Running late and drenched in sweat, United States Ambassador Joseph Mus-someli
strode into tiny Prek Phdao village and dove into a sea of fidgeting
Minister of Health Nuth Sokhom, far left behind monk, and Sharon Mussomeli, right, wife of US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli, hand out Vitamin A capsules on March 27 in Prek Phdao village, Battambang province.
It was the morning of March 27 and Mussomeli, his wife Sharon,
and Minister of Health Nuth Sokhom, were mobbed by anxious onlookers as they
arrived at a festive Takream commune "field visit," some 20 km outside
The event, called the Community Based Vitamin A
Distribution Project - sponsored by the Reproductive Health Association of
Cambodia (RHAC) and funded by the US Agency for International Development (US
AID) - was organized to dispense Vitamin A capsules to the more than 500 mothers
and children on hand.
The officials did their part: wading graciously
through the throng, cooing over infants and even coercing a few to swallow
supplements. Described by Mussomeli as "having the appropriate amount of chaos,"
the event concluded with speeches and an ad hoc press conference.
mothers left with tidy bags of baby vitamins, the health officials praised the
ongoing battle to reduce infant mortality and the trip was declared another
positive step in the relationship between the US and the Ministry of
"We work together with the Ministry of Health better than any
other ministry," Mussomeli told the Post. "I say, half-jokingly, that if we had
the same relationship with the other ministries that we have with the Ministry
of Health, Cambodia would be our closest relationship in Asia."
RHAC junket provided more than health material and photo opportunities - it also
offered a close-up look at the frontlines of the rapidly evolving US diplomatic
mission in Cambodia.
Such US-backed health initiatives - call it Vitamin
Diplomacy - are just one part of what the US Embassy in Phnom Penh is calling
the "general broadening and strengthening of the American-Cambodian bilateral
Beginning with the unveiling of a $60 million
state-of-the-art embassy and the appointment of a vocal ambassador with regional
experience, 2006 has witnessed an undeniable expansion of the US presence in
Cambodia. Already second only to Japan in donor assistance and dominating 71.4
percent of Cambodia's garment exports - which account for more than 40 percent
of GDP - some observers are concerned that the growing US presence will
translate into increased political influence and the promotion of a foreign
One senior political analyst referred to America's assistance
policy as "ideologically motivated" and claimed that the administration of US
President George W Bush "has an agenda to transform nations around the
"We see a window of opportunity," Mussomeli said. "It's an
optimistic period but also one for caution. What we're trying to do is move fast
and seriously. What Cambodia needs is two or three years of real stability and
rapprochement, with respect for political parties - something this country
hasn't had. It would give us time to sink deep roots."
In the last month
the US has announced that the Peace Corps will begin first-ever operations in
Cambodia, confirmed that the FBI will soon open an office in Phnom Penh, and
hinted at the possibility of visits from US warships.
"The FBI office
will be here in the next couple of months," Mussomeli said. "They're officially
called 'LGATs' but it's just what the FBI are called overseas. I don't call them
LGAT because people think they're lawyers."
According to a US Embassy
official, the Legal Attache (LGAT) office will work with Cambodian law
enforcement on human trafficking, counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism. The
office will also provide support and training to Cambodian
"Military assistance is still dependent on the tier ranking in
persons trafficking," Mussomeli said. "The assessment is being done now and
we're optimistic that Cambodia will be off of Tier 3."
The US State
Department will release its final determination of Cambodia's TIP tier ranking
in June. Mussomeli said that if the country is removed from the lowest Tier 3 -
where it languishes with the likes of Myanmar, Bolivia and Sudan - military aid
could resume in the form of training, exchange programs and US military-run
"Ultimately, it would mean a ship visit or two - which we
haven't had here since 1975," he said.
On March 31, the US signed a $14.4
million agreement with the Ministry of Interior to "enhance democratic
governance at the commune level." Since 2003, USAID has spent $29.7 million on
democratic governance and decentralization projects. Among the pro-democracy
entities funded by the US are the International Republican Institute, National
Democratic Institute and PACT Inc.
Although US aid money is helping many
Cambodians and the US plays an integral role in the economy, some Cambodians are
quick to remember the millions of tons of phosphorus bombs, cluster bombs and
napalm dropped on Cambodian territory between 1969 and 1973.
destroyed my district from 1970 onwards," said Nuk Saron, deputy commune chief
of O'Tarou commune, Pailin Municipality, at a recent Center for Social
But opposition leader Sam Rainsy, whose SRP has
received assistance from both the IRI and the NDI, said on April 6 that any
increase in US involvement was a welcome and progressive step.
we should open a new chapter in the relations between the two countries," Rainsy
said. "Let's put the past to rest and let bygones be bygones."