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‘Unprecedented’ Cambodia, US Ties

King Sihamoni of Cambodia diplomatic papers from newly appointed US Ambassador Carol Rodley, 2009.
King Sihamoni of Cambodia diplomatic papers from newly appointed US Ambassador Carol Rodley, 2009.

Cambodia and the US are experiencing their strongest ties in 60 years, according to historians and other experts, in what has been a relationship with a lot of ups and downs.

Diplomatic ties were cut twice, in 1965 and 1975, and the countries were torn apart by the Cold War. Relations were strained further after the Cambodian People’s Party seized power in fighting in 1997. And the two countries occasionally clash on issues of human rights and democracy.

Despite all this, ties are growing.

“From economic growth projects to cultural exchange programs to military cooperation, the level of substantive collaboration is unprecedented,” Kenneth Foster, a spokesman for the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, told VOA Khmer. “In no time over the last 60 years have our two countries coordinated on a daily basis as much as we do now.”

Kenton Clymer, a historian of Cambodia-US relations, said Cambodia’s Cold War position and the US’s inability to “forge a policy” damaged the relationship. He suggested a non-ideological path of diplomacy to ensure a long-term relationship.

“It it is hard to predict the issues that will arise in the next, say, 60 years will be,” he said in a phone interview. “All I can say is that as long as both sides follow an intelligent and thoughtful diplomacy, that will prevent or at least mitigate problems that will arise.”

The US is now one of the biggest donors to Cambodia, providing development assistance topping $40 million per year. And unlike aid in the 1970s, which went to war-fighting, this aid is for development.

“Nowadays, cooperation between our two countries focuses on economic development, improving democracy, human rights [and] counterterrorism and fighting drugs and human trafficking,” Cambodia’s ambassador to the US, Hem Heng, told VOA Khmer in a recent interview.

Still, there are areas where Cambodia does not meet US expectations.

“Issues like human rights, democracy, and corruption are not properly addressed,” said Kem Sokha, president of the opposition Human Rights Party. “Whenever the US raises these issues, the government of Cambodia always objects. There are still disagreements over these big issues.”

Kem Sokha said Cambodia’s leaders often talk about US invasion and past mistakes, “but never talk about those of China.”

“It is obvious that current leaders lean to another side that is still contrary to the US stance,” he added.

The most recent strain came in December 2009, when Cambodia sent 20 Uighur Muslim asylum seekers back to China, in what some groups said was a violation of international obligations.

The US suspended a military aid package as a result, but there has been little other public fallout. China followed with a military aid package of its own.

That development disappointed some.

“It would be good if Cambodia could learn from a rich and democratic country, not a communist one,” said Yap Kimtung, president of the group Cambodia-Americans for Human Rights and Democracy.

However, it has not derailed the relationship, and a stream of celebrations are planned as July continues.