Christopher Beres: Cambodia Democracy Act Undermines America’s Strategic Interests

Having represented the interests of Cambodia in human rights litigation brought by Cambodia’s political opponents in federal courts,  I want to offer some insight into the U.S. – Cambodia relationship in light of current events to help strengthen this relationship.

Considering China’s purported interest in establishing naval facilities in Cambodia, U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho’s, R-Fla., “Cambodia Democracy Act,” which passed the House earlier this month, is detrimental to the national security interests of the United States.

While there may be no truth to recent reports of a secret pact between the two nations to allow Chinese forces to use a Cambodian naval base, China’s aspirations to rule the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea are no secret. However, a naval presence in Cambodia could easily become a reality if the United States continues to shame and criticize the Cambodian leadership.

Months ago, I watched a congressional subcommittee take testimony from Cambodia’s political opponents and their lawyers after Kem Sokha, the former leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (the “CNRP”), had been arrested for treason and his party had been outlawed.

I wished the subcommittee had invited all interested parties to testify in order to become fully apprised of the facts regarding Sohka’s arrest and the outlawing of the CNRP. As is often the case with such hearings, only those parties who would support its outcome were invited to testify.

I was in Phnom Penh at the time but would have gladly testified telephonically. So, as the Senate now considers the Cambodian Democracy Act, I will do so here.

As a former prosecutor who has reviewed the evidence against Sokha, I can say that, even if there were political motivations behind his arrest and the outlawing of the CNRP, there was a strong factual, legal basis for these decisions as well. Sohka was caught on tape speaking about his designs to undermine the legitimate government of Cambodia with the help of foreign agents.

The Cambodia Democracy Act was flawed at its inception. It is based on the ill will of a disenfranchised, illegal political party and the historical hatred of a handful of congressman for Cambodia’s prime minister instead of the facts. Moreover, its proponents fail to recognize it will have a negative impact on Cambodia’s emerging new leaders, some of whom may be targeted under this proposal.

Since the United States views China as its greatest existential threat and wants to defeat that nation’s economic and military aspirations, particularly in poorer nations like Cambodia, the Cambodia Democracy Act is detrimental to America’s national security interests. Sanctioning Cambodia’s leadership will force them to get even closer to Beijing and ensure an even stronger Chinese economic, diplomatic and military presence in Cambodia. The House could not have written a better law to guarantee China’s success in Cambodia and across Southeast Asia.

The relevant Senate committee should be advised that Cambodia, being a sovereign nation, can do anything it wants with its territory. If Cambodia wants to permit China (or the United States, for that matter) to establish naval facilities on its territory, that is Cambodia’s prerogative under international law, notwithstanding the provisions of the Cambodia Peace Agreement or Cambodia’s Constitution which may be amended. This would be my legal opine in a nutshell if asked by Cambodia if it could permit foreign naval facilities on its territory. The United States should be courting Cambodia’s rising leaders and its present leadership, not sanctioning them. America’s national security interests in the region trump the interests of the handful of members of Congress who hate Cambodia’s prime minister.

Christopher Beres is a lawyer licensed in New York, Connecticut, Florida, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Supreme Court. He has been described by political opponents of Cambodia as being close to the government of Cambodia and Cambodia’s Army Commander General Hun Manet.

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