Press Roundtable with Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski

U.S. Embassy, Phnom Penh
July 19, 2016

Acting Public Affairs Officer Courtney Woods: So good afternoon everyone. My name is Courtney Woods. I am the Acting Public Affairs Officer here at the U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh. Welcome to today’s media roundtable with the U.S. Department of State Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Human Rights, Democracy and Labor Mr. Tom Malinowski. I just wanted to first let everyone know that today’s media roundtable is on the record and for any additional questions that you have after today, you can feel free to forward those questions to our Public Affairs Office. So without any further ado, I will give the floor to Assistant Secretary Malinowski who will give remarks and then afterwards we will have time for a question and answer session which I will moderate. Thank you very much.

Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski: Great, thank you and thank you all for joining us today. I am close to finishing a very intensive two day visit to Cambodia. We had a number of meetings over the last several days including to begin with of course the government, with the Ministry of Interior and Foreign Affairs. We will be going to meet the labor minister after this roundtable. We met with numerous members of civil society, with the political opposition. I had a chance to pay my respects to the family of Kem Ley and with other diplomatic missions here in Phnom Penh. Let me just say a few words about the issues that we discussed and what our priorities were on this visit.

First of all, it is important to stress that the United States has a very strong and positive relationship with the people of Cambodia and the government of Cambodia. We have been working in partnership with Cambodians for many, many year on many issues from economic development to protection of the environment to protection of our shared security interest – counter terrorism. As well as on democracy and human rights. I also want to stress very strongly that the United States does not support or oppose any political party or movement in Cambodia. We do not support or oppose the opposition. We do not support or oppose the ruling party. What we do support here and everywhere in the world is a process that gives everybody a fair and equal chance to express their views, to advance their interest, and to compete in the political arena. We think that this is the right thing to do. We also think that this is the key in any country to maintaining stability and peace. We think it is very, very important to give people the sense that if they want to change things they can do so peacefully through the democratic process. And we have seen in many, many countries where people do not have that sense, often they turn in frustration to less peaceful means to means that lead to destabilization. The very things that I think that the government of Cambodia says it fears.

Now we all know that Cambodia has faced its share of challenges over the years in building a strong democracy, but in many ways it has been distinct from its neighbors in this region. It has a multiparty system. It has had an independent media. It has had and has today, a very, very strong and active civil society. And two years ago the international community and many Cambodians felt that a turning point had been reached with the agreement that government and the opposition signed and the creation of what Cambodians refer to as a culture of dialogue. This was obviously not the final answer to the challenges of Cambodian democracy but it was a very, very good step and one, that all of Cambodia’s friends around the world welcomed very strongly. Since then I think that everyone would acknowledge, and everyone I spoke to on both the government side, the opposition and civil society sides would acknowledge this week, that this week the situation has deteriorated from that moment of hope.

Among other things, we have seen a very concerning series of arrests and prosecution: prosecution of members of the opposition party, members of Parliament, political activists, human rights activists and even a member of the National Election Commission. Now we are very strong supporters of the principle of the rule of law and that means that nobody – including politicians – should be above the law, whether in the United States, Cambodia or anywhere else. But it is pretty plain that over the last several weeks and months in Cambodia the vast majority of these legal actions have been taken against one side, against people who are seen as critics of the government, whether prosecutions, whether corruption investigations or stripping of immunity, all of this seems to be directed against one side. I think that gives rise to legitimate questions of politicization of the process. Now Cambodia’s moving into a very important political phase. There will be elections in 2017 and 2018. There will be another milestone reached even earlier at the end of this year when Cambodia and its partners celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords. And there will be an international spotlight on Cambodia’s progress, its continuing problems, challenges, the progress it has made at each of these milestone. And I think that Cambodia and the government in particular have a strong interest in projecting a democratic process that is credible, that is seen as legitimate by both the people of the country and the international community.

