Exiting US Ambassador Jospeph Mussomeli said Monday the relationship between Cambodian and the US had improved in recent years, but human rights officials say the warmer ties have come at a cost.
Rights officials said in recent interviews US support of human rights groups has decreased in recent years, eroding freedoms of expression and assembly.
"The relationship between the two countries has markedly improved over the last two years," Mussomeli told reporters at the embassy Monday, on his final day in the country. "I'm hesitant to say that, because I think it still has a long way to go. As many of you have heard me say before, a few years of good relations can't really compensate for decades of misunderstandings and distrust."
The US was sharply criticized in 2007 for closer ties with the national police, after the FBI opened a liaison office in Phnom Penh. Human rights workers said at the time the increased cooperation would make rights work in the country more difficult.
Mussomeli left Cambodia late Monday. He will be replaced by a former political officer at the Cambodia mission, Carol Rodley, later this year.
Rights workers said his tenure saw the end of anti-government positions from the United States.
"US government policy has shown clearly that it used to oppose the government; now it shows clearly that they are pro-government," said Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc. "They seem to have more cooperation with the government than before. That's why they have less criticism of the government."
Democracy had not decreased under the changed position, but local groups were still hard pressed to champion democracy and rights, said Kem Sokha, president of the Human Rights Party.
"I can see progress of democracy in Cambodia," he said. "The United States should not reduce aid to local NGOs, and they should not undertake more cooperation with the government. They should strengthen more democracy and human rights in Cambodia. They should not give more aid to the government, but should strengthen more [aid] to local NGOs, so the local NGOs can strengthen human rights and democracy in this country."
Mussomeli also said Monday Cambodia's potential production of oil would not have a significant impact on relations between the two countries. He warned, however, that revenue from oil must be used properly in order for Cambodia to benefit.
"The oil could be a very good thing for Cambodia," he said, "because Cambodia is such a poor country and the economy is at such a low level that the oil, if it's used properly, if it is used for the benefit of the Cambodian people, if it's used to build roads and develop the educational system and the health system and things like that… it is an opportunity for Cambodia to really jump-start its country and jump-start the economy."
Thun Saray said the oil represented a small market, and the US government was not much interested in the oil in Cambodia.