PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - The Cambodian government has so far offered a largely muted response to travel restrictions the U.S. has said it will impose on senior officials in direct response to what the U.S. says are anti-democratic actions taken by the government in Phnom Penh.
Certain Cambodian government officials, and in some cases their family members, will be banned from traveling to the United States in the strongest reaction yet to what critics say is a backslide toward outright dictatorship in the nominally democratic country.
Outside of the National Assembly, Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng said Thursday the U.S. government had the right to act as it pleased.
“That is the right of the United States. [We] don’t know what to do and I don’t know what to say,” he said.
The State Department said the travel restrictions were “In direct response” to the Cambodian government’s “series of anti-democratic actions” which have included jailing opposition leader Kem Sokha, dissolving his party and banning more than 100 of its members from politics for five years.
Observers say the new U.S. restrictions fulfill a pledge the White House made to take a series of concrete actions against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government after the Cambodian Supreme Court dissolved Sokha’s Cambodia National Rescue Party on November 16.
Immediately after the dissolution, the U.S. suspended funding to Cambodia’s National Election Committee.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will enforce the restrictions against "individuals involved in undermining democracy in Cambodia,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement.
The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh declined to give details on how widely the restriction would be applied and embassy officials did not say whether American diplomats had spoken with Cambodian government representatives yet.
Many Cambodian government officials have family members living in the Khmer diaspora communities in the United States and American universities are popular among the children of the elite.
The move is likely to further raise tensions between Cambodia and the United States, which Hun Sen has accused of fomenting a color revolution ahead of elections next year.
Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan said in a Facebook post that Nauert’s statement appeared to be further evidence of a U.S. conspiracy to topple Hun Sen’s government.
“The statement is showing the real intention to destroy the good relations and U.S.-Cambodian cooperation,” the spokesman wrote. “And the matter of forcing Cambodia to oppose the court, the parliament, is an act to antagonize the rule of law which is contradicting the will of Cambodia that makes effort to strengthen everyday,” he said.
Government mouthpiece FreshNews - which has penned regular vitriolic attacks against the U.S. in recent months - reported the news of the restrictions, including the full State Department statement, while official government news outlet Agence Kampuchea Presse ignored the story completely.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Chum Sunry did not answer telephone calls, but reports said he told FreshNews the ministry was preparing a response.
Former CNRP deputy leader Mu Sochua, who was lobbying the Australian government this week to take similar action, said her party was “very satisfied” with the restrictions.
“The United States is listening to us and is going toward the right direction and giving Mr Hun Sen the time to listen to and be reasonable with the recommendations that we are taking so that we have time to prepare elections. What we want is free and fair and inclusive elections in 2018,” Sochua said.
“We have asked for targeted sanctions with a ban on high ranking officials in Cambodia. This is the warning and it’s now coming to reality. We are very satisfied with the concrete actions taken by the United States and by any other government such as Swedish government to cut aid to the government of Cambodia,” she said.
Last month, Sweden - a significant donor to Cambodia - announced it was halting any new government-to-government aid to the kingdom except in the areas of education and research.
Sochua said the European Union was also poised to take punitive actions in response, though she declined to give specific details.
In an interview with VOA last week, U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt stressed his focus was on developing the local economy through sectors such as technology while lamenting the deterioration in the relationship.
"Since I came here, let's be honest, the Cambodian government has taken a lot of steps against the government of the United States," Heidt said.
"They cut our military exercises, they threw [a] detachment out of the country, they made all of those accusations against us related to the political situation,” he said, adding he felt there had never been an “honest desire” by the Cambodian government to have good relationship with the U.S.
Shortly afterward he was lambasted in an editorial from FreshNews.
Hul Reaksmey and Sok Khemara contributed to this report.