Despite Cambodia’s government launching an assault against the opposition—with the opposition leader officially exiled and his deputy sentenced to six months in prison—a top U.S. diplomat said on Thursday that it had been a “good year” for relations between the countries.
Saying that Cambodia “has a lot of rivers to cross” before it can achieve free and fair elections, Daniel Russel, an assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, added he believed that people and countries learn from experience, including their mistakes.
Mr. Russel stopped in Phnom Penh on Thursday at the end of a weeklong visit to Manila and Bangkok. In meetings with civil society leaders, college students, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn and deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha, he offered a conciliatory tone as he cast himself as an adviser rather than a critic.
“Rather than pass judgment, I’m here to help,” he said in an evening news conference.
In a private meeting with Mr. Sokha, however, Mr. Russel expressed concern that the U.S. would find upcoming elections results “difficult to accept” if Mr. Sokha and exiled party president Sam Rainsy were not allowed to campaign freely, said opposition spokesman Yem Ponhearith.
Mr. Russel, who was a part of the U.S. delegation that negotiated the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, offered a generally upbeat assessment of the progress Cambodia had made since then in increasing trade and investment.
Of U.S.-Cambodia relations, he said, “It’s been a good year and it’s not even over yet.” But he also mixed the diplomatic praise with caution about the country’s deteriorating political climate.
Mr. Rainsy was barred from returning to the country this month after fleeing nearly a year ago to avoid charges widely seen as politically motivated. Mr. Sokha has stayed at the CNRP headquarters since May to avoid arrest in a case of his own, while more than 20 opposition figures and government critics have been imprisoned over the past year and a half.
The U.S. is hoping to see a 2017 national commune election “in which the parties are able to actively campaign and their leaders are free to put forward their platforms,” Mr. Russel said. “An election which, at the end of the day, the country accepts that the people have spoken.”
“There are a lot of rivers to cross before Cambodia can point to free and fair elections in 2017,” he said.
The diplomat nonetheless held out hope that the experience of the previous five national elections—many of which were characterized by a similarly fraught political climate—and an increasingly educated voter base “can lead to a better electoral process.”
Mr. Ponhearith, the CNRP spokesman, said Mr. Russel had used stronger language behind closed doors.
“He was clear that…an election that happens while Sam Rainsy is absent and Kem Sokha is not able to freely campaign is a difficult thing to accept,” Mr. Ponhearith said.
“He said clearly that for the elections, the president and deputy president of the party must be allowed to take part freely, without being threatened or having their rights stifled.”
The CNRP asked Mr. Russel to help pressure the government to resume the short-lived “Culture of Dialogue” between the parties and conduct extensive election monitoring so that all parties trust the results, Mr. Ponhearith said.
Mr. Sokhonn, the foreign affairs minister, painted a rosier picture of the political climate for Mr. Russel during their morning meeting.
Mr. Sokhonn talked “about the positive developments that give hope that the opposition party will return to National Assembly meetings soon and will continue political negotiations” with the ruling party, said ministry spokesman Chum Sounry.
The CNRP has staged an irregular Assembly boycott since charges were laid against Mr. Sokha, leading the CPP-dominated parliament to pass a new law on Wednesday that would dock the pay of absent lawmakers.
For his part, Mr. Russel “expressed his approval of the positive recent developments in Cambodia,” according to Mr. Sunry.
“He said the U.S. State Department and U.S. Embassy want to be a partner with Cambodia. He did not come to criticize the mistakes of the Cambodian government.”