People pour water on a Buddha statue as they pray during the Pchum Ben festival (Festival of Death) at a pagoda in Phnom Penh on Sept. 17. (Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)
The Cambodian government has hit back at US politicians upset by the jailing of political and environmental activists and their demands that they be immediately released.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Koung described comments by US government officials as “politically motivated,” adding that all NGOs, including human rights defenders, were free to operate as long as their activities were within the confines of the law.
“Cambodia cherishes the freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly as guaranteed under the constitution,” Koung said in a statement.
“The exercise of such rights and freedom shall be in accordance with the law. Freedom of expression does not equate to freedom to spread indiscriminate hatred, racism and violence.”
Cambodia and the US have been at loggerheads in recent months. Washington has imposed sanctions against a Chinese state-owned company for alleged human rights abuses at a US$3.8 billion tourist development, which some analysts argue could be used for military purposes.
Then US Congressman Alan Lowenthal and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy Robert Destro sharply criticized the jailing of activists protesting alleged Vietnamese land grabs along the frontier and environmental degradation.
According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 24 human rights defenders and environmentalists have been jailed since trade union leader Rong Chhun was arrested on July 31. His arrest sparked regular street protests outside the courts where he is being tried. Some protesters have since been released.
Cambodia’s Interior Ministry is also urging legal action against two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — Khmer Thavrak Youth Group and Mother Nature Cambodia — for failing to register and for undermining stability, security and public order.
“This latest round of arrests is yet another assault on the democracy promised to all Cambodian people in their constitution — a constitution that Hun Sen not only signed but took an oath to uphold,” Lowenthal said.
Destro pointed out that the rights to free expression and association are enshrined in the country’s constitution.
“The US is deeply concerned about arrests of those exercising these freedoms. We urge the government to immediately release them and allow all voices to be heard,” Destro said on his Twitter account.
Protests have been rare in Cambodia since elections in 2018 which the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), was banned from contesting.
A crackdown followed on the independent press and journalists as opposition politicians and their supporters fled the country. CNRP leader Kem Sokha remains under house arrest.
Koung said the Cambodian government viewed with "deep regrets" the US officials’ assessment, which was “inaccurate and did not take into account the factual and legal aspects of the issue at hand.”