Nearly two years ago, W. Patrick Murphy, seated in the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Phnom Penh, addressed reporters and expressed serious concern over a widespread crackdown initiated by the Cambodian government against the political opposition, civil society and independent media.
“When we had said that we had a concern, we also said that we would be required to take measures if there were further backtracking of democracy,” Murphy said in December 2017, then serving as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, in charge of Southeast Asia.
In several weeks, Murphy will be at the center of diplomatic work by the U.S. to curb that “backtracking of democracy,” this time in his capacity as the top U.S. diplomat in Cambodia. On August 1, after a nearly one-year delay, W. Patrick Murphy was approved by the U.S. Senate to take over as U.S. ambassador from William A. Heidt, who left the position in late 2018.
Murphy will face a government that has pivoted towards China, which has invested several billion dollars and provided geopolitical cover for Cambodia’s poor human rights record. Opposition activists continue to be harassed and intimidated, grassroots groups prevented from conducting their activities and freedom of expression remains severely curtailed.
Murphy’s appointment will signal to Phnom Penh that there is a shift in U.S. attitude towards Cambodia, as evidenced by the appointment of a senior diplomat to the country, said Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia” and a Southeast Asia politics expert.
“I would see that as a pretty good sign,’’ Strangio told VOA Khmer. ‘’He is an experienced, senior diplomat and his appointment would seem to suggest that Cambodia is being seen as an increasingly important country to the United States, one way or the other.”
Deep diplomatic experience
The new U.S. ambassador is no stranger to the region. The Vermont native built his diplomatic career in Asia starting in 1992, the same year Cambodia transitioned to a democratic state under the United Nations mission called the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia.
He has held the multiple senior positions in the State Department, including Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of East Asian Pacific Affairs.
In Southeast Asia, Murphy served as deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Thailand, during the Thai military’s takeover of the country from 2013 to 2016. Prior to that, he spearheaded a reform and reconciliation mission in Myanmar from 2012 to 2013, working closely with former U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar, Derek Mitchell.
Having worked with Murphy in Myanmar, Mitchell contends the new ambassador will be well suited to deal with the United States’ fraught relationship with Cambodia.
“I’m very pleased he will now be leading our embassy in Cambodia during an extremely challenging period in our bilateral relationship, and for democracy in the country,'' Mitchell told VOA Khmer by email.
Mitchell, who is now the president of democracy advocate group National Democratic Institute, referred to Murphy as a 'friend.' NDI was one of the first casualties during the 2017 crackdown, when it was given one-week notice to shut down its operations in Cambodia.
Kurt Campbell, a former senior U.S. diplomat who served as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2009-13, noted in an email Murphy’s “deep diplomatic experience” in the region.
“Patrick Murphy is one of the America’s foremost experts on Asia, and Southeast Asia,’’ said Campbell, now leader of the Asia Group, an advisory firm for world’s leading companies in Asia.
Murphy will find his biggest challenge in China’s increasing presence in Cambodia, regional specialists said. A Wall Street Journal report in late July asserted the Cambodian government had signed a secret deal to allow the Chinese military to use the Ream Naval Base in the coastal province of Preah Sihanouk.
China has become Cambodia’s largest export destination for rice, increased infrastructure investment steadily and supplied military equipment to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.
With the increased bonhomie between Cambodia and China, Murphy will find it hard to engage his Cambodian counterparts who have been “sailing in Chinese waters” for far too long, said Ear Sophal, an associate professor in diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA.
“You’ve got China propping up Phnom Penh and it really makes it hard to come to the table with something Phnom Penh wants that China can’t provide,” wrote Sophal, in an email.
“Phnom Penh doesn’t want human rights and democracy, only fake human rights and fake democracy.”
The U.S. Congress in recent years has increased pressure on the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) government with several proposed bills that would impose sanctions on the Southeast Asian nation.
On July 15, the House of Representatives passed the Cambodia Democracy Act 2019, which calls for sanctions against high-ranking Cambodian officials responsible for the current political repression, the release of opposition leader Kem Sokha and reinstatement of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The U.S. Senate has not yet taken up the draft bill. In June 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on a senior Cambodian bodyguard unit head, General Hing Bun Heang, for what is described as repeated human rights abuses, under the Magnitsky Act.
During his confirmation hearing at the Senate in December 2018, Murphy said he was committed to the cause of promoting human rights and democracy, and would work with Congress to advocate the United States’ core principles in Cambodia.
“If confirmed, I will work closely with Congress to advance U.S. interests in Cambodia, promoting democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms; building on the strong support the United States enjoys among the Cambodian public,” he said at the hearing, also proposing mediation between the CPP and CNRP as the way forward.
The Cambodian government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, has aggressively opposed the potential passage of the Cambodia Democracy Act 2019, threatening a further severing of ties with the U.S.
“Sanctions against Sar Kheng equals cutting police cooperation [with Cambodia]. Sanctions against Prak Sokhonn equals cutting diplomatic (bilateral) ties [with Cambodia],” said Hun Sen, referring to the Cambodian Interior and Foreign Ministers, respectively.
Murphy’s emphasis on democratic principles is likely to cause tension with Prime Minister Hun Sen. Yet differences can sometimes lead to breakthroughs, said Andrew Mertha, director of China Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C.
“The fact that he is a ‘democracy hawk’ means he will almost certainly clash with Hun Sen, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Hun Sen respects strength,” said Mertha.
“Moreover, Ambassador Murphy has a direct line to the Cambodia hawks in Congress and therefore his positions will be credible,” he added.
Cambodia welcomes Murphy appointment
Meanwhile, the Cambodian government and lawmakers have welcomed Murphy’s appointment and said it was an opportunity to improve relations between the two countries.
“I am confident [that our relations will improve], because he has years of diplomatic experience. He is very experienced and knowledgeable about [regional] diplomacy,” CPP Senator Sok Eysan told VOA Khmer.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the appointment of a career diplomat showed that the U.S. valued Cambodia and was an acknowledgement that the Southeast Asian country was being taken seriously.
“Given Murphy’s experience, Cambodia would be at the center of [U.S.] diplomacy,” Phay Siphan said.
However, despite the positive words, Occidental College’s Sophal Ear said it was unlikely Phnom Penh would refresh its engagement with the U.S. or make any concessions.
“There is nothing new from the Phnom Penh authorities, only the same old wine in a new bottle,” said Ear Sophal.