Editor’s note: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong Sept. 28 to discuss on a wide range of issues, from human rights to bilateral debt. The two top diplomats met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Prior to the meeting, Hor Namhong sat with VOA Khmer to discuss Cambodia’s improving relations with the US and its future.
Q. First of all, can you tell us what benefit Cambodia gets from its relations with the US, commercially and militarily?
A. I would like to tell you that relations with the US have been getting better over the last few years, and I would also like to highlight that the US has lifted a ban on military aid to Cambodia, as well as restrictions on all direct assistance to the government. Within this context, assistance has been provided focusing on demining, education and health. From 1999 until now there has been more than $250 million.
Political relations are also good. There have now been two meetings between the Cambodia and US foreign ministries. There will be more meetings every year. Recently, since Mr. [Barack] Obama became president, he has removed Cambodia from a trade blacklist. These show that step by step and day by day, our relations are improving very well, with the only exception that trade is decreasing. This is nothing of a bad relationship. It is merely due to the global economic crisis, which has made the US economy go down, making our textile exports, which include garments, shoes, etc. to fall.
In 2008, we exported around $2 billion to the US markets, but within the first six months of 2009, we exported only around $900 million.
Q. And on military assistance?
A. It is obvious that military assistance is not yet significant, but the positive point is that the two countries now have a military relationship and cooperation. The US has provided training to our peacekeepers, and there are good relations between the two armies on peace operations.
Recently, as you may already know, there was a delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Tea Banh to meet with the US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. There is also an agreement that the two countries will continue military cooperation. These are good points on military relations.
Q. I understand that you will have a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In what other areas does Cambodia want US assistance?
A. Apart from discussing how to strengthen, deepen and improve our relations, I will ask [Clinton] to ask the US government to relieve Cambodia's debt, because it was from the Lon Nol regime. The loan was for buying war weaponry to fight in Cambodia. I will tell her that Cambodia has never demanded reparations for the [US] bombing during the Vietnam War, which killed many Cambodians and caused damages. Cambodia has never asked for compensation. Therefore, the US should understand the debt Cambodia owes.
Q. On this debt cancelation, what trade will Cambodia offer to get the deal? In some countries, in exchange for debt relief, the country offers to invest in its education.
A. First, we will ask the US to totally cancel the debt, but if this is not possible, we will then ask to turn the majority of it into development assistance, and Cambodia will pay a certain small portion of it.
Q. On another front, the US surely promotes human rights and democracy, so what are the challenges Cambodia has in this area?
A. On this issue, I would like to inform all Cambodian listeners of Voice of America radio to clearly understand that, in his address to the UN General Assembly a few days ago, President Obama made it clear that democracy cannot be imported from outside and imposed on a country to accept it. Democracy must be rooted based on a country’s uniqueness.
Therefore, as for Cambodia, I would like to remind those who criticize the government, criticize human rights in Cambodia and criticize freedom of expression, that as for you who criticize the government from the US or other countries, and within Cambodia, freely without any punishment, this is a full freedom of expression; but there should not be confusion between [freedom of] expression and defamation, for which each country has its own laws to protect each individual.
For those who would like to express your opinion, you can do so, but once you defame others, they also have their own human rights, to seek the court to find justice for them on defamation. Therefore, there should not be confusion between freedom of expression and defamation.
Q. This relates to recent developments on the rights issue. But overall, in relation to human rights, will there be an area that Cambodia will focus on and needs to promote?
A. We recognize that human rights in Cambodia are not 100 percent good, but the important thing is that there is a commitment from the government to improve the respect for human rights. As you can see, and the Cambodian people can see: which country has thousands of non-governmental organizations working in the country, and out of this number there are hundreds of organizations and civil society groups working on human rights? Is there any country like Cambodia? This is freedom of expression, democracy, and respect for human rights in Cambodia.
In addition to that we have a permanent office of the human rights council working with the government to protect human rights. We now have the UN rapporteur, who was formerly called the UN special representative on human rights in Cambodia. So we have everything. The government is open to the respect of human rights and improvement of human rights in Cambodia. However, I see that once we give more rights, they still demand for more. There seems to be no limit.
Q. Does Cambodia have a mechanism to review and tackle issues raised by those organizations, implicating some individual or institution in rights violations?
A. In Cambodia we also have human rights committees in the [National Assembly] and the Senate. There is also a national committee to protect human rights, in addition to the hundreds of civil society organizations that we have.
Q. I would like to link this issue to the US assistance to Cambodia. How do you ensure that the assistance does not benefit those who have been implicated in human rights violations?
A. With all US assistance to Cambodia, as well as assistance from other countries and international organizations, there is not a single dollar or cent falling into the hands of human rights violators or into corruption. All assistance is used in line with objectives wanted by donor countries. I also would like to say that despite comments and accusations, embassies and representatives of other international institutions know that their assistance is used properly.
Q. Turning away from US-Cambodia relations to focus on Cambodia and Asean: as a new member of Asean, what strategy does Cambodia have to catch up with older members?
