PHNOM PENH —
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has labeled the US ambassador to his country a “liar”, alleging some of the aid dollars Washington announced had been punitively withdrawn earlier this week were actually cut years ago.
The White House announced it would cut some $8.3 million in aid to Cambodia this week in response to a sweeping crackdown on dissent in the country that has seen the only viable opposition party dissolved and its leader jailed ahead of elections in July.
US Ambassador William Heidt wrote to Cambodia’s tax Chief Kong Vibol on March 1 to explain to him how the cuts would impact his department.
“As a result, the United States government has suspended capacity building support to the GDT and its officials.” Vibol wrote back the next day accusing Heidt of engaging in politics and claiming US assistance to his General Department of Taxation (GDT) had already ceased in 2016.
In a speech on Saturday Hun Sen seized on this point, invoking US President Donald Trump’s tactic of dismissing criticism as “fake news” as he declared “before there was only a lying press, but now there is a liar ambassador”.
“But I want to ask you his Excellency, [and] answer clearly, why aid ended in 2016 [to the tax department] and you just declared to suspend it in 2018? The meaning of this is a lie - like wind-and-smoke words. But the wind is truly political,” he said.
The premier concluded Heidt was politicking on behalf of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was the country’s only viable opposition before it was dissolved in November based on unsubstantiated allegations it was conspiring with the US to topple his regime.
“What is the real intention on this issue? I don’t understand. Perhaps it is difficult to answer. Do you have intention to damage Cambodia’s reputation?” Hun Sen asked.
In a convoluted monologue Hun Sen seemed to suggest Heidt and the White House did not see eye-to-eye, claiming Trump was “getting tired of lies” despite the fact that the announced withdrawal of aid to the GDT came from the president’s office.
The White House said in that statement on Tuesday that it was ending several programs benefiting local governments, the GDT and the Cambodian military - entities that had all been linked to Cambodia’s recent anti-democratic crackdown.
English language newspaper The Cambodia Daily was forced to close after 24 years of operation in September following a GDT order to pay back taxes of $6.3 million - a sum the outlet said was concocted in order to shut them down.
Days later Radio Free Asia’s Phnom Penh news bureau also shut down due to similar pressure over their taxes and alleged government threats.
US embassy spokesman Arend Zwartjes told VOA on Wednesday that cuts had been specifically in response to these actions, however the embassy has not yet responded to inquiries regarding Hun Sen’s latest remarks as of press time.
Noting that the US had invested well over $1 billion to Cambodia’s development, the White House statement pledged to continue projects in other areas such as health, agriculture, mine clearance and civil society promotion.