Kerry calls on Hun Sen to allow debate

John Kerry said he was impressed by Cambodia’s development. Source: Wikimedia

US Secretary of State John Kerry called on Cambodia to allow “vigorous and peaceful” debates ahead of the 2018 election, stressing the importance of human rights.

During his stopover in Phnom Penh before heading to China, Kerry met Prime Minister Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong.

He also met opposition leaders and civil groups in an attempt to demonstrate Washington’s concerns for human rights.

Hun Sen, Asia’s longest-serving prime minister, allegedly forced the main opposition leader Sam Rainsy into exile in November to avoid arrest on old defamation charges which the opposition said were recharged on Hun Sen’s orders.

Sam Rainsy’s Cambodian National Rescue Party MPs were beaten in a daylight attack in October outside the national assembly building.

“In my discussions today, I emphasised the essential role that a vibrant, democratic system plays in the development of a country and the legitimacy of its political system,” Kerry told the media.

“Democratic governments have a responsibility to ensure that all elected representatives are free to perform their duties without fear of attack or arrest. We care deeply about respect for human rights, universal freedoms, and good governance,” he said.

“Progress in each of these areas is critical being able to fulfil the potential of our bilateral relations but, also importantly, the full potential of the hopes and aspirations of the Cambodian people.”

Kerry called Cambodia’s economic growth “quite remarkable”.

“You have moved from extreme poverty, from a very small economy, to an economy that is growing very significantly and lifted many of your people out of poverty,” he was quoted saying.

Kerry also visited Cambodia’s National Museum to show American support for efforts to return illegally exported artefacts.

Private US collections have returned several objects exported illegally in a deal between the two governments.

“I think it’s quite remarkable that the United States is, in fact, Cambodia’s largest export market even though we have half the world between our countries,” Kerry said.

“And we will continue to explore ways to deepen our trade and investment relationship, including by helping to tackle corruption and exploring ways to strengthen Cambodia’s legal institutions.”

Phnom Penh is viewed as one of China’s closest Asean allies and the US has been frustrated by its reluctance to press Beijing over its ambitious claims in the South China Sea. Washington apparently saw Cambodia’s Asean chairmanship as divisive and harmful to American efforts to counteract Chinese expansionism.

“The United States takes pride in its history as an Asia-Pacific nation,” Kerry said. “We are deeply committed to our partnership with Cambodia and with all the members of Asean on a regional and global basis.”