Cambodia experts have expressed their concerns over the possibility of further sanctions against Cambodia following the announcement last week that the United States was cutting some aid programs to the country.
“This is the lowest point in US-Cambodia relations since 1993,” said Chheang Vannarith, a researcher at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “I think that there are many reasons contributing to this worrying degradation. Firstly, it’s an internal factor in Cambodia. And secondly, it’s a geo-political factor. It’s China for inserting so strong an influence on the region, especially in Cambodia, which is a threat to the US interest.”
Over the past 25 years, the United States has provided over $1 billion in development assistance to Cambodia and opened up its market for Cambodia-made products. But the relationship between the two countries has been bumpy since the 2013 national elections, where the Cambodian People's Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen lost 22 parliamentary seats to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. The CPP lost thousands of seats in local Commune Council elections in 2017.
Cambodian government officials, including Hun Sen, openly criticized the US for its policy during the Vietnam War in 1970s and bombing of Cambodia. Subsequently, the ruling party accused and dissolved the opposition CNRP for colluding with the US to overthrow the government. The CNRP’s 55 parliamentary seats and more than 5,000 Commune /Sangkat councils positions have been seized and divided among the ruling CPP and other parties that did not win any seat in the previous elections.
“If we look at the international sanctions, we see that it’s no coincidence,” said Meas Ny, an independent social analyst. “It has come to a phase where the situation in Cambodia does not seem to reverse its course. The ruling party also said that what they’ve done is legitimate. Therefore, there is no point of return. This aid cut is in response to what has been happening in Cambodia.”
The US assistance focuses on promoting democracy, human rights, good governance, agriculture, food security, health and education, according to the USAID website. In 2017, USAID provided Cambodia $78.5 million.
The aid cut was targeted at the Cambodian military, local government and the tax department, according to the White House. But the US continues to support health, agriculture, civil society, and land mine clearance.
“The Department of Taxation opened politically-motivated tax investigations against independent media outlets and civil society groups, in some cases forcing their closure,” said Arend Zwartjes, US Embassy spokesman in Phnom Penh.
The English-language Cambodia Daily newspaper closed its office because the General Department of Taxation claimed the paper owed $6.3 million in back taxes. The government has also banned some local radio stations from broadcasting programs by Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and Voice of Democracy. RFA also closed its office in Cambodia.
During the commune council election campaign in 2017, Defense Minister Tea Banh threatened to “break the teeth” of anyone who refused to recognize the election results.
“Senior leaders within the Cambodian military have made troubling statements about using violence in relation to elections,” said Zwartjes on the military aid cut.
US-based independent analyst Kuch Schanly believed that the US intended to have “true democracy and respect for human rights” in Cambodia.
“Frankly speaking Cambodia is in danger from encroachment by its neighboring countries and Communist superpower,” said Schanly. “The US believes that only democracy and keeping power in people’s hands that Cambodia can protect itself. If the power falls into the hands of an individual or group to have an absolute control on the government, the country is in danger.”
“It’s inevitable that economic sanctions can affect people’s living conditions,” he said. “But it is a reminder to the people that this is the result of law enforcement in Cambodia and that they should demand [the government] to respect human rights and uphold democracy.”
The White House also issued a visa ban on senior government officials in November last year, and in February, five influential US senators proposed a bill to support the ban and put conditions on aid to Cambodia, asset freezes, and forbid negotiations on debt relief.
“I think that if the situation gets worse, it can affect trade and investment because some major international companies must go through the US financial market,” said Vannarith. “Therefore, if it affects the trade and investment sectors, it can strongly affect Cambodia’s economy.”
“This is a concern that I have and keep an eye on,” said Ny. “Once the US rallies their allies to impose sanction on us, what will our vulnerability be like?”
Cambodia exported $9.5 billion in 2017, mostly garments, footwear and agricultural products, to the US and European markets. In 2017, Cambodia exported $3 billion to the US and currently enjoys trade preferences.
Cambodia has an annual economic growth rate of 6 to 7 percent, but it may be affected if there is deeper economic sanctions.
“The White House has done the right thing in a targeted, tangible way,” said Tim Rieser, senior foreign policy aide to US Senator Patrick Leahy, in an e-mail to VOA Khmer. “It shows that the United States is not going to act as if it’s business as usual while President Hun Sen extinguishes the civil liberties of the Cambodian people. Other countries should follow the U.S. example.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said the White House's decision was "an appropriate measure."
“Today the Trump Administration took appropriate measures to curtail or suspend Treasury, USAID, and DOD assistance programs,” he said in an e-mail. “We must continue to apply incremental pressure to Cambodia in advance of July elections."
But Cambodian government officials challenged the sanctions, calling it an indication of US weakness.
“This decision is a US failure, not Cambodia’s, in convincing the world to believe that the US continues to strengthen democracy in a sustainable way,” Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, told VOA Khmer.
Over the past 10 years, China has increased aid and loans to Cambodia, which has weakened Western influence. But China also benefited from the relationship, bringing raw materials and goods into Cambodia, and Cambodia has also blocked ASEAN's anti-China statements on the South China Sea dispute.
“If a mouse dares to dance in front of a cat, there must be a mouse hole nearby,” said Schanly. “This means that when the Cambodian government can ignore the world power’s demand, it’s because they rely on China. China is a guarantor for the Cambodian government.”