A U.S. State Department official told the country’s Senate on Thursday that recent political events in Cambodia, including the beatings of lawmakers outside the National Assembly and the removal of opposition officials from their seats and positions in parliament, were a cause for “grave concern.”
Testifying before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations’ subcommittee on Asia, Scott Busby, a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s bureau of democracy, human rights and labor, also said the U.S. was “very concerned” about the prospect of violence ahead of the upcoming commune and national elections.
Updating senators on the Obama administration’s “rebalance to Asia” policy and the strategic importance the U.S. placed on supporting democracy in the region, Mr. Busby said the beatings, removals and jailings of opposition figures had created a restrictive and at-times violent political environment.
“Recent events…including beatings, arrests, imprisonment of opposition supporters, and the removal of opposition MPs, have severely limited political space and are a cause for grave concern,” he said, according to a transcript of his remarks.
“Free and fair elections cannot happen in an environment where peaceful expression and activity by government opponents is subject to arbitrary limitations,” he added.
Mr. Busby noted that “the use of violence as a political tool also has returned,” citing the recent beatings of CNRP lawmakers Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Saphea outside the National Assembly following a “government-orchestrated demonstration” demanding that deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha step down as the parliament’s vice president.
“These actions recall a more authoritarian period in Cambodia’s recent past and raise serious doubts about the government’s commitment to the reforms undertaken in 2014,” he said.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said Mr. Busby was wrong to say that any of the events of the last several months had been political. Rather, he said, the courts were pursuing criminal cases without government interference.
“Our stance is that the United States interferes too much with Cambodia,” he added.