Heng Samrin Defends Rights Record

National Assembly President Heng Samrin yesterday defended the government from its critics, saying that the national election on July 28 would be free and fair and that the human rights situation in the country was in fact improving.

Speaking at the CPP headquarters in Phnom Penh during a ceremony to mark the 34th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Mr. Samrin addressed a 13,000-strong crowd of party faithful and took aim at unnamed politicians, whom he said should refrain from criticizing the government.

“Politicians and other groups should see the actual development progress and give encouragement and constructive criticism, rather than insulting Cambodian sovereignty and all the hard work of the government,” he said in a speech that lasted about 45 minutes and touched upon the economy, elections and efforts to reduce poverty.

“The CPP will keep encouraging activities to improve democracy and promote the resurrection of human rights in Cambodia,” he said. “In fact, democracy and the promotion of human rights have not happened, just from words or reports from some circles.”

The comments came just days after a spokeswoman from the U.S. State Department said the U.S. was “disappointed” in the decision by the National Election Committee (NEC) to remove opposition leader Sam Rainsy from the voter list for the July elections, effectively ruling out the possibility that he runs in the polls.

Sam Rainsy, who is currently in self-imposed exile avoiding an 11-year jail sentence on charges widely believed to be politically motivated, gained support from U.S. President Barack Obama during a visit to Phnom Penh in November when he said that the opposition party should be allowed to do its work freely.

Still, Mr. Samrin said Cambodia’s democracy was progressing in a positive direction, despite a litany of criticism that has rained down on the government over its human rights record recently.

“Democracy and human rights in Cambodia have been rebuilt alongside the rebirth of Cambodian people after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and it continues to improve, and activities have been strengthened over the past 34 years of development,” Mr. Samrin told the crowd, which intermittently erupted with bouts of applause.

SRP lawmaker Son Chhay said the remarks, while not naming any politicians specifically, were yet another demonstration of a government unwilling to listen to criticism.

“We’ve been doing our job as parliamentarians and opposition members. That is normal for the opposition in any democratic country, but the ruling party seems to cling on to the one-party system, where they like to control everything and have everyone pat them on the back, regardless of whether or not they have done the right thing.”

Mr. Chhay also said that January 7 should not be misconstrued as the day that Cambodia was liberated from the control of the Khmer Rouge.

“In reality, it was the invasion of Vietnamese armed forces. The occupation of Vietnamese in Cambodia for 10 years didn’t improve living conditions. This is a fact,” he said.

Last year’s January 7 ceremony coincided with the first day of campaigning for the Senate elections, and was followed by a parade down Norodom Boulevard. This year, with the elections just seven months away, Mr. Samrin used his speech to convey the importance the government is attaching to free and fair elections in the country.

He also expressed support for the NEC, which has come under fire from the U.N.’s human rights envoy, Surya Subedi, for lacking public support and needing an overhaul.

“The CPP is working and participating actively toward the elections, and will keep our friendly cooperation with national entities, authorities at all levels, political parties and all circles to ensure a successful election that is free, fair and just,” Mr. Samrin said.

During the ceremony, the crowd was asked to observe a minute of silence in a gesture of respect for the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who passed away in October. The crowd also fell silent for roughly two minutes in order to remember all the “CPP compatriots” who died fighting the Khmer Rouge.

(Additional reporting by Lauren Crothers)

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