WASHINGTON (AP) — Cambodia's main opposition party is protesting to the U.S. Embassy for posting praise of the son of the nation's long-ruling prime minister, just ahead of local elections this weekend. The embassy isn't taking the Facebook post down.
The Tuesday post celebrated the first Cambodian student to graduate from the prestigious U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. It quoted the new graduate, 23-year-old Vithyea Phann, as describing Prime Minister Hun Sen's powerful, eldest son as "one of my biggest idols."
That raised hackles in the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which is contesting Hun Sen's party for local government seats nationwide on Sunday. The vote is a bellwether of national politics ahead of general elections in 2018 as Hun Sen seeks to sustain his three decades of dominance.
"Example of US failings here. The US promotes the Cambodian ruling elites who do not share US values or interests," the opposition party's spokeswoman, Monovithya Kem, tweeted alongside a link to the Facebook post. It pictured Vithyea Phann in his white military uniform.
Alicia Edwards, State Department spokeswoman for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said the U.S. is "strictly nonpartisan and does not endorse candidates in any country's elections." She added that the embassy's social media content reflects the strong ties between the U.S. and Cambodian people.
Hun Sen has been prime minister since 1985. He has used a combination of guile and brute force to crush his political rivals during a long career that included a violent 1997 coup that ousted his co-premier, destroying a power-sharing arrangement. His iron grip on power showed cracks in the last national elections four years ago when the opposition made substantial gains, despite accusations of voting irregularities benefiting his ruling party.
Hun Sen has stepped up threatening rhetoric ahead of Sunday's vote, repeatedly warning of civil war if his Cambodian People's Party loses. At a campaign rally in the capital Phnom Penh on Friday, he said opposition parties face being disbanded if they challenge the election result. Last month, Cambodia's defense minister threatened to "smash the teeth" of anyone protesting a ruling party win.
Western governments and U.S. lawmakers are criticizing the threats. When campaigning began two weeks ago, the State Department urged Cambodia's government to "guarantee a political space free from threats or intimidation" and respect freedom of expression for all its citizens.
Hun Sen has an ambivalent attitude toward Washington. His eldest son, Hun Manet, widely tipped to succeed his father, was the first Cambodian to graduate from the elite military academy at West Point.
Although a serving three-star general, Hun Manet is active in politics. He campaigned for his father's party Thursday in Kampong Cham province, near Phnom Penh.
The opposition party complained to the U.S. Embassy over the Facebook post, contending that compromised U.S. neutrality, according to one of its officials. But the embassy was unapologetic, responding that it cannot delete or edit a social media post unless it is factually wrong. The opposition official requested anonymity because of safety fears about raising the sensitive subject of Hun Sen's closest family.
Vithyea Phann is from a military family and was originally assigned to work for Hun Manet at Cambodia's National Counter-Terrorism Special Forces, the post said. Hun Manet encouraged him to apply for the Naval Academy after he failed to get into West Point.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said the U.S. Embassy should not be "celebrating" a member of the politicized Cambodian military.
"It's essentially a branch of the ruling party," Sifton said.
Hun Sen's party has dominated the media and used its control over the judiciary to severely weaken opposition parties and civil society ahead of the elections, he said. The opposition wants to overturn the ruling party's control of government seats for communes, or clusters of villages.
Corruption and political intolerance is rife in Cambodia. But Hun Sen has brought economic growth and relative stability to the Southeast Asian nation that was devastated by the communist Khmer Rouge dictatorship in the late 1970s, when 1.7 million people died from starvation, disease and executions.