Cambodia Faltering on Road to Democracy, EU Cautions

The government’s suppression of human rights poses a serious threat to Cambodia’s democratic progress, visiting members of the European Parliament’s human rights subcommittee warned on Friday.

Speaking at the E.U.’s headquarters in Cambodia on the third day of a four-day visit to the country, the seven-member delegation admonished the government for restrictions on free speech, civil society, the opposition CNRP and other government critics.

Delegation leader Josef Weidenholzer, a lawmaker from Austria’s Socialists & Democrats party, joked that the consensus among seven European countries—and as many political parties—was a rare moment of unity for a fractured E.U.

“In this case, we really, really have the same opinion,” Mr. Weidenholzer said. “We see all of the potential for Cambodia. And we also share concern that the road to democracy could be left.”

“In this case, in this negative scenario, everything would be in vain,” he said.

In meetings with Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana and representatives of the Interior Ministry and National Assembly, German Green party lawmaker Barbara Lochbihler said the delegation urged the government to “have a more realistic picture” of the motives of NGOs and include them more in discussions.

“It does no good if leading police generals are allowed to always repeat statements like, ‘Every NGO equals somebody who is acting from outside with the aim to overthrow the government.’”

The delegation’s visit comes after the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution in November calling for the government to revoke its arrest warrant for opposition leader Sam Rainsy and “to end political use of the courts to prosecute people.”

Lithuanian parliamentarian Petras Austrevicius said the resolution had prompted the subcommittee’s visit.

“If the European Parliament …turns its eyes to Cambodia, this is for real and serious reasons,” he said.

The delegation also met with the U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia, Rhona Smith, who on Thursday warned that the country was at a “dangerous tipping point.” They said they shared many of Ms. Smith’s’ concerns about the new NGO law, a union law set for a vote next week and land rights, among other issues.

The E.U. is Cambodia’s single largest aid donor, having pledged 410 million euros, or about $435 million, for the period from 2014 to 2020.

Although some parliamentarians have called for funding to be cut in response to human rights violations, Mr. Weidenholzer downplayed this scenario.

“If we are friends; we have the right to raise certain questions about aid,” he said. “But it should not be made in an imperialistic way.”

Mr. Austrevicius warned, however, that the delegation would return to Cambodia to see whether progress had been made on the issues it had raised with officials.

“We will be back,” he said before the delegation departed for an end-of-trip shopping run. “And we will see what happens, and what kind of conclusions are drawn, once the European Parliament makes its position very clear.”

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan flatly dismissed the subcommittee’s assessment.

“What they say does not reflect the reality here. What they say is prejudiced. Even if they did not come to Cambodia, they would [speak] in such a biased way. They know that cambodians are happy, but they have prejudiced ideas.”

(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)

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