A. I would like to take this opportunity to tell you that among the 10 members of Asean, Cambodia is the last to participate. Whether you like it or not, there is a gap between the older six Asean countries and the four new members, namely, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar [Burma]. There is an economic gap. Therefore, all [members of] Asean understand that integrating the Asean economy to make sure that all the 10 members become as one so that there is no economic gap. This is the most important one. It is the target. It is Asean’s priority.
As you know, Asean has decided to form an Asean community in 2015. And from now until 2015, I always say that integrating Asean into one and to be one family without an economic gap is the most important factor, a top priority in forming an Asean community.
It is meaningless to have an Asean community by 2015 if we cannot integrate the Asean economy. We are now doing it with our own effort and with support from other older members, as well as Asean partners. We are trying our best to develop the Cambodian economy to make sure that we walk at the same pace as other Asean countries.
Q. It has been more than ten years since Cambodia has become a member of Asean. What benefits has Cambodia gained from its membership?
A. This is the question that many people have asked me. I would like to tell you that, first, Cambodia receives bilateral assistance. It comes directly from countries like China, Japan, France and the US. They assist us directly. It is bilateral assistance, but at the same time Cambodia receives assistance within Asean as well. They assist the 10 members of Asean or assist the four new members. Therefore, we receive assistance both bilaterally and within an Asean framework. This is financial and economic assistance. I have not talked about political support yet.
On the political front, we have to know that if we talk of Cambodia as a single country and Cambodia as a member of Asean, there’s a differnece, because it has a joint force of 10. Cambodia by itself is just one, but Cambodia in Asean is a force of 10 with us. Therefore, we have benefitted both politically and economically. I always say that joining Asean is necessary both economically and politically.
Q. Do you see other Asean members as markets for Cambodian products? And what products are potential for the markets?
A. Cambodia has changed a lot. I’ll just take one example, with Vietnam: our trade has increased to more than $1 billion by now, and in 2010 we hope to increase it up to $2 billion. With Thailand, it has also increased. We have also exported rice to Brunei and Indonesia. We have increased trade with Asean.
Q. Let’s turn aside from Asean. Where will Cambodia be globally in 2015?
A. I would like to tell you honestly and frankly that I am very optimistic about Cambodia’s future by 2015 and beyond. The most important thing is: what does Cambodia need? We need peace and political stability. Once we have peace we can do whatever we want.
Obviously, as you see and the Cambodian people see, objectively and without a political stance, that in Cambodia there is economic growth. There is progress. There is much progress, and from until 2015, I believe that Cambodia will step forward more.
Q. Can you pick any specific area where you see strong potential for Cambodia? For instance, recently Cambodia turned itself from a recipient of UN assistance to become a country contributing to UN peacekeeping operations by sending its deminers overseas. Are there any other areas in which Cambodia will be successful?
A. Apart from sending peacekeepers to take part in UN peacekeeping operations in Sudan, demining in Sudan, Chad and Central Africa, we will surely have economic growth. I strongly believe so.
Q. Finally, in relation to the border dispute Preah Vihear temple, Cambodia and Thailand have agreed to solve the problem bilaterally. How long will Cambodia put up with this mechanism and are you optimistic that it will resolve differences between the two countries?
A. I see that border disputes do not only happen between Cambodia and Thailand. They occur also in other countries, like between China and Russia, China and India, and China and Vietnam. They spend years to settle their border issues. Border issues cannot be solved quickly, as we want.
It takes patience. Therefore, Cambodia is also like Thailand. We are patient to solve it peacefully and bilaterally. The most important thing is that we have already agreed to solve it based on the 1904 convention between France and then-Siam [currently Thailand], and the 1907 treaty between France and Siam, and especially an MoU [memorandum of understanding] signed between Cambodia and Thailand in 2000.
There are all legal grounds. Therefore, based on the legal basis and documents, it is easy for us to plant border posts between Cambodia and Thailand. However, where is the difficulty? The difficulty lies in Thai internal affairs. Some political extremists in Thailand have spilled their internal problems on the Cambodian-Thai border. They have put their extreme nationalism into the border issue, which is difficult to solve. I hope that in the future, when the sense of extreme nationalism dies out, when there is political stability in Thailand, we will then turn to the official legal documents to solve this problem. This is a lot easier than using a war to solve a border issue.
Q. Is there a possibility of seeking outside parties like Asean or the UN to help?
A. I have said on several occasions that while we have agreed to solve the problem bilaterally, at the same time we are also prepared to solve the problem by other legal means. We are well prepared.
Q. Is there any message that you would like to send to VOA Khmer listeners?
A. Finally, I would like to tell the Cambodian people who are VOA listeners that we must be hopeful about the future of Cambodia, since we now have peace, political stability, and constant economic growth, from one year to another. So Cambodia’s future will be bright. This is my optimism, that our future will be bright. Economic development will go forward, and we will be more and more prosperous. Thank you.