By Prak Chan Thul and Matthew Tostevin
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - As a political crackdown intensifies in Cambodia ahead of elections, critics of veteran strongman Hun Sen fear a change in U.S. priorities under President Donald Trump will reduce pressure to respect human rights.
Although not a top U.S. concern, the Southeast Asian country of 15 million people offers a window into the shift to an "America First" foreign policy that Washington says could put its traditional values behind security and trade.
"Trump is lowering the bar for authoritarian behavior around the world and it has affected us in Cambodia," said Naly Pilorge of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights.
Activists said fresh concern had been raised by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's recent comment that promoting U.S. values such as freedom, human dignity and "the way people are treated" can get in the way of policy on security and economic interests.
That marked a shift towards the non-interference stressed by China, which has courted Cambodia with billions of dollars in infrastructure loans - with no political conditions - and has made Hun Sen one of Beijing's closest allies in the region.
Hun Sen, Cambodia's prime minister since 1985, railed against lectures from the Obama administration on rights, democracy and corruption.
And the former Khmer Rouge guerrilla openly favored Trump for election, has sympathized with Trump's antipathy to the media and drawn comparisons with his own rule.
"The months since Trump's inauguration have coincided with a precipitous and severe deterioration in the human rights situation," said Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said. "Changes in policy and rhetoric in Washington are not going unnoticed."
Opponents accuse Hun Sen of stepping up political attacks ahead of local elections in June and a general election next year, while the 64-year-old strongman has said rights must be balanced against stability.
CIVIL WAR THREAT
During his rule, Cambodia has emerged from one of the 20th century's most murderous conflicts to clock annual growth rates above 7 percent. Life expectancy has risen from 50 years to 70.
This week, Hun Sen told soldiers that if his Cambodian People's Party doesn't win elections it would mean civil war. He told them to be prepared to crack down on any election protests.
Demonstrations have been suppressed; defamation cases have targeted opposition members; activists have been detained; a legal change has cleared the way for the state to shut down parties at will.
Saying he feared his party would be dissolved if he stayed on, opposition leader Sam Rainsy resigned. Rainsy already lives in exile to escape a defamation conviction.
The State Department has voiced concern at the political party law and the prolonged detention of five high-profile activists.
"Support for human rights, democracy, and rule of law remains an important component of the U.S.-Cambodian relationship, which also includes trade, development, security cooperation, people-to-people ties, and much more," U.S. Embassy spokesman Jay Raman said in an email to Reuters.
"The United States regularly discusses these issues in public and private at all levels of government and with a range of civil society voices."
But Hun Sen's critics believe less overt attention is being paid to human rights than under President Barack Obama.
Comparing postings on the U.S. embassy's Facebook page from the period since Trump's inauguration with the same period a year earlier, there are markedly fewer mentions of human rights or of meetings with activists.
"The new U.S. administration have been very quiet. Perhaps they are not organized as yet," said Son Chhay, a parliamentarian from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. "Trump doesn’t seem to care much about human rights and democracy anyway."
A government spokesman said that during a recent visit by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State W. Patrick Murphy, human rights had not come across as a top priority.
"They talked about their own interests," Siphan Phay told Reuters. To the fore was stopping North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile program, he said.
Despite Hun Sen's professed admiration for Trump, there has been no sign of relations improving rapidly.
In fact, Cambodia this year canceled an exercise with U.S. forces, expelled a U.S. military aid unit and said it wanted to renegotiate a deal that has allowed the United States to repatriate hundreds of Cambodians convicted of offences there.
Hun Sen has also frequently emphasized what a good friend Cambodia now has in China.
(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)