Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - With Trump, Congress takes lead on Kingdom



With Trump, Congress takes lead on Kingdom

US Democratic Representative from California Alan Lowenthal speaks at a press conference last year in Washington DC. Nicholas Kamm/AFP
US Democratic Representative from California Alan Lowenthal speaks at a press conference last year in Washington DC. Nicholas Kamm/AFP

With Trump, Congress takes lead on Kingdom

US President Donald Trump’s evident lack of interest in promoting human rights abroad will put Congress’s own Southeast Asia policies to the test as Prime Minister Hun Sen continues his pre-election crackdown, according to a new article published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Pointing to the relative geopolitical insignificance of mainland Southeast Asia since the end of the Cold War, CFR senior fellow Joshua Kurlantzick notes that executive branch of the United States has largely left regional policy in the hands of Congress.

As a result, Congress has occasionally taken a stronger line on Cambodia than the White House. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, was critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen even when former President Barack Obama worked to boost military cooperation with Phnom Penh.

But the Trump administration’s propensity to ignore rights issues could make Congress’s work more difficult, Kurlantzick argues.

“Pushing for a continued focus on rights in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian nations will be complicated if the executive branch rhetorically downplays rights, as it seems to have done by presenting the State Department’s annual human rights report without an in-person introduction from the secretary of state,” Kurlantzick writes.

“Two key tests of whether Capitol Hill is paying attention will come in Cambodia and the Philippines.”

One of those tests will be whether Republican leaders are willing to criticise Hun Sen, even as the prime minister compares himself to Trump, Kurlantzick says. Recently, Hun Sen has used Trump’s rhetorical attacks on the media, and his sidelining of certain outlets, to justify his own threats against critical journalists and free speech.

But according to Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of New South Wales, Republican congressmen have demonstrated a willingness to oppose Trump on important foreign policy issues.

“I don’t think the role of Congress will change at all because the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Forces Committees have senators who don’t owe their position to Trump,” Thayer said. “Look at how they are showing their independence over Russia.”

Likewise, Southeast Asia expert Greg Raymond noted that Congress’s approach to human rights is generally personality-driven. Last year, a bipartisan Congressional Cambodia Caucus formed to educate Congress about the political situation in the Kingdom. But Sophal Ear, an associate professor at Occidental College, said it’s likely Congress will “defer to the new administration”.

“They have to thread the needle and avoid offending the White House while still speaking truth to power,” Ear said. “Obviously, it’s tough.”

Trump, meanwhile, in a recent budget draft, proposed a funding cut of 28 percent for the State Department and USAID.

A weak and defunded State Department, Thayer noted yesterday, could derail US influence in the Kingdom, and give Hun Sen the freedom to threaten the opposition. “Hun Sen can shoot his mouth off all he wants,” Thayer said. “Cambodia isn’t important enough to get a Trump tweet.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Cambodia on the verge of national tragedy, WHO warns

    The World Health Organisation (WHO) in Cambodia warned that the country had reached another critical point amid a sudden, huge surge in community transmission cases and deaths. “We stand on the brink of a national tragedy because of Covid-19. Despite our best efforts, we are

  • Phnom Penh curfew starts today

    A two-week curfew from 8pm to 5am starts today in Phnom Penh, a day after a sub-decree detailing administrative measures to contain Covid-19 was issued by Prime Minister Hun Sen. “Travelling in Phnom Penh is temporally banned between 8pm and 5am,” said Phnom Penh governor

  • Vaccination open to foreigners in Cambodia

    The Ministry of Health on April 8 issued an announcement on Covid-19 vaccination for foreigners residing and working in Cambodia, directing the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training and local authorities to register them. Health minister Mam Bun Heng, who is also head of the inter-ministerial

  • Cambodia gears up for muted New Year festival

    The recent curfew and restrictions imposed in the capital and other Covid-19 hotspots were intended to break the chain of transmission, Ministry of Health spokeswoman Or Vandine said as municipal and provincial authorities issued new directives banning certain activities during the upcoming Khmer New Year

  • Culture ministry: Take Tuol Sleng photos down, or else

    The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has told Irish photographer Matt Loughrey to take down the photos of Khmer Rouge victims at Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum which he allegedly colourised and altered to show them smiling. The ministry said Loughrey's work is unacceptable, affecting

  • Covid-19 vaccination now obligatory

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on April 11 issued a sub-decree making Covid-19 vaccination compulsory for individuals unless they have a medical certificate proving they have pre-existing health conditions that prevent them from doing so. «This applies to all members of the armed forces and civil servants