THE United States is poised to give $7 million in support of the Cambodian elections.
The decision is likely to be made after the next "Friends of Cambodia"
meeting in Bangkok on April 19. Discussions are now being finalized in Washington.
The $7 million package - which may be an upper limit - will be heavily conditional
to ensure what the US now describes as "continuing improvement" in the
Kingdom's political climate.
The US State Department put aside the money in its 1997 budget, so it is therefore
legally able to circumvent the US aid freeze that followed the July coup, which relates
only to the 1998 aid budget. But the State Department has nevertheless been lobbying
Congress, which is warming to persuasion, sources say.
Most of the money is likely to be dumped into cash-starved NGOs like COFFEL, COMFREL,
human rights, electoral education and monitoring groups. But again, Congress may
be persuaded that at least some of the aid be given in technical assistance to the
Technically, the US dollars will not make the electoral process any quicker or safer.
But the announcement will be lauded by Phnom Penh as "proof" of full international
support for the polls, for the first time since the coup.
The US, by its absence, has till now been an implicit critic of those countries that
have been bullishly pushing the electoral process, particularly the EU and Japan.
The EU is spending $11 million on the elections. Japan is expected to give about
The US shift was flagged by State Department's Assistant Secretary for East Asian
and Pacific Affairs, Stan-ley Roth, at the March 6 "Friends" meeting in
But just eight days before Manila, Roth was telling a Senate sub-committee that there
was not enough improvement being made in Cambodia to justify US electoral aid. He
said then: "The political situation in Cambodia is grim."
Roth continued: "Only after it becomes clear that the Cambodian government has
taken the necessary steps to allow all opposition leaders to participate fully and
safely in the political process, and only after there is concrete progress to address
the problems of intimidation and impunity, will the Administration consider, and
consult with Congress, on direct election assistance."
Roth said that all the US was giving was another $200,000 to the UN Center for Human
Rights to "further expand its monitoring".
He spoke strongly of the "pervasive climate of intimidation" that "continues
to cloud prospects for a nonviolent, democratic political atmosphere".
But Roth surprised delegates in Manila eight days later by suddenly speaking favorably
of "improvements" within the Cambodian political climate.
One delegate told the Post: "We all looked up when [Roth] made reference
to the US decision to provide $7 million for the elections if progress continued.
"It was as though he tossed it in hoping it wouldn't be made too much of given
the hardline position the US has maintained all along."
Roth was "careful" in Manila to express his concern about human rights
abuses and intimidation in Cambodia, an issue on which the US has been consistently
In this regard, the timing of the US announcement will roughly coincide with one
of the most critical reports yet from the UNCHR, one that condemns a slew of recent
political executions and cases of intimidation and violence.
A spokesperson for the US Embassy in Phnom Penh referred all questions about US involvement
in Cambodia's elections to Washington.
Second Prime Minister Hun Sen's concession - under heavy internal and external pressure
- to allow Prince Norodom Rana-riddh to return after trial and pardon seemed to demand
a conciliatory gesture from the US.
Government sources said that CPP hardliners within Hun Sen's circle had spoken plainly
to the US that there was quid pro quo to Ranariddh's return.
There are probably bigger issues involved for Washington. The US lost many Asian
friends for what was perceived as its sluggish response to the region's economic
crisis. And there is still an abiding Western desire to view UNTAC's 1993 intervention
as a successful one. Giving electoral support now to Cambodia is one way of mitigating
the former and consolidating the latter, said a Washington insider.
But still the anticipated US gesture of support was twisted by the presence of former
congressman Steven Solarz during the Prince's brief stay in Phnom Penh.
The US Embassy said that So-larz was visiting as a private individual. He did not
represent the US, and any views he expressed while here were his own.
But for many within the CPP "it was a very confusing message in their heads",
said one government source.
"However much the US explained to the CPP that Solarz was here as a private
citizen to provide moral safety to Rana-riddh, his presence was interpreted by the
CPP politburo as US support for Ranariddh."
"Within CPP they were saying that if the US takes sides then that's it, it's
over for Ranariddh.
"That's why there will be this gesture for the US to engage in the elections.
The CPP have paid a price for getting the US to back this process. The party allowed
Ranariddh to come back - they had to get something in return."