In a speech to 65 senior government officials yesterday, Cambodia’s acting foreign affairs minister said this month had been “the worst” so far in the history of Cambodia-US relations.
“Our relationship seems to be difficult,” said Ouch Borith, who is second-in-command at the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Citing the widely condemned arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha – over accusations of a purported US-backed plot to foment revolution – as well as the closure of US-backed and -owned independent media outlets and the dispute over deportations of Cambodian citizens living in the US, Borith said this month had been a “hot” one for the two countries.
“We are concerned about only one thing – that there is a push in the US Congress to impose economic sanctions,” Borith said. “That is a huge market . . . If the US goes, the US will take the EU with it as well.”
Borith echoed Prime Minister Hun Sen and other top officials in criticising the US for deporting Cambodian residents who were convicted of felonies despite many of them having lived in the US as refugees since they were children.
“[The deportees] were sentenced and did their time for five or six years already, and now they are sent to Cambodia,” Borith said. “It seems like that they are being punished twice. Some do not speak Khmer, our officials have interviewed them. And once we asked them, they are Vietnamese, Thais and sometimes Laotians,” he said.
Speaking at a celebration of the 24th anniversary of the Cambodian Constitution, Borith said the ministry was working to promote the garment industry to consumers outside of the US in case the administration of President Donald Trump imposed economic sanctions.
“Not having visas is not a problem – it won’t kill us,” he said, referring to a recent visa ban imposed by the US on certain Foreign Affairs officials in response to the Kingdom’s suspension in accepting the deportees.
Borith also defended the government’s actions in shuttering the US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the American-owned newspaper the Cambodia Daily, both of which he said had “violated the law”.
He said the NDI in particular had failed to register on time with the ministry under a 2015 law governing NGOs – a claim that the US Embassy in Phnom Penh has refuted.
The US Embassy declined to comment yesterday, referring reporters instead to a statement delivered by US Ambassador William Heidt earlier this month in which he noted that the events of the past month “aren’t hurting the United States, they are hurting Cambodia”.