What we stressed in the last two days – and what the United States has been stressing for some time – is that achieving that legitimacy is going to require some concrete steps, particularly in the period between now and the elections. The elections cycle that will begin next year. First of all we have encouraged the government to release and drop charges against people who were defending the rights and freedoms of the Cambodian people. Defense of human rights is sometimes contentious and controversial work. It often involves criticism of the power that be, but it is absolutely necessary to the health and stability of any democracy. And in this category I would specifically include the ADHOC activists, the members of the ADHOC organization, including the former member who was a member of the NEC. Just a couple of hours ago today, I met with the families of the ADHOC members who have been detained and I think it really does seem to me that not only are those families in a very tragic situation but they are in a very unfair situation that requires some regress.

Second, I think that as Cambodia looks forward to this election cycle, it will be very important here as it is in any democracy to maintain the independence and political neutrality of key institutions. The government often stresses the importance of political neutrality for civil society for NGOs and I think that that is a legitimate matter for the government to raise but it is also important for key institutions like the judiciary to maintain political neutrality. It is important for institutions like the military of Cambodia to maintain political neutrality. The United States has noted with concern recent statements made by the Commander and Chief of the Armed Forces that suggest that for example the military should eliminate people who have the wrong kind of mentality. Those kind of statements give rise to serious concern and we do have a very, very important mutually beneficial relationship with the Cambodian Armed Forces which is good for the security of the United States and Cambodia but I think that it is very important to remember that not only under our policies but also under our laws that if the military was to get involved in a political crackdown or human rights abuses of any kind, it would be difficult for the United States to continue all of the forms of cooperation that we think are in our mutual interest.

And finally looking ahead to that electoral cycle, we think that it is important to get back to the culture of dialogue that was begun two years ago. And here I found broad agreement among the government officials and opposition members that I met, that the culture of dialogue was a good thing for Cambodia, that it would be a good thing to return to it. And I would stress here that both sides have responsibilities; that both sides would need to be willing to compromise and to make difficult decisions. The country is not likely to get back to that culture of dialogue if all of the blame and punishment is heaped on one side. Creating political space for everybody including the opposition, and space for civil society to conduct its important work will be extremely important if that culture of dialogue is to be recaptured.

Now there were several other issues that we discussed. Of course, we talked about the tragic killing of Kem Ley. This was a person who was respected, I know by many, many people in Cambodia – and I can say respected by many people around the world – for his integrity, for his independence, and for his vision for a strong democracy in Cambodia. The United States and many others have called for a credible investigation into his killing. I would add that while the government of Cambodia has every right to conduct such an investigation on its own; given the inevitable suspicions that are swirling around this case, I think that the government would benefit from the involvement of independent experts in that investigation. I would note that the Prime Minister immediately condemned the murder of Kem Ley and that is something that we strongly welcome. He called for an investigation that would lead to the finding of who was responsible and why this happened, and we welcome that. Prime Minister Hun Sen said that no one had more to lose from this tragedy than the government of Cambodia. If that is true, then no one has more to gain from an independent investigation than the government of Cambodia.

Other issues that we discussed included the new NGO law. I think everyone I spoke to, including the Government, recognized the very valuable contributions that civil society organizations – domestic and international – have made to the development of Cambodia; both those organizations that provide services to the Cambodian people and those that conduct advocacy on important issues. It is certainly our hope that the law is implemented in a way that preserves space for civil society to conduct its vital work, including to speak out and to be critical when they believe that is required.

And finally as I mentioned we are going to see the Minister of Labor after this, where we will discuss the new trade union law and efforts to continue to strengthen the rights of Cambodian workers – something that’s important for both human rights and also the country’s economic development. So with that, thanks for bearing with me. There were a lot of issues to put on the table. I would be happy to take any questions that you might have.

Voice of America: You said you asked government officials to drop charges against the people who were very critical of the government. Why did you do so? Do you think the charges were politically motivated? And what was the response from the Cambodian government?

A/S Malinowski: As I mentioned, a strong democracy depends upon freedom of expression. Freedom of expression by definition has to encompass views that are critical of those in power, whether that in the United States, Cambodia or any other country. Criticism is never a comfortable thing for government officials. I don’t like it when I’m criticized or when my President Barack Obama is criticized. Sometimes I think the criticism is dishonest and irresponsible. But no government – in our view – should be empowered to determine what is appropriate criticism and what is inappropriate criticism, or to be able to use its police powers to suppress those who engage in criticism that they might believe to be inappropriate.

