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Hun Sen Directs Government to Renew Cooperation with United States

U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, W. Patrick Murphy shakes hand with Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, during a meeting at the Peace Palace, in Phnom Penh, on Oct. 23, 2019. (Courtesy photo of U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

Hun Sen said in the cabinet meeting that the relationship was not starting from the zero mark, instead was a continuation of an existing healthy relationship

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen advised his government to strengthen frayed relations with the United States, which has been routinely blamed for allegedly aiding an overthrow of the government, according to a Council of Ministers press release on Friday.

In a statement, Hun Sen welcomed Murphy’s remarks on non-interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs and that the U.S. did not support any violent overthrow of the government. However, the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh did not confirm if ambassador Murphy had made those assurances to the Cambodian government.

“In this new context with His Excellency Patrick Murphy as the U.S. ambassador, Prime Minister Hun Sen has instructed all ministries, institutions and sub-national administrations to work together to strengthen and extend the good relationship with the U.S.,” the Council of Ministers statement reads.

Hun Sen said in the cabinet meeting that the relationship was not starting from the zero mark, instead was a continuation of an existing healthy relationship.

U.S. Embassy spokesperson Emily Zeeberg did not comment on Hun Sen’s announcement in the statement.

Murphy recently took over as U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, nearly a year after his predecessor vacated the position. Zeeberg said the U.S. ambassador had met with the prime minister and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn after presenting his credentials to the King last week.

It was at these meetings that he expressed a desire to work with the Cambodian government, taking forward cooperation in sectors like public health, education, demining operations and law enforcement, according to Zeeberg.

“The Ambassador also highlighted several areas of well-known U.S. and international concern, noting that meaningful steps to restore broad multi-party democracy and full rights and freedoms for political figures, civil society, and media outlets would make real progress possible for Cambodia’s diplomatic relations,” she said in an email.

The two counties have seen bilateral relations severely frayed following the 2017 commune election. The government has consistently accused the U.S. of aiding the opposition in an alleged color revolution. Cambodia’s democratic backslide has also seen the U.S. sanction senior officials of the government and scale back defense ties, notably the ending of joint military exercises.

Political analyst Meas Nee said the pleasantries were to be expected because of Murphy’s recent arrival, and that the bilateral relationship would depend on Cambodia’s democratic situation.

“As a senior U.S. official, this must be done in order to not be contentious from the outset,” he said. “But, I think if the human rights and democratic situation in Cambodia gets worse, then I think the U.S.-Cambodia relationship will not work well.”

Ear Sophal, an associate professor on Diplomacy and World Affairs at the Occidental College in Los Angeles, said that once the “honeymoon” period of Murphy’s arrival ended the contrasts in the two countries positions will become clearer.

“Right now, it looks like the honeymoon phase, but again, it's because everyone sees what they want to see and hears what they want to hear,” he said.