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New U.S. Funds Rely on Cambodia’s Resisting China, Reversing Rights Abuses

FILE PHOTO - Students from a local high school carry the U.S. national flags and Cambodia's national flags in Siem Reap, Cambodia, Saturday, March 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

The United States budget for 2021, passed late Monday night, outlines around $85 million in new funding for Cambodia with conditions on the country’s ability to resist “interference by the People’s Republic of China” and reverse rights abuses.

The 5,593-page Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021, which now heads to President Donald Trump, was passed by both the House of Representatives and Senate late Monday night in Washington D.C. The document earmarks at least $85,505,000 in assistance for Cambodia.

But to get those funds, it requires the U.S. Secretary of State to certify that the Cambodian government had maintained its neutrality concerning the Ream Naval Base, Dara Sakor development project in Koh Kong province, and other military installations.

The new language in the bill marks the first time the U.S. has made Ream Naval Base a core issue of its financial engagement in Cambodia, with senior U.S. officials so far only alluding to rumors of a Chinese military presence in Cambodia. The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh has also raised concerns that the base will be handed over to the Chinese to host naval assets.

Another condition requires Cambodia to “strengthen regional security and stability, particularly regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea,” as well as enforcement of international sanctions against North Korea.

“[C]ease violence and harassment against civil society and the political opposition in Cambodia, and dismiss any politically motivated charges against those who criticize the government,” reads another condition for disbursement of the funds.

Phay Siphan, a Cambodian government spokesperson, said on Tuesday that Phnom Penh would be “thankful” for any U.S. assistance.

“But regardless of how much that assistance will be, Cambodia reserves its own rights as a sovereign nation to safeguard its own national interests,” Phay Siphan said.

“We view the relations between Cambodia and the United States as friendly and one based on mutual respect that one party shall not be under any commanding directive of one another.”

U.S. Embassy spokesperson Arend Zwartjes confirmed that the new budgetary conditions would not affect the aiding of some $11 million, delivered to fund Cambodia’s coronavirus fight using budget from the previous year.

In a recent interview with VOA Khmer last week, U.S. Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy was asked to provide evidence that the Chinese were going to host military assets at Ream or Dara Sakor, but could only refer reporters to “some very credible reporting in the media and from think tanks.”

The act provides waivers for some programs, including those dealing with public health, education, democracy, environment, and Khmer Rouge research.

But funding will also not be withheld for “programs to educate and inform the people of Cambodia of influence activities of the People’s Republic of China in Cambodia” or “programs in the Khmer language to monitor, map, and publicize the efforts by the People’s Republic of China to expand its influence in Cambodia.”