Prime Minister Hun Sen hit back yesterday in response to United States visa sanctions by saying Cambodia would no longer assist in finding and repatriating the remains of American soldiers who lost their lives during the Vietnam War.
The step follows a US ban imposed on Wednesday on certain visas for senior Foreign Ministry officials, which came in response to the Kingdom temporarily suspending a controversial 2002 agreement to receive citizens that the US wants to deport due to prior felony convictions.
“Cambodia suspends cooperating with the US in seeking US soldiers’ bones which went missing in Cambodia during the war,” Hun Sen said in a rare interview with government mouthpiece Fresh News.
Using a Khmer word for “bones”, rather than a more polite term translating to “body”, Hun Sen said the suspension would remain in place until relations between Cambodia and the US improved. Hun Sen has accused the US of plotting to topple the government, and used Kem Sokha’s alleged support from the American government to justify his arrest this month for “treason”.
“The soldiers who went missing [were] about 80 people. In the past, we found 40 people but there still remain 40 people [missing]. Therefore the cooperation in seeking [them] will have to be suspended and we will wait for a solution,” he said.
He cited humanitarian concerns to explain Cambodia’s temporary suspension of receiving deportees.
“[The deportations] are cruel and inhumane [and] caused some people to commit suicide,” he said.
The premier said the Foreign Affairs Ministry would send a diplomatic note outlining the suspension of assistance in searching for US remains on Cambodian soil.
Hun Sen’s stance was in contrast to Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn’s remarks yesterday. He struck a somewhat conciliatory tone in claiming the government would continue to accept deportees.
Sokhonn, along with Foreign Ministry officials ranked above director general and their families, is directly affected by the travel ban on US visas for business, tourism and medical treatment. “This is unfair, because firstly we have never fully suspended it, because Cambodia did not absolutely stop [accepting deportees], and it is not that Cambodia is opposed to receiving [them], but we are in the process of negotiating with each other,” he said at a press conference.
He said the Ministry of Interior was prepared to send a delegation to interview potential deportees in 26 pending cases. “We have not denied [accepting them], but they needed to be interviewed in order to know whether they are Cambodian or not, because in the past there were Vietnamese and Laotians and Thais who claimed to be Cambodian but they were not.”
A Foreign Ministry statement yesterday also stressed “Cambodia did not halt its cooperation nor deny/unreasonably delay accepting its nationals subject to be deported by the US”, and was “still prepared” to take them in.
The premier’s sudden announcement yesterday will likely impact groups like the Koh Tang/Mayaguez Veterans Organization, which is actively seeking the repatriation of US soldiers who perished during the “Mayaguez incident” at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in 1975.
Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said the move seemed “inexplicable”, as prisoners of war missing in action was a “highly emotive” issue in the US, and one Cambodia had cooperated on since 1991.
“For Hun Sen to cancel this out of the blue can only be seen as an expression of anger and spite about the limited visa restrictions imposed by the US State Department this week,” he said in an email.
“This is a poke in the eye to Washington. I’ve always maintained that Chinese support gives Hun Sen fairly ample scope for pushing back against the US, but this decision could come back to bite him.”
Bill Herod, founder of the Returnee Integration Support Centre (RISC), said while the exact number of deportees who had taken their own lives was unknown, it was likely six or higher.
But “the more significant number would be those who have been victims of ‘death by deportation’”, which Herod described as a hopelessness leading to drug overdoses and other reckless and fatal behaviour.
“While the two governments may not be able to agree on actual changes to the MoU of 2002, they may be able to agree on a much more aggressive approach to the case-by-case reviews permitting Cambodia to decline to accept individuals who, for example, have never lived in Cambodia or have spouses and children in the U.S.,” he said via email.