Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Vitamin diplomacy as US involvement increases

Vitamin diplomacy as US involvement increases

Vitamin diplomacy as US involvement increases


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

Battambang town.

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.

The new

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."

But the

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.

"The US

destroyed my district from 1970 onwards," said Nuk Saron, deputy commune chief

of O'Tarou commune, Pailin Municipality, at a recent Center for Social

Development seminar.

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.

"I think

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."