As for politicization, as I mentioned – no one is above the law. Political activists are not above the law. Political party leaders are not above the law. Human rights workers are not above the law. But it is certainly notable that in the last few months, these legal actions seem to have been taken almost exclusively against those who are critical of the government, whether in civil society or in opposition parties. That is very hard to explain.

Thmey Thmey News Online: You mentioned earlier that you paid your respects at Kem Ley’s funeral. Why did you attend the funeral – is it representing the States or not? And as reported in the news, you promised to Dr. Kem Ley’s wife at the funeral that you will work with the government to seek justice for Dr. Kem Lay. Have you talked to the government about that, and what was the response from the government?

A/S Malinowski: The United States government often expresses its condolences and its sense of sorrow when terrible tragedies like this happen in other parts of the world. When there is a terrorist attack and innocent people are killed, we express our condolences. Sometimes in Washington we go to the embassy of the country concerned and we sign the condolence book; our ambassadors and our diplomats do the same thing. When we can do so directly to the families, we try to do that. When prominent people who are working for good causes are killed in other countries, we express our condolences. Other governments do the same thing for us. In fact, I heard yesterday from the Cambodian government condolences for the police officers who were tragically killed in the state of Louisiana in the United States on Sunday. And I very much appreciated the Cambodian government reaching out to us to express its condolences. So this is a very normal practice.

In the case of Kem Ley, as I mentioned, he was someone who was respected all over the world for being a person of integrity and independence and standing up for democratic principles and we wanted to show our respect for the work that he did and our sympathy for the family. And that was really all there was to it. As for the investigation, I think I already said what we would say about that – that there needs to be a credible investigation. The government of Cambodia has said the same thing and we welcome that. I mentioned that I think that they would benefit, that it would be in their interest to invite some independent assistance. And so we did have those conversations. I am not going to characterize the Cambodian government’s response to anything because I think it is really for them to speak to their position.

Associated Press: Regarding the dialogue; it seems to be that the opposition party is eager to reason and talk. They have appealed to the government to have the talk but the government…the CPP has not the willingness of talking and from your perspective, from your point of view, do you think that the political atmosphere will get better or that the dialogue should be taking place before the next election?

A/S Malinowski: I don’t know. It is not my job to predict the progress. It is my job to promote progress and in our view it is very much in the interest of the Cambodian people for political dialogue to resume. I think it is in the interest of the government for political dialogue to resume. I don’t think anyone would benefit from continued confrontation, I think, as I mentioned, both sides will have to work hard to get to that point. The government in any country has more power than the opposition and so sometimes we ask more of those who have that power. There is a special responsibility that comes with being the government. And we hope that both sides will do what it is required to get back to that culture of dialogue.

Agence France-Presse: From your point of view, what does the killing of Kem Ley mean for democracy in Cambodia?

A/S Malinowski: Well, we don’t know what happened. And so I don’t want to draw any conclusions unless and until we have the results of an investigation that people will trust. I know that there are many people who are worried. There are people who are afraid that a culture of violence may be coming back to Cambodia as a result of this killing and that is why it is especially important for the government to ensure that there is a credible investigation that determines the truth of what happened and that this be done in a way that earns the confidence of the Cambodian people.

Reuters: You talk about independent experts. Who do you suggest?

A/S Malinowski: I think that there are many ways in which this could be done. There are many models when you look around the world in which government have invited and benefitted from external expertise in conducting these kinds of investigations. So I am not going to make any specific prescription. I think the important point here is that that is a strong need for an investigation that earns the confidence of everybody in Cambodia including those who may be suspicious of the government and the ruling party. I would bet that everybody who I have met with in the government during this visit would agree with that statement that it is in their interest for the outcome of this investigation to win the confidence of everybody including people who are sometimes mistrustful of the government. And I hope that the government will find a formula that will achieve that goal.

