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US Democratic Representative from California Alan Lowenthal speaks at a press conference last year in Washington DC. Nicholas Kamm/AFP
US Democratic Representative from California Alan Lowenthal speaks at a press conference last year in Washington DC. Nicholas Kamm/AFP

With Trump, Congress takes lead on Kingdom

US President Donald Trump’s evident lack of interest in promoting human rights abroad will put Congress’s own Southeast Asia policies to the test as Prime Minister Hun Sen continues his pre-election crackdown, according to a new article published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Pointing to the relative geopolitical insignificance of mainland Southeast Asia since the end of the Cold War, CFR senior fellow Joshua Kurlantzick notes that executive branch of the United States has largely left regional policy in the hands of Congress.

As a result, Congress has occasionally taken a stronger line on Cambodia than the White House. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, was critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen even when former President Barack Obama worked to boost military cooperation with Phnom Penh.

But the Trump administration’s propensity to ignore rights issues could make Congress’s work more difficult, Kurlantzick argues.

“Pushing for a continued focus on rights in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian nations will be complicated if the executive branch rhetorically downplays rights, as it seems to have done by presenting the State Department’s annual human rights report without an in-person introduction from the secretary of state,” Kurlantzick writes.

“Two key tests of whether Capitol Hill is paying attention will come in Cambodia and the Philippines.”

One of those tests will be whether Republican leaders are willing to criticise Hun Sen, even as the prime minister compares himself to Trump, Kurlantzick says. Recently, Hun Sen has used Trump’s rhetorical attacks on the media, and his sidelining of certain outlets, to justify his own threats against critical journalists and free speech.

But according to Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of New South Wales, Republican congressmen have demonstrated a willingness to oppose Trump on important foreign policy issues.

“I don’t think the role of Congress will change at all because the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Forces Committees have senators who don’t owe their position to Trump,” Thayer said. “Look at how they are showing their independence over Russia.”

Likewise, Southeast Asia expert Greg Raymond noted that Congress’s approach to human rights is generally personality-driven. Last year, a bipartisan Congressional Cambodia Caucus formed to educate Congress about the political situation in the Kingdom. But Sophal Ear, an associate professor at Occidental College, said it’s likely Congress will “defer to the new administration”.

“They have to thread the needle and avoid offending the White House while still speaking truth to power,” Ear said. “Obviously, it’s tough.”

Trump, meanwhile, in a recent budget draft, proposed a funding cut of 28 percent for the State Department and USAID.

A weak and defunded State Department, Thayer noted yesterday, could derail US influence in the Kingdom, and give Hun Sen the freedom to threaten the opposition. “Hun Sen can shoot his mouth off all he wants,” Thayer said. “Cambodia isn’t important enough to get a Trump tweet.”

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