The Cambodian government expressed “dismay” yet remained defiant yesterday in the face of a US decision to cut aid to the Kingdom in response to its ongoing political crackdown, saying it would not comply with demands to restore the forcibly dissolved opposition CNRP.
In a statement, government spokesman Phay Siphan defended Cambodia’s track record as a liberal democracy and called the US decision “dishonest”.
“This is a sanction on the people who love real democracy,” Siphan said, adding that the government would continue to fight “foreign interference and colonisation”.
The White House announced late on Tuesday that it would curtail several assistance programs supporting the Cambodian military, the Tax Department and local government in an effort to persuade the government to release jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha and restore his Cambodia National Rescue Party. The CNRP – the country’s only viable opposition party – was forced to disband over widely decried accusations that it was plotting a “revolution” with the help of the US and EU.
Asked yesterday whether the Kingdom would comply, Siphan laughed. “We cannot sell our sovereignty and rule of law to any foreigner,” he said.
Political analysts yesterday were doubtful about the impact of the cuts, which the White House said would not affect health, agriculture or de-mining projects.
Astrid Noren-Nilsson, an expert in Cambodian politics at Lund University, said the measures were largely symbolic.
“In economic terms, it will be felt to some extent by the government, but won’t change the game like dropping preferential trade agreements might through threatening garment industry jobs,” she said in an email.
Ou Virak, director of the Future Forum think tank, agreed the calculated sanctions are unlikely to persuade the Cambodian government to change course. However, “I think it’s a sign that more consequences could come that have more impact,” Virak said.
Cambodia could be swayed if the US uses its influence on the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other countries like Australia and Japan to ramp up the pressure, Virak said.
In a speech yesterday morning, Prime Minister Hun Sen did not directly address the cuts but told audience members not to worry about countries that “leave us and don’t help us once there is a problem”.
“When Pol Pot killed us, who came and helped us?” the premier asked. “They did not help. They helped Pol Pot at the United Nations.”
He added Cambodia, as a member of the UN and Asean, “has one vote as well, so we do not always depend on them – they also depend on us”.
However, political analyst Meas Nee said that the aid provided by the US and European Union remains significant, even though China has become the Kingdom’s largest foreign donor.
“It will affect development and trade” if both the US and EU impose sanctions, Nee said. “It’s typical for the West that when one country imposes sanctions, the other countries will impose them as well.”
John Harley Breen, a researcher at the London School of Economic’s Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, said the sanctions could backfire by feeding into the government’s rhetoric that the US is trying to interfere in Cambodia’s domestic affairs.
“This reinforces the government’s position on the need for greater authority and control,” said Breen, who emphasised that he was speaking in a personal capacity.
US officials yesterday remained tight-lipped about which programs or how much funding was being cut. Arend Zwartjes, spokesman for the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, said the embassy was not releasing any further details.
A US Treasury spokesman said one of projects being curtailed was a technical assistance program, of which there are three in Cambodia – one focused on helping the Ministry of Economy and Finance set its monetary policy, one strengthening banking supervision and one developing a life insurance program.
Kong Vibol, the head of the Ministry of Economy and Finance’s Tax Department, hung up on a reporter yesterday.
Siphan, the government spokesman, said he did not know which programs would be cut but claimed that they would mostly affect NGOs, not the Cambodian government, despite the US specifically stating that aid for “civil society” would not be affected.
In a statement yesterday, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the decision was within the US’s rights.
However, he added that the decision was “within the framework of a US policy that withdraws aid from Unesco, pulls out of climate change agreements in Paris and cuts aid from other countries around the world”.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhonn declined to comment about the situation on the sidelines of an annual closed-door ministry meeting yesterday.
However, Secretary of State Ouch Borith said in a speech before the meeting that Western countries and other superpowers had created a “political storm” last year in an attempt to sow chaos in Cambodian society, without specifying the countries to which he was referring.
The superpowers, Borith said, “intend to force the government to follow the pattern of their politics by trading the national conscience to serve foreign interests”.