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US cuts aid to Cambodia with aim to ‘urge government to reconsider its current course’

White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks at the press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 22. Nicholas Kamm/AFP
White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks at the press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 22. Nicholas Kamm/AFP

US cuts aid to Cambodia with aim to ‘urge government to reconsider its current course’

The White House is cutting aid to several assistance programs in Cambodia due to “recent setbacks to democracy”, it announced late Tuesday.

Some programs supporting Cambodia’s Tax Department, military and local government will be cut or reduced “to ensure that American taxpayer funds are not being used to support anti-democratic behavior”, according to a statement from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Cambodia has been the subject of international outcry since its only viable opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was forcibly dissolved at the government’s behest in November.

Its leader, Kem Sokha, was arrested over accusations of treason two months prior, and many of the party’s officials have fled the country fearing arrest.

It is not clear which programs or how much funding will be cut. A State Department spokesperson said on Tuesday that officials would communicate specifics “directly to the affected entities within the Government of Cambodia at the earliest opportunity”.

“We urge the Cambodian government to reconsider its current course,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Specifically, the government should release jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha, reinstate his party, the CNRP, and allow civil society and the media to continue their legitimate activities.”

Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn hung up on a reporter last night and did not answer subsequent calls. Government spokesman Phay Siphan and Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry could not be reached.

Patrick Murphy, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Southeast Asia, chimed in on Twitter after the cuts were announced. “Cambodia has achieved a great deal over the past two decades; recent setbacks to democracy are unnecessary, and a source of deep international concern,” he said.

The move was welcomed by self-exiled former CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua, who has repeatedly called on the international community to impose sanctions on Cambodia.

“[Restoring] democracy needs stringent and timely actions,” Sochua said in a message. “We are encouraged to see the international community making joint efforts to give the Government a chance to get back on the track of genuine democracy.”

However, political analyst Sebastian Strangio expressed scepticism about the measures and said it would likely harden the Cambodian government’s position.

“Everything they’ve done has made clear that they have no intention of going back, that they’re determined to reset the status quo and fundamentally recalibrate Cambodian political life,” Strangio said.

“You can force the government to take certain measures, but it’s very hard to force them to adopt a democratic mindset,” he added. “They’ve never had that. The most you get is temporary accommodation.”

The programs on the chopping block fall under the US Treasury, USAID and the US military, according to the White House. Projects “in support of the Cambodian people” – including those in health, agriculture and mine clearance – will not be affected.

The State Department spokesperson said the US is focusing on targeting actors who played an active role in the recent crackdown, such as the Cambodian Tax Department, which opened “politically motivated tax investigations against independent media outlets”, an apparent reference to the closure of the Cambodia Daily.

The spokesperson also cited “troubling” statements made by senior Cambodian military leaders about using violence in relation to elections, potentially in reference to threats from leaders like Defence Minister Tea Banh, who threatened to “smash the teeth” of any protesters who contested election results.

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