U.S Congress Passed the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2021, Hun Sen Government Pays $70,000 a Month to a Lobby Firm in D.C. to Improve His Image

Washington, D.C. — Last week, the United States Congress passed House Resolution 4686 Act (Cambodia Democracy Act of 2021), with an overwhelming majority support of 403 voted yes, and 17 voted no.

The Cambodia Democracy Act of 2021 promotes free and fair elections, political freedoms, and human rights in Cambodia. The bill has been received by the Senate, reviewed and referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations. Once it passes in the Senate, it will go to the President of the United States Joe Bidden who will sign, then it will become a law. The law puts sanctions on Cambodian senior officials, military, and security forces who has “directed serious human rights violations associated with undermining democracy in Cambodia” or entities owned by these individuals. The bill will also revoke visas of such persons who is already in the United States and deny visas to those who seek entry.

While Americans were occupied with the U.S Presidential election last year, in Cambodia, democracy was at stake. Cambodia’s government took the opportunity to make a final clean up of the opposition party. Over 100 people were summoned to court between Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year. They were CNRP top senior officials and members who were involved in planning and supporting the repatriation of exiled former CNRP President Sam Rainsy. In addition, many activists and human rights defenders were arrested and jailed for peaceful demonstration regarding the deforestation and speaking up about land lost to Vietnam along the border. This included Rong Chhun, chief labor union who made Facebook posting about Cambodian villagers who complained that they were evicted and their land was lost to Vietnam.

Rong Chhun were sentenced to two years in prison in August 2021. Two of his supporters Sar Kanika and Ton Nimol, who participated in a protest for his release from pre-trial detention were sentenced to 20 months, each fined $500 plus another fine equivalent to almost US $100,000 to the Cambodia Border Affairs Committee for alleged damage to the Committee’s reputation according to the Office of High Commission of Human Rights.

“The prison terms and heavy fines handed to these three activists are neither justified nor proportionate,” said Vitit Muntarbhorn, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia. “I am extremely alarmed that the court convicted the three human rights defenders for acts that are protected by their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, rights guaranteed by Cambodian and international law.”

Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said “human rights defenders should never be arrested, detained or convicted for their efforts to protect human rights of others.”

“We are seriously concerned that the Cambodian government uses the vaguely-worded Articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code against ‘incitement to create felony’ to crack down on dissent and to stifle free expression,” added the experts in a statement released on August 24, 2021.

Last week, the U.S. Congress passed H.R 4686 Act, Cambodia Democracy Act of  2021, which highlighted six key findings against Cambodia’s government:

1) Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power in Cambodia since 1985 and is the longest serving leader in Southeast Asia. Despite decades of international attention and assistance to promote a pluralistic, multi-party democratic system in Cambodia, the Government of Cambodia continues to be undemocratically dominated by the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), which controls every agency and security apparatus of the state.

(2) The Government of Cambodia has taken several measures, particularly since 2017 and during the COVID–19 pandemic, to restrict Cambodia’s space for civil society and media environment, especially through politicized tax investigations against independent media outlets.

(3) On September 3, 2017, Kem Sokha, the President of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was arrested on politically motivated charges and faces up to 30 years in prison. On November 16, 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP, eliminating the primary opposition party. While Kem Sokha is no longer in prison, his movements are restricted, he is prohibited from engaging in political activity, and his charges remain pending. The CNRP’s previous leader, Sam Rainsy, remains in unofficial exile, and has been prevented from returning to the country.

(4) Since the CNRP’s dissolution, the Government of Cambodia has arrested, imprisoned, or brought politically motivated charges against CNRP leaders and activists. Starting in November 2020, the Government of Cambodia has held a series of mass trials for over 100 individuals affiliated with the CNRP.

(5) Since 1991, the elections that have taken place in Cambodia were conducted in circumstances that were not free, fair, and credible or were marked by fraud, intimidation, violence, and the government’s misuse of legal mechanisms to weaken opposition candidates and parties.

(6) The United States is committed to promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Cambodia. The United States continues to urge the Government of Cambodia to immediately drop charges against Kem Sokha, reinstate the political status of the CNRP and restore its elected seats in the National Assembly, and support electoral reform efforts in Cambodia with free, fair, and credible elections monitored by international observers.

This sanction may be lifted only when Cambodia’s government stops its efforts to undermine democracy, ends human rights violations associated with undermining democracy, conducts free and fair elections which allow the active participation of credible opposition candidates.

On the third point of the U.S. demands, the Cambodian government is arguing it has allowed new political parties to emerge and run freely in the 2023 election. However, experts are saying “you cannot run an election when there is no equal rights to media access, free speech, and assembly. When you do it in fear or intimidation, the election isn’t free or fair. It’s not a legitimate election” said Brad Adam, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch.

On September 15, Qorvis Communication firm signed a contract with Chum Soumry, the Cambodia Ambassador to the United States. From its website, Qorvis boast it “has been helping clients navigate government affairs challenges since its inception. Our senior team is composed of former government officials from the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and across both the Senate and the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill.”

Sources reported the parties agreed on a payment of $70,000 monthly that Qorvis will handle Cambodia strategic communication in the United States along to promote tourism in Cambodia. 

The reason why Hun Sen’s government is hiring this communication firm is to lobby lawmakers not to pass this bill in Senate. “Cambodian Americans are urged to write and contact their senators to pass this bill and as well as write to this communication firm telling them no matter how much they try to cover up for Hun Sen, they can’t hide his crimes” said Brad Adam.