Family members of detained opposition activists, environmental campaigners, and musicians met with the U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Wednesday to discuss weekly crackdowns by authorities on protesters, with rights groups welcoming Washington’s show of concern.
The relatives who met with Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy included members of the so-called “Friday Wives” group of women who have held weekly protests demanding the release of their husbands, who are activists with the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
Others included the nephew of jailed union leader Rong Chhun, father of Kea Sokun—a rapper recently convicted of incitement—and the wife of environmental campaigner Thon Ratha.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s three-year crackdown on the CNRP and civil society has strained ties between Phnom Penh and Washington, who have also recently been at odds over Cambodia’s destruction of a U.S.-built naval facility and military relations with China.
Prum Chantha, a representative of the Friday Wives and spouse of jailed CNRP activist Kak Komphear, told RFA’s Khmer Service that Murphy vowed to “follow up on family issues and concerns” related to the political detainees. She said he also expressed concern for their safety, citing a series of incidents that included the violent dispersal of their peaceful protests by authorities.
Prum Chantha said that she later went to Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar Prison, where Kak Komphear is being held, to discuss the meeting with him. She said her husband’s health is “much worse” since being interned.
In a statement posted to its Facebook page, the U.S. Embassy said Murphy “was honored and moved to meet with relatives of Cambodians detained for their speech, art, activism, or peaceful protest.”
“As a friend to the people of the Kingdom, the United States consistently and strongly supports the universal human rights enshrined in the Cambodia constitution,” the post said.
Attempts by RFA to reach government spokesman Phay Siphan for comment went unanswered Wednesday, but he and other officials have previously warned that foreign governments “have no right to interfere in Cambodia’s internal affairs.”
Speaking to RFA, Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for local rights group Licadho, said Wednesday’s meeting shows that Washington is alarmed over political detentions in Cambodia.
“The ambassador agreed to have a meeting, showing he is paying attention to the issue,” he said, adding that the embassy has every right to investigate these types of cases.
Talks with French ambassador
Wednesday’s meeting came a day after CNRP President Kem Sokha, who is currently facing charges of treason observers say are politically motivated, met with French Ambassador to Cambodia Eva Nguyen Binh at the French Embassy.
On Wednesday, Kem Sokha posted a statement to his Facebook page detailing the talks, during which he said he and Binh discussed “various topics” including the country’s political events of 2020 and what he expects for the coming year.
He said he and Binh “share the view of wanting to see Cambodian-French relations proceed based on the values and interests of the people” with a focus on human rights and democracy.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, two months after the arrest of Kem Sokha for his role in an alleged scheme to topple the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s 2018 general election.
Around 20 CNRP activists and officials have been physically assaulted since early 2020, mostly by motorbike-riding attackers targeting their heads. Assailants have used batons and bricks, and also their own vehicles, against victims. None of the perpetrators have been arrested.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.