Reuters: Sorry…if Sam Rainsy and Kem Sohka’s charges are not dropped or if he cannot come back before the next election, will the election be recognized as legitimate? What is the U.S. position on this?

A/S Malinowski: In my opening statement, I mentioned several factors that I think that my country, the international community and the Cambodian people will consider in evaluating the credibility of the elections. The detention of political activists and human rights activists is one of those factors. The independence of institutions like the judiciary and the military is one of those factors. The willingness of both sides – the government and the opposition – to get back to a culture of dialogue is another factor. And if we are to look at all of these things, the Cambodian people themselves better than any of us will know if things are moving in the right direction and they will tell us one way or another.

Radio Free Asia: I have two questions. First is related to human rights. Do you think that human rights in Cambodia [are] moving backward or forwards in the event that human right activists were charged were in some village and also were charged by the courts and one activist was killed? And the second question is that a few more ADHOC activists will be called by the court also…about their actions related to [the] Kem Sohka case. And also maybe two more CNRP lawmakers, Thonwat Chan and Prenak Prenna, will also be called by the court. Do you think that if the government of Cambodia [does] not stop…so called harassment and intimidation, what is going to happen in Cambodia?

A/S Malinowski: I don’t know what is going to happen in Cambodia. I do think that the development of democracy in Cambodia has been a very important part of this country’s rebirth after a very terrible period of conflict. It has been very good for Cambodia to have developed a multiparty system with a strong civil society and independent media. And we very much hope that the country keeps moving in the direction of strengthening those institutions and that we do not… that Cambodia does not move backwards. Certainly, it will be important to resolve these cases particularly the arrests of the human rights activists quickly because that is clearly not a good sign. But I am not going to make any predictions about where things are going to go. I think that Cambodia is very resilient and I think that the Cambodian people are very politically active and engaged. They are debating these issues on social media as vigorously as the people of any advanced democracy in the world. And I have a hard time imagining that the people of Cambodia are going to allow the democratic rights and freedoms they have won over the years to be taken away.

Cambodia Daily: There was a movement passed by the Senator from the Foreign Relations Committee proposing that Cambodian aid be cut unless the State Department can make an assessment that the opposition and civil society were not being harassed. That is not law yet of course but right now do you think that Cambodia would pass that test?

A/S Malinowski: Well it is not law yet, so I am not going to comment on legislation that has not been adopted yet. I think that there have been similar restrictions on U.S. assistance in the Appropriations Bill in the past, the conditions evolve as the conditions on the ground evolve in Cambodia we will work closely with the Congress to develop an appropriate policy. I would add to that that when it comes to U.S. assistance to Cambodia, the vast majority of it goes directly to programs that benefit the Cambodian people in health, in education, in protection of the environment. It isn’t assistance we give to the government of Cambodia. I don’t think that anybody is talking about cutting off assistance that benefits that people of Cambodia directly.

Rasmei Kampuchea Daily: I have two questions for you. Number one will you ever have any position so that both parties can get back to the culture of dialogue? Will you (the U.S. government) have any position so that both parties can get back to the culture of dialogue? And the second one is that government of Hun Sen said that the actions taken by the government on the opposition party officials that were not the problem of political and political parties but that it is the problem of personal people and the rule of law. Is that acceptable for U.S.?

A/S Malinowski: Sure, on your first question. I don’t want to be prescriptive. We don’t have a specific plan that we’re proposing because really it isn’t for us to do because it is for the parties in Cambodia to figure out a way forward. We are always willing to be of assistance to them when they request it but only these parties can, only the Cambodian people can resolve their own political problems. I would say that perhaps it is important to remember that the dialogue and cooperation in any country can’t just be at the top levels. It can’t just be a matter of the top leaders agreeing to something. It needs to be the parties and their supporters and their activists at all levels for a process like that to be sustainable.

And to your second question, I think I have addressed this already. I will just repeat that of course it is possible in any country; in fact it is likely in any country, that there are politicians who commit misdeeds. It happens everywhere. What is not very likely is that only politicians and activists on one side are committing the misdeeds and that nobody on the other side is. So when the legal measure seem to be falling entirely on one side it does give rise to legitimate questions about the motivations for some of those legal actions.

