US Voices Concern About Cambodia’s ‘Climate of Violence’

Adding another layer to Washi­ngton’s growing criticism of the Cambodian government, the US State Department has condemned the country’s record of im­punity and recent professional-style killings in Phnom Penh that have led to a “climate of violence” ahead of the July 27 general elections.

Washington also distanced it­self from a UN committee’s decision on Friday to pass an agreement to es­tablish a Khmer Rouge genocide tribunal, stating a “credible tribunal” will not be easy “given the state of the judiciary in Cambodia.”

“The United States is deeply con­­cerned about the climate of violence in Cambodia, corruption is widespread and the rule of law is weak,” State Department spokes­­wo­man Lynn Cassel said Tues­day, Agence France-Presse reported.

The recent killings of a Phnom Penh judge, a Chinese businesswoman, a Buddhist monk and a Funcinpec adviser have added to a climate of pre-election fear, Cassel added.

“Many of these murders appear to have been orchestrated and committed by professional hired killers,” she told AFP.

“This climate of violence obviously is not conducive to a pro­cess leading to free and fair elections, nor is it conducive to the de­velopment of a prosperous and stable economy,” she said.

Though Washington agreed with the substance of the Khmer Rouge trial resolution, the US would have preferred if the decision had waited until after the July polls, Cassel told AFP. Cassel urged the government to conduct more effective investigations and prosecutions in cases of political violence ahead of the elections.

This latest attack on the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen comes “as a quiet campaign gathered pace in [the US] Con­gress, aiming to persuade Secre­tary of State Colin Powell to skip an annual Asia-Pacific security meeting in Phnom Penh in June,” AFP reported.

Powell announced last Wednes­­day his intention to at­tend the June Asean Regional Forum, saying he would use the visit to convey his concern “about the situation in the country” to the Cam­bodian government.

Powell made the announcement in response to US Senator Mitch McConnell—a supporter of the Sam Rainsy Party—who unleashed a blistering attack on the governments of Burma and Cambodia at a meeting of the US Senate’s Appropriations Subcom­mittee on Foreign Operations.

McConnell urged the State Department to “seize every op­por­tunity” to strengthen Cambo­dia’s opposition in the elections run up. The criticism follows equally strong State Department comments in March that bi-lateral relations with Phnom Penh had been unbalanced as a result of the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots and the kill­ing of Funcinpec adviser Om Radsady.

US Embassy spokeswoman Heidi Bronke said Wednesday she was unaware of any moves in Congress to dissuade Powell from attending the meeting.

But there is concern re­garding crimes going unpunished in Cam­bodia, she said. “[Powell] has registered his con­cerns…and he will be well-placed [at the Asean meeting] to raise his concerns with the highest levels of government,” Bron­ke said.

Om Yentieng, an adviser to the prime minister, denied any foot-dragging in efforts to arrest criminals and added that a police hunt was still under­ way in the recent killings Om Yentieng defended Phnom Penh’s record on impunity, saying other countries had worse problems, but the US “habit” was to single out Phnom Penh for criticism.

Whether Powell visits Phnom Penh is Washington’s “internal matter,” Om Yentieng said, add­ing that his attendance at the Asean meeting was in the US’ interests.

“The first thing for the US is terrorism. So [Powell] has to talk to strengthen security in the world,” Om Yentieng added.

An Asian diplomat said  Wednes­day the latest statements from Washington did not mark “new” criticism of the Cambodian government, but a continuation of attacks that have increased since the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots.

Phnom Penh was also unlikely to be surprised at the criticism, the diplomat said, adding that the Hun Sen government has by now grown accustomed to rocky relations with Washington.

“There is [US] pressure. But it does not mean [members of the government] are surprised,” the diplomat said.

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