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More Chances Seen in Improved US Relations

Relations between the United States and Cambodia have gradually improved in recent years. And while civil society and human rights groups welcomed the trend, they are also concerned that the Cambodian government has used the stronger relationship as a political tool to crack down on freedom and democracy.

When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the Asean ministerial meeting in Phuket, Thailand, in July, she met seperately with the foreign ministers of the lower Mekong nations, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, to discuss a number of issues, particulary environment, health, education and infrastructure development.

US and Cambodian officials are now working to arrange a meeting between Clinton and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, in New York or Washington in September, according to a State Department official. Such a meeting would follow the August visit of Sen. Jim Webb, chairman of the Foreign Relation Committee’s subcomittee for East Asia nd Pacific Affairs.

The State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Bureau and Ambassador for Asean Affairs Scot Marciel told VOA Khmer in an exclusive interview at his office in Washington that the US has been working “to have good relations with Southeast Asia and good engagement with Asean.”

“But what we are seeing is greater intensity, more engagement and trying to build stronger partnerships,” he said. “Secretary Clinton made it clear both in Jakarta in February and in Thailand in July that we are going to be intensively in Southeast Asia and with Asean.”

In Cambodia, relations have been improving since at least 2007, when direct US aid was resumed after a decade-long suspension. The following year, the US established a legal attaché at the Phnom Penh embassy to combat terrorism and international crime. And over the past few years, a steady number of US navy ships have docked in Preah Sihanouk province to help train Cambodian mariners.

Members of rights groups and other civic organizations welcomed the trend, but they warn the Cambodian government might use the thawed relations to conduct business as usual, ignoring reform and freedom of speech.

“The people and civil society should be able to benefit from this cooperation, especially in terms of more freedom and more respect for human rights and democracy,” said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, a monitoring group.

Marciel said that good relations with the United States do not necessarily mean the US agrees with everything that is going on in a country.

“The fact that we have good and improving relations with Cambodia does not, in any way, get in the way of us having honest dialogue with Cambodian officials and expressing concerns when we have them and offering suggestions,” he said. “We have recently for example expressed some concerns about some court cases against political opposition figures. Again we don’t want to interfere with Cambodian internal affairs, but we do highlight when we see a country that is getting stronger and moving in a positive direction, when we see steps that might hurt that country or reduce the political space, we do mention it.”

Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told VOA Khmer in a telephone interview from London that it’s good for the US to speak clearly to the Cambodian government about reforms of the key institutions, such as the court, the military and the police. But occasional statements aren’t enough.

“It’s very important that it’s not just statements in emergencies, when people are arrested or on trial, but that there will be strong consistent diplomacy,” he said. “And I would like the US to lead other countries, to bring them together to pass the same message to the Cambodian government about what they would accept as big donors to Cambodia, and also to remind Cambodia they have obligations under the Cambodian constitution and under the treaties they signed.”

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Kuoy Kong credited the Cambodian government for promoting human rights and democracy, though he acknowledged that there is more work to be done.

“It does not mean that democracy and the respect of human rights have reached a level that there is no more room for improvement,” he said. “The government continues to move forwards with various reforms on democracy and human rights.”

The director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Ou Virak, told VOA Khmer that he believes human rights in Cambodia have worsened this year, with the closing of an opposition newspaper and various lawsuits brought against members of the opposition party.

The warming relations between the United States and Cambodia won’t influence the human rights situation in Cambodia if the US provides aid without benchmarks.

“If it’s military aid or aid for other sectors where there are no benchmarks, where there are no conditions, it could affect the political and human rights situation in Cambodia,” he said.