Biden presses Cambodia’s Hun Sen on jailed activists, political freedom
President Biden pushed for the release of an “unjustly” jailed Cambodian-American human rights lawyer and the opening of “political space” in Cambodia during a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh over the weekend.
Biden also reiterated his concerns about China’s involvement in construction of a naval base on Cambodia’s southern coast, which the U.S. reportedly believes is being built for the exclusive use of China’s military — which Phnom Penh denies.
“President Biden also urged Prime Minister Hun Sen to reopen civic and political space ahead of the 2023 elections. He also called for the release of activists detained on politically motivated charges, including U.S.-Cambodian dual citizen Seng Theary,” said a readout of the meeting released Saturday.
Theory Seng is a human rights lawyer and fierce critic of Hun Sen who was jailed earlier this year in a mass trial of dozens of dissidents and opposition activists.
Her lawyers announced that she was going on a weeklong hunger strike this week, with Biden visiting Phnom Penh for the ASEAN Summit.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party currently holds all seats in the country’s national assembly, after the country’s courts effectively banned the main opposition party.
The next national elections are scheduled for July 2023. The U.S. and other donor countries have pressured Hun Sen to allow opposition leader Kem Sokha, who lives in Phnom Penh but remains banned from politics, to participate.
Rights groups say at least 50 political prisoners are being held in the country’s prisons, while many democracy activists and opposition politicians have fled fearing their safety.
Theary Seng’s lawyers are lobbying the State Department to grant her “wrongfully detained” status under the Levinson Act, which would direct additional resources to securing her release. However, State Department spokesman Ned Price indicated last week that has not happened.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan described Theary Seng as “unjustly” detained.
Sullivan declined to say how Hun Sen responded to Biden’s requests.
“But I would say the conversation was direct and candid and constructive. It was not acrimonious or harsh,” he said.
Cambodia is among Beijing’s closest allies in Southeast Asia, and has seen billions of Chinese investment transform its infrastructure and skylines in recent years.
A Cambodian government spokesman declined to comment Sunday on Biden’s meeting with Hun Sen, referring questions to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.