The US Embassy in Phnom Penh issued a security warning to its citizens late Wednesday (Sep 13) about rising tensions in Cambodia following the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha, the expulsion of an American NGO and anti-American rhetoric by Cambodian officials.
“Although the Embassy has no specific information regarding any planned demonstrations or security issues at this time, we urge all US citizens to exercise caution,” it said.
“Even demonstrations or events intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence without warning.”
American citizens residing in or travelling to Cambodia are encouraged to avoid large crowds and “immediately leave any area where crowds are gathering”. They are also advised to remain alert to local security developments by monitoring local news reports.
The warning was issued a day after US Ambassador to Cambodia William A Heidt rebutted the government’s allegation that Washington has conspired with Sokha – the president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) – to topple its leadership and undermine national security.
Sokha was arrested in a midnight raid at his Phnom Penh residence by more than 100 police officers on Sep 3 before being charged with treason for the alleged conspiracy.
He is currently detained at the Correctional Centre No 3 in the border province of Tbong Khmum near Vietnam, almost 200km from the capital.
“To be honest, I wasn’t totally surprised when I learned this unfortunate news,” Heidt said. “But I was surprised by the allegations against the United States in connection with Sohka’s arrest, made without a shred of serious or credible evidence.”
“These are extraordinary allegations. Friendly nations seek ways to bridge differences,” he added.
According to Heidt, all of the accusations by Cambodian officials about the US in recent weeks are false.
They have “completely, and intentionally, mischaracterised” what America is doing in Cambodia, he said, warning the events of the past month could have negative repercussions on the Southeast Asian kingdom.
“They are, step by step, isolating Cambodia from the international community at the very moment Cambodia needs international support to raise its economy to the next level and compete with its neighbours in ASEAN,” he said.
On Wednesday, government spokesperson Phay Siphan was quoted by local media as saying the US security warning is “twisting and exaggerating the truth in Cambodia with ill intention”.
He also claimed the internal politics still continues as usual and has nothing to worry about.
CAMBODIA RESPONDS TO CRITICISMS
The arrest of Kem Sokha and his prosecution have provoked the international community to criticise Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party for what critics say is a politically motivated move to destroy its rival CNRP before next year’s general election.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, Sokha’s arrest was carried out “with no respect for due process guarantees, including respect for his parliamentary immunity”.
He also expressed concern over recent measures by the Cambodian government that have led to the closure of a US non-governmental organisation and media companies, including vocal English-language newspaper The Cambodia Daily.
The paper was forced to cease its operations after the government slapped it with a US$6.3 million tax bill.
I am seriously concerned at the arrest of Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha, which appears to have been carried out with no respect for due process guarantees, including respect for his parliamentary immunity.
In response, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Thursday the UN high commissioner has “selectively chosen” to accuse the government and questioned his respect to the independence of Cambodian courts.
“On what grounds should an individual that committed treason and conspiracy with foreign power, an NGO that deliberately conducted activities without legal permission, a newspaper that did not pay tax be exempted from law enforcement?” said the ministry’s spokesperson in a statement.
It also claimed political and civil rights, media freedom and freedom of association and expression are “fully protected” in Cambodia and “enjoyed by everyone except for those law violating entities”.
CAMBODIANS FACE US VISA BAN
Meanwhile, Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry urged the US government on Thursday to reconsider its decision to stop granting certain visas to Cambodians.
In its statement, the ministry said it anticipates Washington to reconsider the visa sanction “in order to promote friendly relations and good cooperation between the two countries”.
According to the US State Department, employees of Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry at or above the rank of director general and their immediate family members will not be able to acquire certain visas for personal travel to the United States, when applying from inside Cambodia.
The affected categories include B1, B2 and B1/B2 non-immigrant visas for personal travel.
The visa restriction was a result of Cambodia’s non-cooperation in taking back its nationals whom the US wishes to deport.
However, Phnom Penh said the decision does not promote the spirit of good cooperation on the repatriation programme between the two countries.