PHNOM PENH - Western powers and institutions trying to halt Cambodia’s slide into outright dictatorship are grasping at desperate last ditch options as anti-foreign sentiment becomes an increasing focus of the country’s state media.
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz stepped into the fracas on Tuesday threatening consequences if jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha is not released.
“If your prime minister does not release Kem Sokha by November 9th, I will work with my colleagues in Congress and in the Trump administration to see that specified government officials responsible for these actions are prevented from traveling to the United States,” Cruz said in a statement.
Voter registration for next year’s national election ends Nov. 9, with the government moving to dissolve its only credible opponent — the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
The United States already placed visa restrictions on a number of Cambodian Foreign Ministry officials and their families in September, though officially in response to a separate concern.
Cabinet spokesman Phay Siphan said the statement by Cruz was to his knowledge the most senior intervention from a U.S. figure so far, but not very concerning.
“The foreign policy made by President Donald Trump, he stopped all interference to another country, to another nation, so the statement from Ted contradicts to his own president,” he said.
Trump has declared that the days of U.S. nation-building in foreign countries are over, prompting some analysts to argue that authoritarian rulers around the world have been emboldened to dismantle democratic institutions.
Kem Sokha, along with exiled former leader Sam Rainsy and more the 50 civil society organizations, called earlier this week for Indonesia and France to reconvene a meeting of the parties to the Paris Peace Accords — a document that set out the democratic foundations for Cambodia’s 1993 elections.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of co-signatory Human Rights Watch, said the group is pursuing last-ditch ideas like this because the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party ahead of next year’s elections is now being presented as a “fait accompli.”
“If it turns out that the CNRP is dissolved, then the first step has to be that the Europeans and the Japanese need to suspend any sort of aid and assistance to this election, to drop the whole idea of having international observers, and basically walk away,” he said.
Robertson said the next step after that would be to impose global Magnitsky-type sanctions that would target top members of the CPP and the military.
The Magnitsky Act is a punitive U.S. mechanism that allows the executive branch to freeze the assets of suspected human rights abusers held in United States banks, block their access to the financial system and ban them from entering the country.
It was originally passed in 2012 to punish Russian officials and businessmen related to the murder of a corruption investigator but was expanded globally in 2016.
“We’ll take Cambodia back to the pre  arrangements where they were a pariah state,” Robertson threatened in reference to Cambodia’s post-Khmer Rouge standing before a U.N. intervention force was launched to implement democratic elections.
Cambodians working in human rights or independent media have long braved threats and intimidation, an atmosphere that is now looming over foreigners as well.
A conspiracy narrative that state media has been building for months — accusing various government critics of a treasonous plot to launch a color revolution — is expanding on a daily basis to incorporate increasingly unlikely targets, sowing seeds of paranoia far and wide.
National Police training materials revealed by The Phnom Penh Post on Tuesday present charts implicating three micro-finance institutions as well as some 300 organizations, both local and international, in the alleged plot.
State TV has been broadcasting similar accusations through a 46-minute video that often parrots globalist conspiracy narratives popular with far-right movements in the United States.
Media outlets including Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, Voice of Democracy, the Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post have been accused of abetting the conspirators.
Though the United States has been presented as the principal instigator of such a conspiracy, the European Union is emerging as a target as well.
Leaders of the U.S. and EU business communities unanimously declined to comment for this article.