Two pro-CNRP U.S. lawmakers called on newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to take a hard-line stance with the Cambodian government ahead of upcoming elections, in a letter signed on Thursday.
Alan Lowenthal, a Democrat representing Long Beach, California, home to the largest Cambodian community in the U.S., and Steve Chabot, a Republican representing Ohio, formed the Congressional Cambodia Caucus in March.
In the letter, the pair, who serve as co-chairs of the group, welcomed Mr. Tillerson, a former executive for oil and gas giant ExxonMobil, to his role as U.S. President Donald Trump’s top foreign affairs officer, and directed his attention to Cambodia.
“While Cambodia has a vibrant political opposition…Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party have repeatedly used intimidation and violence to suppress their voices,” the congressmen say, listing a proposal floated by Mr. Hun Sen earlier this month to dissolve political parties that run afoul of new laws.
“Local elections this year and national elections next year will be key indicators of the vibrancy of Cambodian democracy,” the letter says. “The U.S. State Department can play a critical role by communicating to the Cambodian government the importance of holding elections deemed credible by the international community.”
Mr. Lowenthal and Mr. Chabot—two of Mr. Hun Sen’s loudest congressional critics—urged Mr. Tillerson to pressure Mr. Hun Sen to “drop all politically-motivated charges against opposition leaders, cease harassment of the CNRP,” allow former opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return to the country, and permit election monitors at all polling stations.
The U.S.-Cambodian relationship has become more fraught as China’s influence in the country grows, with Cambodia last month canceling an annual military exercise with the U.S. and Mr. Hun Sen asking Mr. Trump to annul a Second Indochina War debt of about $500 million.
U.S. Ambassador William Heidt responded with unusual vigor to the ruling party in a meeting with Khmer-language media last week, saying that the Cambodian government should accept the debt and shelve any plans to eliminate political parties.
“Things like that, throwing people out of the game, removing parties…I don’t think that’s what the Cambodian people want and I don’t think that helps Cambodian democracy develop,” he said.