Prime Minister Hun Sen and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed U.S. assistance to fight the novel coronavirus pandemic while reiterating the superpower’s acknowledgment of Cambodia’s sovereignty and “democratic governance.”
According to a statement issued on Wednesday by the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mike Pompeo thanked Hun Sen during a recent phone call for welcoming passengers aboard the MS Westerdam cruise ship in February.
The ship had more than 600 American tourists and was allowed to dock at Sihanoukville, after being turned down by other countries worried it could have coronavirus positive passengers.
In return, the statement reported that Hun Sen also thanked Mike Pompeo for the $2 million assistance to help Cambodia fight the viral pandemic and that both parties also talked about Cambodia’s sovereignty.
“His excellency Pompeo welcomed Royal Cambodian government’s statement on national sovereignty, supported all types of security cooperation of ASEAN and emphasized the importance of freedom of expression despite different views,” said in the statement.
U.S. Embassy spokesperson Emily Zeeberg did not reveal more than what was published in the Foreign Ministry statement.
“Secretary Pompeo and Prime Minister Hun Sen also discussed the importance of Cambodia’s sovereignty, as well as ways to strengthen its democratic governance, including the importance of freedom of expression, especially during this time when all voices are needed to fight the pandemic,” she said in an email to VOA Khmer.
She added this year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Cambodia and the United States, and the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister acknowledged the longstanding bilateral partnership.
On March 24, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying that Cambodia’s government clamped down on free speech amid coronavirus.
Human Rights Watch documented the arrest of 17 people since late January 2020 for allegedly sharing fake news or information about the coronavirus in Cambodia.
“The Cambodian government is misusing the COVID-19 outbreak to lock up opposition activists and others expressing concern about the virus and the government’s response,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director.
Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said that under the Trump administration, the U.S. seemed to be working harder to prevent Cambodia’s move towards China.
“I think Hun Sen realizes that being overly close to Beijing is not healthy for the maintenance of Cambodia’s economic and political independence as a sovereign nation,” he said.
“Therefore, both sides are trying to improve relations although Cambodia remains wary of Washington’s intentions given the historical bad blood between the U.S. and Hun Sen.”
He added that Chinese officials would not be happy with the Hun Sen administration’s recent outreach with the U.S., resulting in Hun Sen conceding more ground to the Chinese government.
“To keep Beijing happy Hun Sen may have to offer China more economic opportunities and military basing rights in Cambodia,” he added.