US Senator Mitch McConnell, a long-time critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen, unleashed a vociferous attack on the National Assembly’s vote to strip the parliamentary immunity of three opposition lawmakers and subsequent arrest of parliamentarian Cheam Channy on Thursday.
Retaliating to the US condemnation on Friday, National Assembly and royalist party President Prince Norodom Ranariddh accused the US of interfering in Cambodia’s internal affairs and “illegally” helping opposition leader Sam Rainsy flee the country on Thursday.
Sam Rainsy was reportedly enroute to France on Friday while Cheam Channy remained jailed at the Military Prison in Phnom Penh charged with opposing the orders of RCAF high command, plotting to establish an armed force and deceiving people in Phnom Penh and the provinces since December 2002. Sam Rainsy and Chea Poch face defamation lawsuits from Funcinpec for their allegations that Prince Ranariddh took bribes to join the coalition government.
“Behind closed doors, the country’s rubber-stamp National Assembly executed the…plan of Funcinpec party head Norodom Ranariddh and CPP hardline Prime Minister Hun Sen to undermine the democratic opposition led by Sam Rainsy,” McConnell wrote in a statement Thursday. “I encourage the State Department to respond in a forceful and appropriate manner,” he said.
Parliamentarians who took part in Thursday’s vote should be prevented, along with their families, from entering the US, McConnell said.
“I encourage other donors to publicly condemn the actions of the National Assembly, and to consider sanctions against the Cambodian government,” said McConnell in his statement which also called on the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to consider suspending operations in the country.
Om Yentieng, adviser to the prime minister, declined to comment Friday.
The US State Department and US Embassy condemned the Assembly vote in strongly worded statements on Thursday.
“I will not go to the United States anymore,” Prince Ranariddh said outside the Assembly on Friday.
“The United States did not help us out…they just wait and lambaste us,” Prince Ranariddh said, adding that McConnell’s statement infringed on Cambodia’s independence and sovereignty.
“All 97 [parliamentarians] voted. So they represented three quarters of the electorate. This is democracy. If you prohibit them from entering your country, please, you make that decision. But Norodom Ranariddh doesn’t need to go to the United States,” the prince said.
Prince Ranarridh also said the government should investigate the US Embassy’s alleged role in escorting Sam Rainsy to Phnom Penh International Airport.
Royalist lawmakers will also likely reject a 2003 agreement with the US promising to not surrender US military personnel to the International Criminal Court without Washington’s consent.
A US Embassy officials declined to comment Friday on the growing furor with the Cambodian government.
“All that we have to say is what we said in our statements. Obviously, we feel this is a set back for democracy in Cambodia,” the official said.
Though Cambodia had committed to the ICC agreement with the US, the agreement had not been ratified due to the post-election deadlock, the official added.
Funcinpec lawmaker Princess Norodom Vacheara said Friday that she voted on Thursday to lift the parliamentarians’ immunity because they did not remain at the Assembly to defend themselves.
“They did not stay to defend themselves so I raised my hand to vote approval [of the motion], the same as all other members,” the Princess said.
Princess Vacheara also attacked the US government’s “interference” and said that McConnell was acting like a dictator. “[McConnell] has no rights to prohibit other individuals from entering the US. By saying this, it means he is violating human rights. He is a dictator.”
Sam Rainsy Party Secretary-General Eng Chhay Eang said Friday that opposition parliamentarians will travel to the provinces to meet with supporters to allay fears about Thursday’s events. “This detention was illegal and is illegal…. Everything was absolutely politically motivated,” he said.
Military Court Director Ney Thol said that a warrant was issued on Friday morning to keep Cheam Channy in detention during questioning. “It is lawful to keep him there for further questioning,” Ney Thol said.
The pro-opposition Cambodia Watchdog Council, a coalition of student groups and labor movements, wrote to King Norodom Sihamoni and US President George W Bush seeking their intervention to restore the lawmakers’ immunity and gain the release of Cheam Channy.
Calling the move a step backwards for democracy, the Khmer Youth Association also issued a statement calling on the three political parties to resolve their internal disputes and, instead, work together to eliminate poverty and corruption in the country.