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US ambassador hopeful for Cambodia as mission ends

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Joseph Mussomeli cites economic growth, improved political climate as successes as he gets set to return to Washington

HENG CHIVOAN

Outgoing US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli and Prime Minister Hun Sen at a ceremony Monday.

CITING closer cooperation in a number of areas, including military and counter-terrorism measures, departing US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli bid farewell Monday to a diplomatic tour that he described as "by far the best" in his 28 years in the US Foreign Service.

"The sense of mutual respect, appreciation and even friendship between [America and Cambodia] is improving," he said.

He added, however, that "a few years of good relations can't really compensate for decades of misunderstandings and distrust", referring to the long thaw in relations that has taken place since Cambodia was a communist pariah state.

But while Mussomeli has never shied away from criticising Cambodia's most obvious flaws, he told reporters that the Kingdom's political and economic climates had improved fundamentally during his tenure.

"The new generation of Cambodians are not as easy to intimidate, not as easy to manipulate," he said, adding that Cambodia remains one of the "last frontiers" in Southeast Asia - a largely undiscovered country with vast potential in terms of future growth.

IT SEEMS LIKE THERE ARE TWO COUNTRIES OCCUPYING THE SAME SPACE.

In the last 18 months alone, four American business delegations, including majors such as General Electric, Microsoft and Carghill, have come to Cambodia in a development that Mussomeli said was "remarkable because before that, we had not had any US business delegations since before the Vietnam War".

He credited the Kingdom's market-friendly policies as one of the reasons why businesses from the US have been, over the course of his tour, slowly rediscovering Cambodia.  

 
No China contest

Mussomeli also downplayed the suggestion that the US and China are vying for influence in Cambodia.

"If there is one thing I would hope for in the future, that would be better coordination (among donors).... I would like to see in the future that China comes into that fold," he said, referring to the fact that China is not a member of the Consultative Group of donors - which includes European countries, Japan and the US.  

On the eve of his departure, the ambassador described his memories of the country as bittersweet and often contradictory.

Sometimes "it seems like there are two countries occupying the same space", he said, in an allusion Cambodia's  extremes of poverty and wealth.

Mussomeli introduced Piper Campbell as the temporary charge d'affair until his expected replacement, Carol Rodley, is sworn in by the US Senate.

That could happen, he said,  in a couple of months, but might possibly be delayed until next year.

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