Prime Minister Hun Sen and tax chief Kong Vibol accused the US of lying about cutting assistance to Cambodia, claiming that one of the programs on the chopping block hasn’t existed since 2016.
In a speech to garment workers in the Sihanoukville SEZ on Saturday, Hun Sen said the US was “cutting air”, not aid.
“They do not give us this aid, but then they announce they will cut this aid,” the premier said, adding later that “in the past, there was only fake news, but now there is fake embassy”.
Cambodian officials have remained defiant after the White House announced last week it would cut several assistance programs in the Kingdom due to the ongoing political crackdown, which has seen the country’s only viable opposition party forcibly dissolved.
US officials have declined to specify which programs are being cut, saying only they are targeting areas of the Cambodian government directly involved in the political crackdown, including the Tax Department.
In a letter to the Tax Department two days after the announcement, US Ambassador William Heidt said the US “has suspended capacity building support to the [Tax Department] and its officials”.
Vibol responded the same day in a fiery public letter in which he said all aid programs with the US had ended in 2016, pointing out that Heidt had personally attended the closing ceremony of the last project.
“I am starting to feel that Your Excellency Ambassador is trying to make up the political issues,” reads the letter, which goes on to accuse Heidt of providing “biased and wrong information to the [US] State Department and the US government about the situation in Cambodia”.
The US is also cutting or reducing programs supporting the Cambodian military and local government. However, projects “in support of the Cambodian people” – including those in health, agriculture and mine clearance – will not be affected, according to the White House.
In his speech on Saturday, Hun Sen called on the ambassador to clarify. “Do you intend to ruin the reputation of Cambodia by saying that you are the aid donor and that you cut the aid because you are not satisfied?” he asked.
However, the premier added he still intends to maintain “good relations” with the US, which he has accused of colluding with the now-dissolved opposition to foment “revolution”.
“I do not look down on His Excellency [Ambassador Heidt],” he said. “But His Excellency lied and has done something bad and lied to my people, so I have an obligation to clarify and explain for them.”
US embassy spokesman Arend Zwartjes today clarified the US position on assistance to the tax department, saying that while the most recent US assistance at the General Department of Taxation (DGT) concluded in December 2016, additional requests meant planning had been ongoing.
"We received several requests from the government to continue assistance activities at the GDT, which were under consideration until recently," he said. "However, as the February 27 White House statement indicated, the U.S. Government suspended assistance to the DGT as well as several other foreign assistance programs in Cambodia."