US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday urged Cambodia’s leader Hun Sen to allow “vigorous but peaceful” political debate, following accusations that he silences opponents in a bid to extend his three-decade grip on power.
Kerry urges greater political freedoms in Cambodia
Kerry urges Cambodia to give space for political debate Phnom Penh (Cambodia) – 26 January 2016 17:19 – AFP (Nicolas REVISE) / WRAP UPDATES with fresh Kerry quotes, detail / / US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday urged Cambodia’s leader Hun Sen to allow “vigorous but peaceful” political debate, following accusations that he silences opponents in a bid to extend his three-decade grip on power. Hun Sen, who has ruled for 31 years through a mix of hard power and political guile, has tied-up a resurgent opposition in legal charges over recent months and ramped up prosecutions of online critics.Kerry, who arrived in Phnom Penh from neighbouring Laos, hailed Cambodia for rebooting its economy after the fanatical rule of the Maoist Khmer Rouge, which left up to a quarter of the population dead before its defeat in the mid-1970s.Cambodia has become one of Southeast Asia’s fastest-growing economies.But America’s top diplomat said he did not shy away from the sticking points in “candid” talks with Hun Sen.Cambodia acts as a political windshield to China within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an alliance that has at times caused strain within the bloc in the face of increasingly aggressive Chinese claims in the South China Sea.US president, Barack Obama, has assiduously courted ASEAN as part of a diplomatic ‘pivot’ east aiming to offset China’s trade and diplomatic might in Southeast Asia.Economic gains are also being offset by the threat posed to Cambodia’s fragile democracy. Sam Rainsy, the leader of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, is facing arrest and is now in self-exile, casting doubt over whether the party will be able to freely contest the next election slated for 2018.Speaking to reporters at the end of his half-day visit to the Cambodian capital, Kerry expressed hope that the country would “realise the full benefits of a thriving multiparty democracy”. The kingdom’s progress on “respect for human rights, universal freedoms, and good governance,” held the key to tighter ties with US, Kerry said.”It is important to allow vigorous but peaceful political debate,” ahead of local elections scheduled for next year and a nationwide poll in 2018, he added.– Rights on the rack –Meetings also touched on what Kerry called Cambodia’s “remarkable growth” and revival since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge.Although some three million people still live below the poverty line, the World Bank says the Cambodian economy is on track to expand by just under seven percent this year.The country was “about to cross the line” to become a middle-income country, defying its bloody history, the chief US envoy said earlier before meeting Hun Sen.Garment manufacture is a key pillar of that success, with an industry lobby group saying exports to the US alone were worth $1.8 billion in 2014, supplying leading brands such as Nike, Gap and Levi’s.But with fears building that festering political tensions could spill into violence, Kerry also held talks with opposition deputy leader, Kem Sokha, and a welter of civil society groups.His visit comes as Hun Sen further tightens controls on criticism, with several people arrested in recent weeks over Facebook posts insulting or lampooning him and his family.Campaigners have repeatedly called on the US to exert greater pressure on the wily premier.Chak Sopheap of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights said Kerry’s visit sent a “clear message” that US priorities “are not only about strengthening economic relations.””Now, I urge the US administration to ensure that its stated commitment… remains front and centre during the upcoming US-ASEAN summit in California.”Obama hosts a summit in California next month with the 10 ASEAN leaders.Kerry departed for Beijing on Tuesday afternoon, the latest stop in a three-continent tour that has also taken in Davos, Saudi Arabia and Laos.