Koh Santepheap: Regarding that today you met with Kem Sokha. What did they ask you and what did you talk about?

A/S Malinowski: You should ask them. My rule is that I will talk about what we say and what our positions is but I don’t want to put words in the mouth of Kem Sokha, or the government or anybody else.

Koh Santepheap: My second question regarding meeting with Secretary of State [Ouch Borith]. What did they say about the elections and the opposition party?

A/S Malinowski: What did they say? Again, in fact I think he spoke to the media. He told you what he said to me. So you should use that statement and you can follow up with questions to him. I think it is just not fair to be quoting somebody else. I want to just tell you directly what I said, what we think, what the United States policy is. And then you can compare.

Phnom Penh Post: Just to pick up on a previous question. Based on the Senate Appropriations Bill, the U.S. Armed Forces also have a relationship with the Cambodian military. The U.S. law enforcement also has a relationship with the National Policy in Cambodia. So there are relationships on questions that you have raised with the military commanders statements about the investigations into Kem Ley’s death. Is the U.S. government going to make any steps on these issues to push the Cambodian government, military or national policy?

A/S Malinowski: As you may know, we not only have policies that affect what we can do but we also have laws which affect the so-called ley he law which prohibits us from providing assistance to any unit of a foreign security force that has engaged in serious human rights abuses. So as I mentioned, and this is very, very important, we have a mutually beneficial relationship with the Cambodian Armed Forces, with the Cambodian Police on a lot of issues. We think that it is important to Cambodia to maintain that relationship. It is certainly important to us to maintain that relationship. A key factor for us will be whether these institutions maintain their independence from these political issues that we have been discussing and whether they engage or do not engage in any crack down or human rights abuses that we hope won’t happen. It is a grammatically complicated sentence, I know, but I think that you know what I mean that it is very, very important in any country for military and law enforcement institutions not to be drawn into a political crackdown or human rights abuses and where that happens this applies all over the world, it is harder for the United States to have the kind of mutually beneficial relationship that we want.

Khmer Times: My question is this year Cambodia was granted as GSP status for travel goods to the U.S., which is the largest expansion of Cambodia products to U.S. market in twenty years. Were there any stipulations or preconditions for improving human rights/ labor rights within the country and is it a possibility that the country could lose this status if the country continues to violate human rights abuses?

A/S Malinowski: This is not something that has come up yet in my discussions. GSP is under our laws linked to labor rights. It is not linked to the larger human rights situation in the country but it is quite strictly linked to labor rights and our Labor Department and our Trade Representative look very, very closely at whether a country has met the specific conditions and the decision is strictly based on that. So if Cambodia has received GSP it is because it has met, according to our experts, those conditions. And of course with any country, benefits can be taken away if the conditions are no longer being met

Voice of America: Alright I have two questions. What do you mostly want to see changes about the unions law U.S. like criticize about the union laws so far? Why should Cambodia follow U.S. policy when China gave $600 million in the last few days and then it seems Cambodia ignores the voice for past years so what is your view on that?

A/S Malinowski: On the union law, we say here what we say everywhere that trade union laws should be compliant with international labor standards. We had some concerns about whether the trade union law in Cambodia, and particularly the requirements for freedom of association. We think that it is very much in the interest of Cambodia to be seen meeting that standard. Interestingly, if you look at other countries in this region, a lot of investment is going to countries particularly in the garment industry because I think that companies prefer the stability of knowing that trade union rights are protected, that there is rule of law, and they know what the rules are. Vietnam, which is part of the TPP agreement, will be adopting a trade union law that will be compliant, that will have to be complaint, with the ILO standard, is in fact attracting a lot of business right now. I think in part because of that expectation. I think that it is actually very much in the interest of Cambodia to take the high road in this area.

