In an unusually candid interview yesterday, United States Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt questioned whether the Cambodian government ever had “an honest desire” to form a relationship with the US, as Prime Minister Hun Sen continues to claim the superpower backed a purported “revolution”.
In a 40-minute interview with VOA Khmer, Heidt said the Kingdom has given the US “clear signals” over the last two years that they are “not interested in a positive relationship”.
“Since I came, let’s be honest, the Khmer government has taken a lot of steps against the US,” Heidt said, pointing to the suspension of joint military exercises and the cancellation of a longstanding Navy Seabees humanitarian programme earlier this year as examples. “So I feel like there’s never been an honest desire by the Khmer government to have a good relationship with the United States.”
The comments are the strongest statements to come out of the US Embassy in Phnom Penh since a September press conference where Heidt denied accu-sations that the US had colluded with opposition leaders to overthrow the government.
The government has justified the imprisonment of opposition leader Kem Sokha and the dissolution of his Cambodia National Rescue Party by saying that it was conspiring with the US to undertake a so-called “colour revolution”. Meanwhile, Hun Sen and a host of senior leaders have repeatedly called attention in recent months to the American war legacy in Cambodia, ultimately leading the US government to withdraw funding to support the Cambodian Mine Action Center in the country’s east.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said Heidt’s remarks yesterday convey a “wrong assumption” and could “inflame” the relationship between the two countries.
“We want to keep everyone as friends, not foes. The ambassador sends a signal wrongly as to what Cambodia expects from the US,” Siphan said.
Siphan added that while the government still believes the US conspired to topple it, those alleged nefarious actors may have been specific groups within the US, rather than the government “as a whole”.
As the divide between the US and Cambodia seemed yesterday to grow ever wider, Prime Minister Hun Sen arrived in Beijing to attend a four-day political forum held by China’s ruling Communist Party.
Sry Thamrong, an aide to Hun Sen, said the premier hopes to use the trip to attract Chinese investment for roads, bridges and a proposed Skytrain. The delegation includes tycoon Kith Meng, Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong, Minister for Public Works and Transportation Sun Chanthol, Minister of Commerce Pan Sorasak and Council for the Development of Cambodia head Sok Chanda Sophea.
According to government news agency Agence Kampuchea Presse, Hun Sen will also deliver a speech on “independence against foreign interference”.
Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University’s College of Asean Community Studies, said Heidt’s comments could be a sign of Washington’s waning patience with Cambodia’s tilt toward China.
“It is reasonable to say that Washington is in the process of ‘throwing in the towel’ in terms of trying to get along with the Cambodian strongman,” Chambers said in an email. “Hun Sen himself could wind up in the eye of the storm of a burgeoning East Asian Cold War between the US and China.”
University of New South Wales professor and regional security analyst Carl Thayer said relations between the two countries are on a “downward trajectory” despite assurances from both sides that they are seeking friendly relations.
“There is no way back at the moment in repairing US-Cambodia relations,” Thayer said. In his interview, Heidt also criticised the dissolution of the CNRP and addressed the US’s decision to withdraw $1.8 million in funding from the National Election Committee.
“We just didn’t feel like the next election . . . could be truly free and fair,” Heidt said. “That’s not something we wanted to do, but it’s important for us to support things that are truly leading to democracy and we didn’t feel that was.”
Additional reporting by Ben Sokhean
Updated Thursday, 30 November, 6:47am.