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Cambodia Hires DC Firms to Burnish Image, Attract Investment

FILE - Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks with media during a news conference at the Government Office in Hanoi, Vietnam, Oct. 4, 2019.
FILE - Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks with media during a news conference at the Government Office in Hanoi, Vietnam, Oct. 4, 2019.

The Cambodian government has hired a U.S. law firm and a public relations company to promote a positive image of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.

The companies, both based in Washington, are Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, and international communications and public relations specialist Qorvis Communications.

Qorvis has been on a $69,300 a month contract since September 1, 2021, with no deadline for completion, according to a Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) document registered with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Akin Gump began a $720,000 contract on January 5, 2022, that runs until January 1, 2023.

The law firm has pledged to “conduct outreach to U.S. government officials to build better understanding and highlight areas of common interest to build new relationships” that enable the bilateral relationship between Cambodia and the U.S., according to the contract registered on FARA’s website.

Trade status, exports

The $1.5 million yearlong lobbying campaign comes as Congress has suspended the Southeast Asia nation’s trade preference status for its deteriorating human rights record that involves overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding or operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations, according to a 2021 report by the U.S. State Department.

“The aim of my mission is to expand the relationship,” Cambodian Ambassador Keo Chhea told VOA Khmer by phone in early March after he became ambassador. “And if it is good to facilitate a political relationship, we will promote culture and trade relations to have a better relationship.”

Cambodia also spent $1.2 million from 2019 to 2020 on two U.S. lobbying firms — Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, of Washington, D.C., and PacRim Bridges LLC in Ferndale, Washington, according to the FARA filing.

“This lobbying work is to draw the attention of foreign policymakers to the current leadership of the Royal Government of Cambodia,” said Sok Isan, a spokesperson for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. “This is to counter politically biased, unethical and unprofessional media outlets from spreading false information about the leadership. The Royal Government of Cambodia comes from the will of the Cambodian people.”

Cambodia exported more than $8.7 billion worth of goods to the U.S. in 2021, according to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau. That volume has doubled in the last four years, despite the government crackdown on independent media, civil society groups, critics and opposition politicians.

According to the Council for the Development of Cambodia, Cambodia attracted a fixed-asset investment of $4.35 billion in 2021. China remains the largest foreign investor, accounting for 53.4% of Cambodia’s total investment last year, which was a 67% increase over 2020. The U.S. was second with $163 million and Singapore was third with $121 million.

“Cambodia has benefited greatly from access to the U.S. market,” U.S. Embassy spokesperson Chad Roedemeier told VOA Khmer by email. “Today, the United States is Cambodia’s largest single export market by far. Our trade relationship should be mutually beneficial, transparent, balanced, and adhere to the highest standards, including labor rights.”

Cambodian exports to the U.S. include finished garments, footwear, suitcases, agricultural products and bicycles.

Human rights

The U.S. Congress has introduced two bills to promote free and fair elections, restore democracy, political rights and human rights in Cambodia, and impose economic sanctions on those who violate human rights there.

The Cambodia Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2021 (S-3052) was introduced by the Senate in October 2021. The House version of the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2021 (HR-4686) was passed by the House in September 2021. Both bills are in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which had not set a date for a hearing when it was contacted by VOA Khmer.

However, Congress has not reauthorized Cambodia’s trade preference status, called the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) since its expiration in late December 2020. The GSP is a system that provides opportunities for many of the world’s poorest countries to use trade to grow their economies and climb out of poverty.

The U.S. Embassy in Cambodia said it remains committed to the Cambodian people and their “aspirations for a more prosperous, democratic and independent country where all voices are heard and respected, and the kingdom’s sovereignty is protected,” according to Roedemeier.

U.S. activists in the U.S. say human rights and the political situation in Cambodia have not improved since the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) ahead of the 2018 national election that Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won. Hun Sen has held power in Cambodia in various coalitions since 1985.

More recently, on March 17, a Cambodian court convicted 20 opposition politicians and activists from the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party to between five and 10 years in prison for “incitement,” “inciting military personnel to disobedience” and “conspiracy.” Seven of them currently live abroad and were tried and convicted in absentia and sentenced to 10-year prison terms, according to Human Rights Watch.

“Hiring high-priced U.S. law firms and public relations firms is not the best way to improve the image of the Hun Sen government in the United States,” said Morton Sklar, a legal counsel for the U.S.-based Commission of Inquiry on Cambodia.

Sklar said a more effective way to improve Hun Sen’s image would be to take concrete steps to end the recent campaign of repression, end the criminal prosecutions of government critics and return to a more open and democratic election process by allowing the main political opposition to function in a fair and effective way.

“You can’t claim compliance with democracy and human rights standards when you eliminate the opposition party and put its leaders in jail using vaguely worded criminal statutes against “incitement to violence and social unrest” as a basis for closing down a meaningful political process and for conducting mass trials and imprisonments,” Sklar said.