And as for China, we actually think that it is a good thing for countries in this region to have a good relationship with China whether that is Vietnam or Cambodia or Burma or anybody else. So it does not worry me at all when I see that countries are meeting with each other and having good relations. I do think that there are many things that the United States offers that China does not. And I think that the government of Cambodia knows that and certainly if the government wants the elections in 2017 and 2018 as strong and credible around the world that is not something that China will provide.

Cambodia Daily: I would like to go back to the ADHOC prisoners. Could you express your views on their detention? The U.S. has called these Cambodian prisoners political prisoners. I would like to know specifically if you would consider the ADHOC detainees or anyone else in prison specifically political prisoners.

A/S Malinowski: I don’t want to go down name by name and check off yes or no, but I would say that Cambodia is in danger of going back to an era in which it has prisoners of conscience and that this would not be consistent with the image of democratic progress that both the government and people of Cambodia, for very good reason, want to project.

Cambodia Daily: Do you think it has prisoners of conscience now?

A/S Malinowski: We would like to see these cases resolved as quickly as possible.

Radio Free Asia: I want to follow up with the…question related to the Chinese grant maybe 600 million U.S. dollars and maybe a part of the money will be used for elections, maybe because the statement said that. I just want to ask you, what do you think about this trend in the context of mostly the CPP has a lot of media, control a lot of media, and money that will be used is from them? And also Prime Minister Hun Sen used to warn the Japanese Ambassador [to not] be afraid about the election. If you don’t give the money we can run it by ourselves. The election will be free and fair.

A/S Malinowski: Well I don’t know and I have laid out some of the conditions that I think that Cambodians and the international community will hope to see met so that the elections are free and fair. And I would just add that I think it is going to be hard to deny the Cambodian people their voice and their freedom of choice. Of course, in this day and age, it is still possible for a government to control certain kinds of media. Maybe it is possible to control television media but you know better than I do. More and more Cambodians are getting their information from media that nobody can control – from media that they control. And it is very difficult for a country to stop that without significantly hurting its economy because the economy of every country is increasing dependent on the internet and on social media, on people being connected. So I don’t know what the government’s intentions are. I hope that it is the government’s intention to have a free and fair election in 2017 and 2018. I think that if anyone has contrary intentions there are certainly things that they can do that would be unfortunate but I think that they will find that, as we have seen in Burma and as we have seen in Sri Lanka and many countries over the last few years, it is very hard to deny people their voice and their choice.

Khmer Times: Obama just visited Vietnam recently. And I would say that there are many similarities in terms of human rights between the two countries. The U.S. just recently lifted the trade embargo with Vietnam and has begun to warm up…

A/S Malinowski: It wasn’t a trade embargo. It was a…

Khmer Times: Not a trade embargo. I am sorry, the arms embargo. I think, as a spokesperson put it here, [we] should question why the U.S. has criticized Cambodia’s human rights and not really Vietnam’s. How has Vietnam met human rights standards or standards for democracy? I would ask – what is the difference?

A/S Malinowski: Sure. First of all, this is my first visit to Cambodia as the Assistant Secretary of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. I have been to Vietnam four times in the last two years and I will probably be going back this year. President Obama, when he was in Vietnam, met with human rights activists and spoke out very, very strongly for legal reforms and for respect of freedom of expression and I think that in many ways, even with all of the steps we have taken to strengthen our relationship including our security relationship, historically we have done more with Cambodia than we have done with Vietnam. It is very common, and I hear this all the time in the countries that I visit, to hear a government official saying, “They only criticize us. They never criticize anybody else.” And it is partly because if we say something about Cambodia it is all over the Cambodian news and government officials here wake up and read about it. If we say something about Vietnam or China it is probably not going to be in the Cambodian news. They are probably not going to see it as often as we say it. So that is, you know, something that we hear again all over the world and I understand it. We try to be consistent about these things. We may not always be perfectly so but I think, if you look at what we have said and done on Vietnam and China and certainly on Burma over the years the United States has strongly stood up for these values in every country in this region and will continue to do so.

Acting PAO Courtney Woods: And with that I would like to conclude today’s roundtable. Thank you all for coming and for your questions. And if you have any additional questions, again please submit those questions to the Embassy’s Public Affairs Section. Again, thank you very much.