US Secretary of State John Kerry is currently on a whistle-stop three-nation Asian tour, looking to strengthen trade and diplomatic ties in the region. Yet activists have also called on him to tie any deepening of relations to guarantees that governments there will cease their ongoing attacks on civil liberties and political opponents.
On Tuesday, Kerry met with senior members of the Cambodian government in Phnom Penh, as part of the visit that began in Laos on Sunday and will end in China later this week.
He called for "vigorous and peaceful" political debate in Cambodia, adding: "In my discussions today, I emphasized the essential role that a vibrant, democratic system plays in the development of a country and the legitimacy of its political system."
Kerry has framed the Laos and Cambodia visits as precursors to a summit in California next month, at which US President Barack Obama will host the leaders of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
During the trip, Kerry is widely expected to also push China to step up pressure on North Korea, following its most recent nuclear test on January 6. He will reportedly also seek discussion on Beijing's ongoing encroachment in the South China Sea, where it is constructing a chain of islands in waters contested by the likes of Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
According to Human Rights Watch's (HRW) Asia Division Deputy Director Phil Robertson, Kerry's visit to Laos — only the second by a US secretary of state in over 60 years — should be the beginning of a "strong and sustained US push to demand that the Lao government reveal where is missing NGO leader Sombath Somphone and end their intensified intimidation of civil society."
'Reality seems to suggest that the US is willing to basically pay lip service to human rights and democracy while they allow interests to dictate the political foreign policy agenda'
An internationally admired community development activist, Somphone was abducted in the Lao capital Vientiane in December 2012. While security camera footage showed him being stopped at a police checkpoint and taken away in a pickup truck, the government has denied any responsibility for his disappearance.
Laos is a one-party socialist republic where the media is heavily censored, freedom of expression and assembly is restricted, and workers are denied the right to freely unionize. As the current chair of ASEAN, it will host a summit of the bloc later this year that will be attended by Obama and senior Chinese officials.
"Demanding that Laos respect human rights should be a core part of every major meeting agenda going forward this year in Vientiane," Robertson told VICE News.
While both Cambodia and Laos have long maintained close ties to China, in recent years Laos has displayed a growing willingness to strengthen its relationship with the US. Following his meeting with senior Lao officials on Monday, Kerry said Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong had expressed his desire for ASEAN nations to present a united front when addressing rising tensions over China's South China Sea activity.
"[Thammavong] was very clear he wants a unified ASEAN and he wants maritime rights protected, and he wants to avoid militarization and to avoid conflict," Kerry said on Monday.
However, as China's closest ally within ASEAN, Cambodia is widely seen to be an obstacle to such an effort, with the Cambodian government repeatedly calling for the bloc to stay out of the matter.
Like Laos, Cambodia is a country racked with corruption and political oppression, which Robertson described as a "crony capitalist system where Prime Minister Hun Sen permits those close to him to loot natural resources, commit severe rights abuses, and get away with it."
Ahead of Kerry's arrival in Cambodia, five human rights organizations came together to issue a joint letter calling on him to "demand an immediate end to the government's acts of intimidation, judicial harassment, and violence against opposition officials and the immediate and unconditional release of all 17 opposition members and supporters who are currently detained or imprisoned."
The letter comes in the wake of escalating attacks on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), whose leader Sam Rainsy has been forced into self-imposed exile after a court issued an arrest warrant for him in mid-November based on a seven-year-old defamation case for which Rainsy received a royal pardon in 2013.
'We need to make reform and democracy sustainable'
Three days after the warrant was issued, the National Assembly — controlled by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) — stripped Rainsy of his lawmaker status, removing his parliamentary immunity.
Other CNRP figures have also come under attack, with two lawmakers dragged from their cars and badly beaten as they left the National Assembly during a pro-government demonstration in October. In response to a storm of public outrage on social media, which saw photographs of the perpetrators widely circulated, three men were arrested and charged with aggravated assault over the attacks. All were members of the military, with at least one serving in Hun Sen's elite bodyguard unit.
Within days of the assaults, CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha was removed from his position as the National Assembly's first vice-president, in a vote boycotted by the opposition.
Meanwhile, among the 17 imprisoned opposition members and supporters mentioned in the letter, 11 were handed heavy sentences in July last year on "insurrection" charges relating to a protest that turned violent a year earlier.
Their trial was widely criticized by observers as just the latest example of a compromised judiciary serving the purposes of Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who switched sides to emerge as the leader of the country's transitional government in the 1980s and has clung to power for more than 30 years.
The escalating repression seen in Cambodia appears to be part of an attempt by Hun Sen to guarantee the CPP's victory in national elections in 2018, after it claimed a narrow victory in an election in 2013 that the CNRP said was won by electoral fraud.
According to CNRP National Assembly representative Mu Sochua, her party is committed to a peaceful transfer of power away from the country's entrenched and corrupt elite.
"We want change without violence and we want the people of Cambodia to be part of creating the reform agenda for the future. We need to make reform and democracy sustainable," she told VICE News.
But the chances of the CNRP avoiding further violence before and after any successful election bid in 2018 seem slim. Many observers warn that the repression seen in recent months is only set to escalate further, amid fears that, should the CPP lose the election, Hun Sen could resort to military action to remain in power.
"The prospects for a peaceful and democratic Cambodia after 2018 are diminishing rapidly, and over the next two years a focused diplomatic effort from the international community is required in order to safeguard democracy," Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, who was one of the signatories of the letter, told VICE News.
With Cambodia heavily dependent on manufacturing exports to the developed world and receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid each year, Sopheap says the country's trade partners and donor nations have the capacity to heap pressure on the government to end its repressive actions.
"How the partner and donor states decide to use that influence at this critical juncture, however, will provide a telling insight into the Global North's commitment to Cambodian civil society and human rights," she said.
But while Kerry did meet with CNRP members and civil society representatives during his visit to Phnom Penh, according to Ou Virak, a political analyst and founder of the Future Forum think tank, willingness on the part of the US government to intervene in human rights concerns in Cambodia will likely be tempered by a desire to increase its clout in China's sphere of influence.
Virak says such an approach can be likened to the US deepening its ties with China in recent years, while at the same time publicly calling for the Asian giant to end repression directed at anti-government activists and civil society.
"In that sense, reality seems to suggest that the US is willing to turn a blind eye or basically pay lip service to human rights and democracy while they allow interests to dictate the political foreign policy agenda," Virak told VICE News.
A State Department spokesperson had not directly responded prior to publication of this article to a request for comment from VICE News on the importance placed by the US on the promotion of democratic principles when fostering bilateral ties with international partners and allies.
Follow Charles Parkinson on Twitter: @charlesparkinsn