Cambodia Accuses Europe of Interference

In its first official response to a highly critical resolution on Cambodia from the European Parliament, the government has rejected all criticism and instead accused the Parliament in Brussels of playing politics and interfering in Phnom Penh’s affairs.

In its resolution approved October 26, the European Parliament laid out a long list of human rights abuses, from the “politically motivated” conviction of opposition leader Sam Rainsy to “major flaws” with the electoral system and the use of “excessive force” against protesters.

But in a letter to European Parliament President Martin Schulz dated Thursday, Cambodia’s charge d’affaires in Brussels, So Soengha, rejected the resolution’s conclusions.

“It is essential for the E.U. [European Union] Parliament to study and better understand the situation in Cambodia before passing any such wrong and biased resolutions in the future,” Mr. Soengha wrote.

Mr. Soengha reserves his strongest rebuke for the European Parliament’s request that Mr. Rainsy, who is presently in self-imposed exile to avoid an 11-year prison sentence in Cambodia, be allowed to participate in July’s national elections.

In his letter to the European Parliament, Mr. Soengha insisted that Mr. Rainsy’s return is out of the government’s hands.

“The proposed idea of having a political reconciliation between Sam Rainsy and the Royal Government of Cambodia is completely inappropriate,” he said. “The suggested idea is really an act of interference with the ruling of the court of law, [in] which the Royal Government of Cambodia has no role.”

Mr. Rainsy was convicted of destroying public property in 2010 for pulling temporary wooden border markers out of the ground by hand along Cambodia’s frontier with Vietnam.

U.N. human rights envoy to Cambodia Surya Subedi, the Australian Senate and the Inter-Parliamentary Union—a group of lawmakers from around the world that regularly backs Cambodia’s opposition parties—have all recently made similar requests to the government to let Mr. Rainsy participate in the vote next year.

The government has brought Mr. Rainsy back from exile before. In 2006, Mr. Rainsy received a royal pardon—then facing jail time for defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen—that let him stand in national elections two years later.

The European Parliament’s resolution also blamed state-licensed economic land concessions to agro-business companies for driving some 400,000 families off their land over the past 10 years and accuses the government of using “excessive force” against affected protesters.

Though backed up by NGO investigations and a recent report to the U.N. by human rights envoy Mr. Subedi, Mr. Soengha dismissed the claims of forced evictions as “simply false and based on media reports.”

In defense of the government’s land policy, Mr. Soengha pointed out that Mr. Hun Sen in May ordered a temporary freeze on the licensing of new concessions and a legal review of the ones that already exist. Still, the prime minister has signed off on at least 12 concessions since then on the grounds that they were in the pipeline before the order came down.

In his letter to the European Parliament president, Mr. Soengha also insisted that the murders of both environmental activist Chut Wutty in April and of 14-year-old Heng Chantha in May, both by members of the security forces, had been investigated.

Government officials have repeatedly said that Heng Chantha’s death would not be investigated because it was an “accident” that took place during the forced eviction of villagers living on the land concession of a rubber company.

Heng Chantha was shot dead while huddling with her family underneath a stilted house when security forces raided her Kratie province village as part of the eviction.

On October 1, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced independent radio station owner Mam Sonando to 20 years in jail after convicting him of masterminding an alleged secessionist movement that supposedly prompted the government’s mass eviction in Kratie.

Human rights groups have dismissed the claims of a secessionist movement as an excuse for the government to carry out the eviction.

The European Parliament’s resolution also called for Mr. Sonando’s immediate release.

In his letter, Mr. Soengha defended the conviction of Mr. Sonando as “based on clear evidence and witnesses.”

That evidence, however, consisted of a few pages printed from the website of a U.S. group of Khmer-American dissidents that made no link between Mr. Sonando and the alleged secession in Kratie. And the witnesses were a few of Mr. Sonando’s fellow defendants who testified against the radio station owner in return for having their own jail sentences suspended.

Such back and forth between the government and its perceived critics is hardly new for Cambodia, and some are now calling on Cambodia’s foreign donors to make their substantial aid money contingent on reform.

“Urging the government to stop the plunder and repression is not enough because they simply don’t listen,” Patrick Alley, director of the London-based environmental campaign group Global Witness, said in an email on Friday.

With the European Parliament resolution in mind, plus a planned visit later this month from U.S. President Barack Obama, “The E.U. and U.S. must make their aid contingent on ensuring that democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Cambodia are strengthened,” he added.

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