent months have seen tensions worsen over allegations that Phnom Penh will allow Chinese troops to use the Ream Naval Base, the country’s largest marine base, and where two US-built facilities have been torn down inexplicably since September.

Both Pompeo and Pentagon sources raised concerns about the connection between destroying US-built facilities and Chinese troops in October, which did not stop Cambodian authorities from tearing down the second facility last week.  

Analysts who spoke to Asia Times are not sure whether the letter from the US politicians was chiefly supposed to pressure the outgoing Trump administration into action during its last two months in office. Or, instead, act as a warning to Phnom Penh of what lies ahead for US-Cambodia relations after Biden’s inauguration in mid-January.

As such, it may be a final diplomatic call from the US for the Cambodian government to mend its way before major changes to relations come in January.

“The content of the letter is accurate and much needed … Hopefully, it will light some fire under Pompeo,” said Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.

However, the letter also signaled the future position of the US under the incoming Biden administration.

“It is vital that even as our government prepares for the transition to a new administration that we are clear and consistent in our condemnation of Hun Sen and his party’s crackdown on free speech, association and assembly,” the lawmakers wrote to Pompeo.

Notably, the letter had bipartisan support in the House, but only from Democrats in the Senate. Neither senators Ted Cruz nor Chris Coons – who is rumored to be a candidate for the Secretary of State post under Biden – signed the statement even though they were the co-sponsors of the Cambodian Trade Act of 2019.

Pundits expect the Biden administration to re-focus US foreign policy on human rights and values, as well as to maintain its predecessor’s opposition to Beijing expanding its reach in the Indo-Pacific. Whether Phnom Penh appreciates that change is in the air is unclear.

Sim Vireak, a senior official in Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry, attempted to argue in Asia Times last week that there won’t be any major changes to US-Cambodia relations under a Biden administration.

But, according to Kimkong, the Cambodian government should “reconsider the increasing repression of its citizens and do more to bring balance to its foreign relations, especially to appear less tilted toward China amid the intensifying US-China rivalry.”

Hun Many (C), a son of Prime Minister Hun Sen and a leader of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), applauds during a campaign rally in Phnom Penh on July 27, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Any major re-evaluation of its foreign policy is unlikely, however. According to sources, who asked not to be named, there are major divisions within the government as to how to proceed.

A small “dovish” grouping is calling for a major change to Cambodia’s foreign policy, mainly to engage in policies to soften tensions with the US, including a possible restart to joint military operations that Phnom Penh canceled in early 2017 and limits to domestic repression.

On the other end of the spectrum are the “hawks,” who demand that Phnom Penh resists any pressure from Washington to reform domestically and instead further relations with Beijing.  

According to these officials, one source said, if the CPP government was to back down to international pressure from the US, the party’s dominance over domestic politics would also be diminished as it would appear weak and vulnerable.

The third grouping sits somewhere between the two extremes. They concede that Phnom Penh must make efforts to rectify its failing ties with the US, but stress that only limited concessions should be made.

For them, the objective is to balance China and the United States, making sure that both superpowers still believe they have a reason to engage in Cambodia and, thereby, invest huge sums of money into the country.

But this is a difficult balancing act, and it isn’t made easier by the Cambodian government having almost no interlocutors left in Washington to explain its side of the story.

“Phnom Penh confronts a major problem: it has no real base of support in either US party, making it essentially defenseless should Congress go so far as to enact legislation to remove Cambodia’s GSP benefits,” said Murg.

Indeed, last year the Cambodian government spent US$500,000 on the lobbying services of Washington State Senator Doug Ericksen and his Republican partner Jay Rodne, a deal that appears to have brought few demonstrable benefits to Phnom Penh.

“Additionally,” Murg added, “as Cambodia deepens its relationship with China, it continually risks being tarred as a Chinese client state and viewed entirely through the lens of Sino-American conflict with the concomitant negative implications for US trade, aid and investment in the kingdom.”

What is unclear is the opinion of Hun Sen, whose power over party policy is now unmatched.

Hun Sen on several occasions seemingly dared the EU to cut its trade privileges for Cambodia, claiming that the country could survive without them and that his government would not moderate its actions because of threats from an outside power.

In recent years, he has been at the foreground of Cambodian officials who take a fundamentalist few of sovereignty, similar to the position adopted by Beijing, now its closest ally. Cambodian officials regularly state that any foreign criticism of their domestic affairs infringes upon the country’s sovereignty.

Best of friends: Xi Jinping (L) Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh on December 21, 2009. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen R) toast in Phnom Penh in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

More than that, they also appear to believe that national sovereignty is impaired when a government modifies its actions in order to win support from another state – although this is rarely the case when it comes to its dealings with China and it may demonstrate a misunderstanding of the basics of foreign policy, especially for relatively poor and weak nations.

Whatever the case, time may be running out for the Cambodian government to mend its ways. If it doesn’t, and the US does decide to cut the country’s trade privileges, this will be most strongly felt by ordinary Cambodians, who have already been greatly affected by the pandemic and by Hun Sen’s unwillingness to heed the EU’s warnings.

“We may not know what will happen next,” said Kimkong, “but one thing that is clear is something bad is coming. A bigger storm may be around the corner.”