When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits Cambodia this week, observers expect human rights and concerns over the Khmer Rouge tribunal to take a backseat to regional geo-political and trade issues.
Cambodian civil society wants pressure on the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen on election reform and ongoing persecution of the political opposition, which has seen the courts revive charges against Sam Rainsy, who is now once again in exile.
Kerry might also have been expected to confront the prime minister on his continued opposition to further trials against Khmer Rouge leaders, given that Kerry was heavily involved in early talks that led to the formation of the hybrid court.
However, Kerry’s visit to Cambodia comes just ahead of a special summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) set to be held in California next month. During his trip, Kerry is also set to visit Laos, which along with Cambodia is seen as one of China’s closer allies in the 10-nation regional bloc.
That means diplomatic and trade issues will be high on Kerry’s list of priorities in meetings with Cambodian officials as the U.S. seeks to balance Chinese influence in the region, said John D. Ciorciari, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.
“Cambodia and Laos have been among the most sympathetic to Chinese interests in the ASEAN region in recent years, and Kerry does not appear to be visiting Hun Sen to give a lecture on human rights,” he told VOA Khmer.
“Rather, their meeting will reportedly focus on expanding economic ties, an agenda reflecting the Obama administration’s effort to keep Cambodia in play diplomatically in the broader context of the rebalance.”
As a U.S. Senator in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Kerry visited Cambodia and played the role of broker, pushing the government to move forward with trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders, who at the time were living freely and in some cases prosperously, despite their reign of terror being blamed for the deaths of more than 1.7 million Cambodians.
The tribunal, known as the ECCC, has so far handed down just three convictions, but a relative flurry of activity toward the end of last year saw new charges brought and progress in investigations. Hun Sen has continued to argue that pursuing further cases could destabilize the country and the Cambodian state has ignored arrest warrants issued by the court.
“I expect that Kerry is likely to be cautious in criticizing Hun Sen shortly before the special ASEAN summit,” Ciorciari said. “To the extent that Kerry is critical, he is more likely to focus on the treatment of Sam Rainsy and other opposition figures than the controversy at the ECCC. The tribunal may not feature very prominently on Kerry’s talking points, which is an interesting twist given his pivotal role in the court’s creation.”
Shihoko Goto, senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, agreed that human rights and electoral reform were unlikely be the focal point of bilateral discussions in Kerry’s crucially timed visit.
“Instead, the core of Kerry’s discussions with Hun Sen as well as with ASEAN leaders will be on trade,” she told VOA Khmer.
The successful conclusion of negotiations toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement last year is a leading factor in U.S. relations with countries in the region, she said. ASEAN members Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Brunei are all founding members of TPP, and the deal could be an incentive for other member states to build ties with Washington.
“Given that the TPP is an open trade deal that can allow new members to join down the line, Kerry will want to stress that TPP is open to other countries that are willing to adopt the higher trading standards as outlined by the deal,” Shihoko Goto said.
“If Cambodia were to express interest in joining TPP, it would further its relations with the United States and its commitment to international trade rules. It would also distance Cambodia from China, as China remains a non-TPP member.”
The trade deal may have become more tempting to Cambodia in light of China’s domestic economic woes. Growth there is slower now than at any time in the past 25 years.
Hun Sen has in recent years positioned his government as an ally of China, and welcomed Chinese aid and investment in infrastructure in return for diplomatic support, especially in regional talks touching on China’s maritime disputes with other ASEAN members in the South China Sea.
“All that easy money that was coming from China may not be so easy soon,” said U.S. author and academic Peter Maguire, who has written books about Cambodia. “So I think Kerry has many things on his plate and the [Khmer Rouge] tribunal is very, very small piece,” he added.
There are signs that Cambodia’s ruling elite is aware of the risk of over-reliance on China.
During a visit to Washington, Hun Many, a Cambodian People’s Party member of parliament and Hun Sen’s youngest son, touched on the subject in front of an audience on Wednesday at the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University.
“The most serious question as you mentioned is the declining economic performance of China in which, yes, Cambodia relies very much so on the assistance,” he admitted, adding that Cambodia needs many friends besides China, including the U.S. and Japan, as well as multilateral donors like the Asian Development Bank.
“But I don’t think it’s only the worry of Cambodia. Many Western countries actually worry about it as well, if I am not mistaken,” Hun Many added.