Economic factors, the fight against terrorism and worries over China’s growing regional influence have all contributed to increased US involvement in Cambodia, analysts say, but not to an extent where human rights and democracy are overlooked.
The improved relationship has led to a shift toward more developmental assistance from the US, but it has prompted more questions than answers among observers both inside and outside the country.
In a recent report on US assistance, Oxfam America said, “Cambodians are confused about this perceived shift, as the government’s human rights record remains poor and endemic corruption remains unchecked.”
However, according to Thomas Lum, a specialist in Asian affairs at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, the increased involvement can be attributed to a combination of factors.
Decreases in political violence, election irregularities and restrictions on the opposition, along with success in counterterrorism and China’s expanding influence have all played a part, he said in a recent e-mail.
“So both favorable conditions and fear of China’s rise have prompted a US policy of greater engagement with Cambodia,” Lum wrote.
In a report prepared for US Congress in April, Lum noted that Hun Sen had cultivated ties with China, which has become a dominant investor; it has more than 3,000 companies here and the establishment of a special economic zone in Preah Sihanouk province that can export goods duty-free.
China is also one of the top contributors of foreign assistance, mostly in government buildings, large infrastructure projects and economic investment. It also provides military assistance.
Cambodian officials say the country has improved its security, free market economy and counterterrorism efforts, which has paved the way for more development. But US interests in the region go beyond Cambodia.
“If we look at overall situation in Cambodia, we are better than Thailand, the Philippines, and some countries in Southeast Asia or even Asia…because we need to develop tourism and the economy,” said Hang Chuon Naron, secretary-general of the Ministry of Economy and Finance. “This has led to closer ties between Cambodia and the US, but it is not just Cambodia that the US is interested in.”
The US recently removed Cambodia from a trade blacklist of Marxist-Leninist countries, opening the way for more investment and engagement, a move that comes after several years of direct US aid and military cooperation. In July the US announced assistance for Cambodia’s public management of finances.
“Obviously, one of the primary areas is helping out with economic development,” John Johnson, spokesman for the US Embassy, told VOA Khmer by phone. “Though we have also devoted a lot of our assistance, especially right now, to improving the health and education of the Cambodia people in general.”
Cambodia’s assistance needs range from political to economic. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy noted recently there are several issues the US should pay attention to, including land grabbing, repressed freedoms and keeping the US market open to products from Cambodia.
Lum agreed and added that for other countries in Southeast Asia, counterterrorism goals have kept the United States engaged with “flawed democracies” or “semi-free” countries.
“But not to such an extent that issues such as democracy and human rights were ignored,” he wrote.