Prime Minister Hun Sen sent his regards to US President George W Bush during his meeting on Thursday morning with visiting US Secretary of State Colin Powell, a government spokesman said following the high-profile encounter in Phnom Penh.
However, once the cordial greetings were over it was down to the nitty-gritty of the July 27 general elections, which Hun Sen assured the visiting US official would be held in the spirit of freedom and fairness, the spokesman said.
“[Hun Sen] is very proud of the organization of free, fair and non-violent elections, whether he wins the elections or not,” said Minister of Cabinet Sok An, briefing reporters.
“[Hun Sen] also asserted that if we do a comparison with the previous elections, we see that the 2003 election is better than previous ones, because we have carried out democracy step by step,” Sok An said.
“Our awareness of democracy is increasing, so our implementation is also,” Sok An added.
Powell also congratulated Cambodia for its recent cooperation in counterterrorism in the region.
However, Hun Sen was unable to reciprocate the anti-terrorism praise when he raised the issue of the US-based Cambodian Freedom Fighters with Powell.
Blamed for an attack on government buildings in Phnom Penh in November 2000, the CFF has sworn to topple Hun Sen and his CPP-led government from power, but the organization’s leaders are still free men in the US.
“We consider [the CFF] terrorism like other types of terrorism,” Sok An said. “We request the US to also take this issue seriously.”
Though representing the most powerful nation on Earth, Powell had a request of Hun Sen, said Sok An, adding that Cambodia has been asked to sign a bilateral agreement exempting US nationals on its territory from prosecution by the International Criminal Court.
“On this point, the prime minister responded positively,” Sok An said.
The US has secured ICC prosecution exemption deals with 39 countries. Washington will soon publicize the full list of countries to grant exemptions, Agence France-Presse reported on Thursday.
Opposition party leader Sam Rainsy also met with Powell, and though his meeting was shorter than Hun Sen’s, it appeared that by later Thursday evening he was far ahead on the amount of international television coverage given to his meeting with the US secretary of state.
US television network CNN showed a smiling Sam Rainsy with a smiling Powell and led with the caption “Powell Meets Cambodian Opposition Leader and PM.” In later broadcasts, the caption said just “Powell Meets Cambodian Opposition Leader.”
Sam Rainsy said he was heartened by Powell’s visit to Cambodia, as it sent a strong message to the ruling CPP that the US was watching the elections closely. He compared Hun Sen to Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and Than Shwe, leader of Burma’s ruling military junta.
“I think the US has influence, and everyone is scared of the US. So I think Hun Sen and his men dare not intimidate people for voting for the Sam Rainsy Party,” he told reporters after his meeting.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer who is also attending the Asean meetings in Phnom Penh said he was given assurances by Hun Sen that the elections would be credible.
Nevertheless, the Australian government would be sending election monitors and Canberra would adopt a “wait-and-see” approach on the outcome, Downer told reporters on the sidelines of this week’s regional ministerial meetings.
“[Hun Sen] said the elections would be free and fair,” Downer told reporters.
“The Cambodians know we are going to send monitors. The Japanese have said they will send monitors. No doubt others will as well, and that will help to keep the pressure on the various parties in Cambodia, and particularly the government, to ensure the elections are free and fair. But we will just have to wait and see,” he said.
Asked if Australian development assistance to Cambodia would be contingent on the execution of credible elections, Downer said it would be unlikely.
Powell was also vague on Wednesday evening when asked about the US response if the Cambodian elections failed to be free and fair.
“We would be very disappointed with that kind of result. I think the international community would be disappointed, and of course the people of Cambodia should be disappointed. But I would not prejudge now what our actions might be, based on a hypothetical outcome,” he told reporters.
“Let’s hope instead for free, fair open election…. That should be our desire and hope and that’s the outcome we expect,” he added.
(Reporting by Thet Sambath, Nhem Chea Bunly and Kevin Doyle)