US to issue visa sanctions against Cambodian officials ‘undermining democracy’

Opposition leader Kem Sokha is escorted by police following his midnight arrest in Phnom Penh early yesterday morning. AFP
Opposition leader Kem Sokha is escorted by police following his midnight arrest in Phnom Penh early yesterday morning. AFP

The US State Department will issue visa restrictions against individuals “involved in undermining democracy in Cambodia”, the Trump administration announced yesterday, following the dissolution of the main opposition party last month and the arrest in September of former opposition leader Kem Sokha.

According to a press statement by department spokesperson Heather Nauert, the step is in “direct response to the Cambodian government’s series of anti-democratic actions”, citing the Cambodia National Rescue Party dissolution, the banning of its officials from politics, Sokha's imprisonment, restrictions on civil society and "suppression of independent media".

Sokha was arrested more than three months ago in apparent violation of his parliamentary immunity and charged with “treason”. A 2013 speech in which he talks about US support in developing his political career has been used by the government to justify the arrest, and in the ensuing months the US has been continually accused by officials of fomenting "colour revolution".

Immediately after the dissolution, the White House announced it would cut funding for the National Election Committee, with more steps to follow. It was unclear yesterday exactly which officials would be targeted by the visa sanctions, but the statement does say they would also apply to family members of some affected individuals.

Lifting such sanctions, Nauert wrote, would be linked to reversing recent acts of political suppression. “We will continue to monitor the situation and take additional steps as necessary, while maintaining our close and enduring ties with the people of Cambodia,” the statement reads.

Mu Sochua, deputy president of now-dissolved CNRP, called the move a "very significant step".

"The USA has heard the call from the 3 million voters who voted for positive change. High ranking officials and their family members travel regularly to western countries. They will feel the pressure, in particular those with assets and children going to universities in the USA," she wrote today in an email.

Monovithya Kem, Sokha's daughter and a CNRP public affairs official, also welcomed the visa ban. “If [the Cambodian government] doesn’t reverse course on time, further sanctions are needed,” she wrote on Twitter, calling on Japan and Australia to follow suit.

Sok Eysan, Cambodian People’s Party spokesman, said the move was a “very strange thing” that showed the US was taking sides with the opposition and did not care about rule of law and democracy in Cambodia.

“This is their excuse to take sides with its puppet,” he said. “They are joint businesses to topple the CPP and the legitimate government,” he said.

Additional reporting by Mech Dara