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US diplomat gets his final say

Outgoing US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli finds Cambodia 'mesmerising' but says much still needs to be done to bring good governance to the Kingdom


US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli at the National Museum for an official ceremony on August 18.


Joseph Adamo Mussomeli

  • Born May 26, 1952, in New York City
  • Education Spent two years at Rutgers University before dropping out and becoming an upholsterer. Spent several months hitchhiking through Europe before returning to the US and graduating from Trenton State College in 1975 with a BA in political science. In 1978 he received a juris doctor degree from Rutgers Law School.
  • Career Mussomeli entered the US Foreign Service in September 1980 and has served in Cairo, Egypt, as a general service officer. He served in Manila as a consular officer from 1984-1986. His subsequent tours included: North Korea Desk Officer (1986-1988); Senior Watch Officer (1989-1990); Economic Counsellor in Colombo, Sri Lanka (1990-1992); and Inspector for the Office of Inspector General (1992-1994); Political Counsellor in Rabat, Morocco (1995-1998); Deputy Chief of Mission in Manama, Bahrain (1998-2001); and as a member of the Senior Seminar (2001-2002). He concluded a tour as Deputy Chief of Mission in the Philippines (2002-2005) before being named the US ambassador to Cambodia in June 2004.
  • Family Married to Sharon Flack Mussomeli, who is also a foreign service officer. They have three children: Isaac, age 24, Alexis, age 22, and Thomas, 4, who was adopted in the Philippines.

Source: US Embassy Phnom Penh Website

During your time here, you've often met Prime Minister Hun Sen. What's your impression of him?

He's smart. He's down to earth. You can talk bluntly with him, as long as you are not obnoxious. We've disagreed quite forcefully on several things, but it's OK. I think perhaps like other prime ministers and presidents and even ambassadors, he doesn't always get all the information he needs - bad news especially is held back and that's not good. But we get along very well on a personal level. His sense of humour is almost as terrible as mine. He does have a strong emotional streak, but lots of people do. So, yeah, I like him.

He is the region's longest-serving elected leader and says he'll stay on as long as people want him. Some even think his son, Hun Manet, will take over after him. Does that worry you?

Not necessarily because of Hun Manet - you know, there are some good historical, even Asian examples of next-generation leaders who really carry out the reforms that the older generation shied away from. And most of the next generation here, whether you are talking about the PM's son or the DPM's or anyone else's, are Western-educated. So there are all sorts of possibilities. But, yes, it's true that you don't know if you have a real democracy until you have a peaceful transfer of power.

So we don't know if there's real democracy here, and many disagree with your view that last month's election was the freest ever held in Cambodia. How do you respond?

It was a flawed election. Nobody says otherwise. We were careful not to say it was free and fair. We just said it was the best so far. And the best so far doesn't mean it's good enough. But we don't think it's productive to keep harping on the fact that it's not good enough. After all, there were some really good things about this election. The lack of violence for the most part. The greater access to the media, although completely inadequate still.

The CPP would have won the election anyway, even if there had been equal access to the media [for the opposition], but I think the numbers would have been considerably different. They would still have had an absolute majority, but that isn't what they wanted. So they don't get a passing grade on media access. It still needs more openness.... I always say that modern Cambodia is only a 15-year old country. Give it some time. It's still an adolescent. It's still developing. And it is very special.

After the war, with the help of the United Nations, it did resurrect itself. And we, as members of the UN, have a stake in its future.

Where do we go from here, now that the CPP has a healthy majority?

Well, they are in charge of everything now. There are two upsides to that. First, if things go well, the CPP gets most of the credit. But if things go wrong, whether on human rights or economically or whatever, it's their fault. There's no one else to blame now.

The second upside is that it could help stop some of the corruption. Now you have a majority on your own; you don't have to give things to people to get them to join a coalition government. You don't have to play fast and loose so much in order to stay in power.

The downside, however, is even more obvious. Nobody in their right mind wants any party, in any country, whether it's America or England or wherever, to be too powerful. It just goes against our democratic instincts. We don't trust people with power. It can make them too hubristic, too arrogant, too confident. And that can cause trouble.

Will the opposition help curb that potential for trouble?

The opposition is committed and determined. Sam Rainsy in particular is a very smart man. He has many good ideas. And he's also clearly a very patient and resilient man, which is good. But I don't know what the future will bring. There's a whole new generation waiting out there, and they will be so different from their fathers and grandfathers.

