In mid-February, the MS Westerdam, a cruise ship with more than 2,000 passengers and crew on board, found itself stranded at sea. Concern surrounding the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to ramp up, and the ship was refused the right to dock by multiple Asian nations.
Finally, Cambodia stepped in and allowed the ship to dock in their country after being stranded at sea for two weeks. Government and health officials worked hand-in-hand with teams of State Department personnel for days in testing, processing, and transporting hundreds of American nationals to Phnom Penh, where they were able to safely fly home.
In this most recent example, Cambodia demonstrated the very best of its virtues in regard to hospitality, generosity, and cooperation with the international community. I personally wrote Prime Minister Hun Sen thanking him for his decisive actions in safeguarding the well-being of American citizens abroad. Despite this bright spot in the U.S. — Cambodia relationship, our ties with the Southeast Asian nation have become increasingly strained in recent years.
While democratic institutions exist in practice in Cambodia, it’s apparent that over the past three decades many political elites, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, have resorted to undemocratic means in consolidating power and suppressing political representation and speech. More recently, after strong showings by opposition parties in the 2013 and 2017 elections, the government banned the leading opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party. This assured one-party rule in Cambodia as the ruling Cambodia People’s Party swept all 125 seats in the National Assembly election the following year. This came in addition to numerous restrictions that have been placed on civil society, free speech, social and political activism, and foreign-funded democracy programs, causing many political opposition members and government critics to flee the country or face arrest.
These developments are symptoms to a larger problem of corruption and weak institutions. My colleagues and I in Congress and the Trump Administration have responded with condemnation and sanctions. I myself introduced the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2019, which directs the President to impose sanctions on individuals responsible for undermining democracy and violating human rights in Cambodia. I stand by those decisions, but I also recognize the potential for Cambodia to recapture greatness on the world stage by reestablishing rule of law and trust in governance.
Cambodia is fortunate to have a youthful population armed with the potential to drive national economic and social growth. While a current mismatch in market demands and education levels prevents the kind of economic growth we have seen in other Southeast Asian nations, future opportunities are limitless for the people of Cambodia should they address certain issues.
Prime Minister Sen, you have done much for the people of Cambodia during your time in government. The challenges facing your nation are not easy ones, and I sympathize with the difficult choices you have had to make. I ask that you and your ruling party the CCP revisit the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement and the Cambodian Constitution, which clearly state that the Cambodian people are guaranteed a democratic form of government and provides parameters for who can run for elected office. It is evident that recent elections were not conducted fairly or freely and saw mass voter suppression and intimidation. It’s plain to see that today’s Cambodia is not a true democracy.
As you know, your leadership tenure in Cambodia has nearly reached four decades. While I don’t want to speculate on the reasons for your decision to hold onto power, I would like to share some of our country’s experience in democratic transitions.
As a Founding Father and first President of the United States, George Washington served only two terms in office. He chose to relinquish power voluntarily, even after being offered the opportunity to serve as President indefinitely. He understood that to preserve the nascent democratic government he had helped create, he must step down and allow the American people to elect a new leader for the nation. This was the first time in human history that a head of state voluntarily relinquished power without punishment or bloodshed, and it set the standard for the modern world we see today.
Decisions on power and authority are undeniably difficult. However, these difficult choices are the ones that will allow your grandchildren and their children to have a brighter future in Cambodia. Restoring faith in governing institutions and protecting political speech are essential in securing stable governance, which creates a welcoming business atmosphere, motivates young people to drive growth, and secures international legitimacy.
Our nation has not had a perfect track record in tackling these issues either. However, when faced with a crossroads, we have always aspired to choose the path that pursues prosperity by means of liberty and political representation. Prime Minister Sen, I urge you to learn from our nation’s successes, and our mistakes, in securing a prosperous future for all Cambodians, regardless of political view, religion, or class. Instead of experiencing condemnation and humiliation on the world stage, this could serve as Cambodia’s finest hour.
History will remember your legacy. It’s up to you whether it’s recorded as a proud Founding Father for a modern Cambodia or a ruler who created an unstable one-party regime with weak institutions and restricted freedoms. Choose wisely.