Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday called on the US Congress to put its money where its mouth is and cut foreign aid to Cambodia if it deemed elections illegitimate, insinuating that the Kingdom would easily supplant it with funds from China.
Congressional hearings in Washington in June examined the possibility of cutting off financial support to Cambodia should elections fail to be free and fair, but Hun Sen maintained that he was unfazed by such ultimatums.
Analysts, however, cautioned that turning away from the US in favour of China would not be without consequences.
“This is the word from a few US congressmen and the US Senate, which is not representative of the voice of US citizens and Obama’s government,” Hun Sen said on Friday, before telling Congress “don’t talk so much – cut it off”.
The premier went on to say that the government was uninterested in the aid – which he pegged at $50 million a year – and said that the real victims would be NGOs and beneficiaries of US-funded anti-HIV/AIDS and anti-tuberculosis programs.
Hun Sen also scoffed at US military aid, which he said amounted to some $1 million per year, and recalled an incident in which the US held off on a promised shipment of 100 military vehicles over human rights concerns about a group of Uighur asylum seekers, “but when China saw it, China gave 257 vehicles instead of the US”.
According to US State Department figures, total US aid to Cambodia hovers closer to $70 million, and Carlyle Thayer, a Cambodia expert and professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales, placed US military aid at closer to $6 million.
Broad cuts, he noted in an email, would “impact on the most vulnerable and marginalised members of Cambodian society”, but that “aid could still be channelled to NGOs”.
“Hun Sen’s dare to the US Congress reflects his personal belief that he is in command of Cambodia and can maintain independence from foreign pressures,” Thayer said, noting that the tough talk could have political consequences. “Hun Sen’s rejection of US aid will further polarise Cambodian society.”
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay expressed similar views.
“That kind of posture has contributed to the public’s dissatisfaction with his rule already, as seen through the elections,” he said, noting a historical parallel in Hun Sen’s lambasting of UNTAC after losing UN-run elections in 1993.
Since the 1980s, he continued, “Cambodians have swung towards the West, and especially America”, and despite “massive aid and investment [from] the Chinese, I think many Cambodians cannot yet wipe out from their memory Chinese assistance to the Khmer Rouge”.
The situation, he added, was reminiscent of Aesop’s fable of the fox who, after finding himself unable to reach a bunch of grapes, remarks that they must have been sour anyway.
“I think that might be a bit like our leader,” he said.