US lawmakers yesterday called for direct aid to Cambodia to be cut if the July 28 election is not judged “free and fair”, signalling growing frustration that US aid dollars have not led to increased democratisation in the Kingdom.
Republican US Representative Steve Chabot, who heads the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, said Cambodia’s fifth election would be held under a “false veil of democracy”.
“US policy toward Cambodia needs to change, and the Obama administration needs to take a much tougher approach to Asia’s longest-ruling dictator,” he said.
Chabot added that he was planning on introducing legislation to cut aid if the elections are deemed less than democratic.
“Cutting off direct aid to the Cambodian government, specifically foreign military financing and international military education and training funding, is a tangible action the US can take to show its condemnation of the upcoming fallacious and undemocratic election.”
Speaking at a hearing none-too-subtly titled Cambodia’s Looming Political and Social Crisis, Chabot’s words come little more than a month after a pair of US senators urged that aid to the Kingdom be reconsidered.
According to international development organisation USAID, the US provided Cambodia with more than $1.2 billion in aid between 1993 and 2011, with $73.5 million already earmarked for 2014.
Speaking yesterday, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong reasserted Cambodia’s sovereignty, saying the Kingdom is unconcerned with the lawmakers’ words and that “the fate of Cambodia” would be decided by its own people.
“Whether the US helps Cambodia or not is up to the US,” he said, speaking to the press after signing a $200 million loan agreement with South Korea. “They can say whatever they want, but any decision on the future of Cambodia is in the hands of the Cambodian people.”
Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong added that the hearing was not reflective of the US government’s views.
“These are one or two congressmen who are not representative of the whole US government policy, and they have no right to make any decision on the fate of Cambodia,” he said.
US embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh refused to comment on the hearings directly, but said the State Department “shared concerns” with the members of Congress on the “situation of Cambodia”.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch who testified at the hearing, placed blame for Cambodia’s lack of democratic development squarely at the foot of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“The problem is not one of habit or inertia. Rather, it is the result of particular political facts – a particular person and a particular party: Cambodia’s ruler, Hun Sen, and his party, the Cambodian People’s Party,” he said.
That sentiment was echoed by California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a senior member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
“It is time for Hun Sen to go. Hun Sen is a corrupt, vicious human being who has held that country in his grip for decades,” he said.
However Daniel Mitchell, CEO of investment firm SRP International Group and a board member of the American Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia, urged increased US investment in Cambodia as the path to improving human rights.
“To affect human rights, the US government and business should engage rather than shy away from opportunities in Cambodia,” Mitchell told the hearing.
US Representative Eni Faleomavaega, a Democrat, also slammed proposals to cut aid, advocating instead that debt accrued during the US-supported Lon Nol regime – now totalling with interest close to $460 million – to be forgiven.
“I believe that the United States needs to make right what we have done wrong in Southeast Asia . . . History shows that the US has failed Cambodia miserably,” he said.
Licadho legal consultant Eva Schueller, who also testified, heavily condemned the use of state forces by private companies in carrying out violent forced evictions and urged the US to cut military aid to Cambodia.
“We have been extremely concerned in the last few years on military aid and the cooperation between the US and Cambodia. And so for us, this was an important [opportunity] to focus [on that],” Licadho Director Naly Pilorge said.
Patrick Merloe, director of electoral programs at the National Democratic Institute, pointed to last month’s expulsion of opposition members from the National Assembly, proposed restrictions on foreign media, and voter-list irregularities as reasons why a “redoubling” of US support for democratic initiatives is needed.
Representative Chabot and others also raised concerns that opposition leader Sam Rainsy could be placed in prison if he returns from self-exile before the election, as he has pledged to do.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong, however, painted Rainsy’s case as a judicial issue, and one that would have no effect on the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s ability to participate in the election.
“Whether Sam Rainsy returns or not, it will not affect the electoral process. His party is working smoothly without him.”
Tep Nytha, secretary-general at the National Election Committee, said the representatives’ remarks came as no surprise, emphasising the NEC –which was criticised at the hearing for its lack of impartiality – was abiding by its constitutional mandate.
“We hold elections in Cambodia to choose our parliamentarians . . . So why does the US analyse this issue?” he said.
“Maybe it’s a US habit.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY REUTERS