By SOPHENG CHEANG
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The U.S. ambassador to Cambodia on Tuesday denied allegations by Prime Minister Hun Sen that Washington is seeking to oust his government, and warned that Cambodia is doing itself damage internationally with its anti-America campaign.
Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party have in the past month accelerated the use of legal and administrative measures to undermine critics and political foes, culminating in the Sept. 3 arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha on a treason charge.
The charge was based on videos from several years ago that showed him at a seminar where he spoke about receiving advice from U.S. pro-democracy groups. He could face up to 30 years in prison.
Ambassador William Heidt said the accusations were false, and called for Kem Sokha’s release.
An English-language newspaper, The Cambodia Daily, was shut down last week by Cambodian authorities, and more than a dozen radio stations that broadcast dissident voices or used programing from U.S. government-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Asia were forced to stop broadcasting for alleged breach of regulations.
The local office of the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-based democracy promotion organization, was ordered closed and its foreign employees told to leave the country.
The actions, along with Kem Sokha’s arrest, are widely seen as a partisan government effort to hinder the opposition before next year’s general election.
Hun Sen has suggested that the United States conspired with Kem Sokha to try to overthrow his government. He said he wanted to keep history from repeating itself, referring to Cambodia’s 1970 military coup — purportedly backed by Washington — that plunged the country into civil war and eventually four years of brutal rule by the Khmer Rouge.
The theme that the United States has been trying to undermine the government, promoting a “revolution” that would again plunge Cambodia into chaos, has been echoed by pro-government media.
Heidt, speaking to journalists, said “the United States has been subject to intentionally inaccurate, misleading and baseless accusations.”
He said the allegations were hurting Cambodia, not the United States.
“They are, step by step, isolating Cambodia from the international community at the very moment Cambodia needs international support to raise its economy to the next level and compete with its neighbors,” he said.
Heidt said he believes “there is still time to salvage Cambodia’s 2018 elections, continue Cambodia’s democratic development, and restore our bilateral relationship.”
Earlier Tuesday, the main opposition party said it is determined to participate in next year’s general election despite its leader’s arrest.
The comments by Son Chhay, a senior member of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, came during the party’s first news conference since Kem Sokha’s arrest.
Hun Sen, who has been in power for more than three decades, has threatened to dissolve the party if it gets involved in the legal proceedings against Kem Sokha.
Although the party has called for Kem Sokha’s release, Son Chhay said there were no plans to organize protests.
“I do hope that before the election in 2018, there will be a (political) solution between all of us to provide a good environment and ensure that the election will be conducted freely and fairly,” he said.