We really have a bifurcated country here. We have those who suffered through the genocide of the civil war and the foreign invasions. And we have this new generation, more than 50 percent of the population, who don't know any of that. So it's going to be an interesting place for the next 10 to 20 years.

Over that time, do you think the Cambodian economy will continue to do well?

It has some vulnerabilities, but then people have long said that. When I first arrived here three years ago, they said it was going to be a mess - that the garment industry was going to collapse, tourism was going to be saturated and agriculture was destined to have a bad crop. None of that has happened yet. Of course, I'm still worried about all those things, but for now, it isn't going too badly. If we could expand and diversify the economy, it would do even better.

Diversifying the economy seems to have been a dream for a long time.

Well, we now have a window of opportunity because Cambodia is stable enough to be rediscovered, at least for Americans, and to generate more interest in business. Now that Vietnam and Thailand are getting more expensive and are more difficult to work with sometimes, this country is becoming very tempting. And it has good potential because Cambodians themselves make it more attractive. They all want to speak English. They have no sense of xenophobia that you find to the east and west. It's a pleasant place for business.

So you encourage American businessmen to come here?

Yes. Of course, there will be a very frank talk about corruption and how to avoid it. And about engaging early on with the highest levels of government in case you run into trouble. Because the last thing the government here wants is complaints from American business and the American government that there is extortion or blackmail.

Is the corruption situation improving?

I wouldn't say it's improving, that's too pollyanna-ish. I think the government has the political desire to tackle corruption, but I'm not sure they have the political will. They know that it is bad and that they aren't going to be able to take this country where they want to take it with this amount of corruption. But actually dealing with it, on a practical basis, is much harder.

Why is that?

Well, you don't really have a rule of law here. So when you say corruption, you almost miss the mark. It's really a culture of individuals with power and money, rather than a culture of law. And that's what makes any sane businessman nervous. What you want is an independent judiciary that understands contracts and enforces things. And you don't even have that for the most part.

The culture of impunity is still too deeply embedded. The atmosphere is better now and people feel more relaxed and there's a more normal society developing, but I wish I could have pushed that along more. When I talk about this, I always tell the Cambodians that we put around 600 US government officials in jail every year for corruption. It reminds me that we also have a corrupt society and that we are doing the right thing about it. We're putting them in jail. There's no shame in admitting corruption; the shame is in denying it and not doing something about it.

How are US-Cambodia relations?

Getting better. After 50 years of misunderstanding and suspicion, we're laying a foundation for a healthy, normal, multifaceted relationship. The Cambodians are incredibly helpful on issues that matter to us. On counterterrorism, nobody tries harder than the Cambodians. And on counternarcotics, health issues, the return of remains from the Vietnam era and so on, they're a model for much of the region.

It is nice that we have had tangible progress. And it is good that we can talk openly and frankly with this government and this people and not be so misunderstood as in the past. But it would be foolish to be too optimistic because the underlying suspicions and distrust are still there. It's going to take at least another 10 years of commitment and focus from both sides for it to be a really good relationship.

Hun Sen has never visited Washington, and no American president has ever visited Cambodia. Why?

You're right. One of the things that is really missing in the relationship is bilateral engagement. While it's good to have ship visits, which we got for the first time since the war, and to have the Peace Corps here, and to have a trade and investment framework agreement and so on, Cambodia really wants more recognition from the United States.

High-level delegations, not necessarily a presidential visit here, but maybe a visit the other way to Washington, that would do well. We've never had a high-level visit, although we may soon get Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.

On a person level, have you enjoyed your time here?

Very much. Even if I had not been ambassador, this would have been my favourite tour. Cambodia is so different and so mesmerising - the people, the culture, the country. It is just very special. I've travelled to all the provinces, and I have a map in my office with all the flags in it showing where I've been. I'm leaving it for my successor [Carole Rodley] so she'll be jealous.

So you will leave feeling pretty positive about this place?

Yes. Cambodia has the potential to be a different Asian country. It was so broken, and it then got such a commitment from other countries that it could remold and resurrect itself - so that it's still very Asian and at the same time more open and pluralistic and tolerant and Western-focused than Vietnam or Thailand or any of the others could ever be.

Interview by Roger Mitton



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