As Cambodia cracks down on democracy, local Cambodian Americans feel silenced

Julia-Grace Sanders November 29, 2017 0

William A. Heidt, U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, during a blessing ceremony in July 2017 at the Wat Dhammacakkaram Cambodian Buddhist temple in Beacon Hill neighborhood • Photo by Thay Cheam

As the Cambodian government cracks down on democracy and freedom of expression, the question of how the U.S. government should relate to the Kingdom has become more contentious than ever. Cambodian Americans in Washington state, the third largest such community in the country, are feeling shut out of the discussions around U.S.-Cambodia relations.

The U.S. has repeatedly expressed concern after the Cambodian Supreme Court dissolved the main political opposition party in the country, arrested its leader, and cracked down on free speech and independent newspapers. This month, the U.S. terminated support for the Cambodian National Election Committee and released a statement calling for the Cambodian government to reverse its actions. In early November, Senator Ted Cruz issued a statement pledging to ban top Cambodian officials from travelling to the U.S. unless jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha is released.

In Washington state, State Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale) met with the Ambassador of the Royal Embassy of Cambodia on October 31 in Olympia without reaching out to the community of some 26,000 Cambodian-Americans living in the state of Washington.

Sameth Mell. • Courtesy Photo

Sameth Mell, a 35-year-old Cambodian refugee who arrived in Seattle with his family in 1985, said he’s disappointed the local Cambodian American community hasn’t been included when it comes to the U.S. government’s relations with Cambodia. “I think that the most important thing is to make sure that amidst all of this back and forth between the U.S. and Cambodia, is that the people most impacted are taken into consideration,” Mell said.

For his part, Ericksen said it’s normal practice not to advertise meetings in Olympia to the public, and that his meeting with the ambassador happened at the last minute. “We represent everybody here, all of the communities in Washington,” Senator Ericksen said.  “I’m just a representative in Whatcom county.”

After President Trump’s attended the U.S.-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summit and the East Asia Summit, the U.S. Mission to the ASEAN released a statement in mid-November expressing “strong concerns about recent steps that challenge [Cambodia’s] democratic progress, including restrictions on the free press, civil society, and the political opposition.” The statement also says “unfounded accusations and criticisms of the United States, including U.S. diplomats in Cambodia, contradict the spirit of improved and productive bilateral relations between our two countries.”

Two days after the statement was published, the Cambodian Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the country’s main opposition party. The court’s decision was the latest setback for democracy in Cambodia. It comes after the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha, widely considered to be politically motivated, and the forced closure of independent media such as the Cambodia Daily, the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America.

Chhorn Chansy, The Cambodia Daily’s former news editor reporting on the Daily’s last day of operation. The newspaper was forced to close at the beginning of September 2017 • Photo by Julia-Grace Sanders

“It’s disheartening to see freedom of expression and things like that being encroached upon, these are American values,” said 37-year-old Bunthay Cheam, who came to the U.S. from a refugee camp in Thailand when he was a year old.

“It’s the same as if a reporter came into the Cambodian community and did a story on Cambodians and didn’t consult one Cambodian,” he said. “I see it as the same thing. Anything Cambodian related, someone from the community should be consulted or at least asked to be there.”

Chanhthi Sonthi, a seamstress who moved to the U.S. in 2008, also laments a lack of community engagement for Cambodian Americans in Washington. “Gatherings that happen once in a while usually include charities and require people to donate money,” she said. “This pushes out the community even more.”

More community engagement could help Cambodians facing political repression in Cambodia, she said. “Through gathering we could come up with a plan that we could send to the Senator through our group representatives asking for aid in certain issues, and or give suggestions to us that could possibly put us a step closer to the solution,” she said.

Early in November, Senator Ted Cruz called for opposition leader Kem Sokha to be released. But without community outreach, Mell says Cambodian-American interests aren’t being presented in the back-and-forth between the US and Cambodia. “If Senator Ted Cruz really felt for the Cambodian people, maybe he should work to stop the deportations of Cambodian-Americans.” More than 550 Cambodian-Americans that have been deported to Cambodia since 2002, with at least 100 more rounded up for deportation.

“I just don’t want a white person to describe or paint a picture of what is happening in Cambodia,” said Mell. “If anything, Cambodian people should be at the table to talk about how they feel and provide ideas and solutions.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was not the only opposition party in Cambodia–and that it was dissolved by the Cambodian Supreme Court, not directly by Prime Minister Hun Sen. 

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