The United States reversal on $18 million in foreign aid withheld from Cambodia in protest of its widely criticized election is raising doubts about the Biden administration’s democratic principles in its relationship with Phnom Penh, advocates say.
The U.S. was the only Western country to publicly state that July’s national election was neither free nor fair, releasing a statement describing a “pattern of threats and harassment” against opposition politicians, journalists and civil society ahead of the vote.
“These actions denied the Cambodian people a voice and a choice in determining the future of their country,” the State Department said in a statement at the time. “In response, the United States has taken steps to impose visa restrictions on individuals who undermined democracy and implemented a pause of certain foreign assistance programs.”
Two months later, the Biden administration changed its mind. Prime Minister Hun Manet and Victoria Nuland, the acting U.S. deputy secretary of State, met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 22. Shortly after the meeting, the Cambodian side announced in a statement that Washington would resume ‘paused’ assistance programs worth ‘$18 million.’
USAID, which oversees the funding in question, confirmed the resumption, but did not respond to questions about what had prompted the reversal, or whether Cambodia had made any commitments on democracy and freedom of expression during meetings with U.S. officials.
It’s unclear whether any new visa restrictions were levied over the election, or whether they remain in place — as the State Department does not typically reveal such decisions.
“The programs we are resuming provide direct benefit to the Cambodian people by combatting the climate crisis and improving health outcomes,” a USAID spokesperson said in an emailed statement on Sept. 27.
“In our engagements with the Government of Cambodia and Cambodian partners, we have underscored that this decision is part of our commitment to helping advance a brighter and healthier future for the people of Cambodia in a more prosperous, democratic, and independent country where all voices are heard,” the USAID statement said.
The decision drew swift backlash from across Cambodia’s democracy and human rights advocates, as well as Hun Manet’s political opponents and critics on Capitol Hill.
“The U.S. rightly imposed visa bans and withheld some assistance after Cambodia’s sham July election,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a leading voice in Washington’s push for a more democratic Cambodia, said in an email to VOA Khmer.
“Any resumption of non-humanitarian U.S. assistance should be tied to an end of political repression and the release of political prisoners such as Cambodian American human rights activist Theary Seng,” Durbin said.
Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American human rights lawyer, has been imprisoned for more than a year on a conviction related to her public support for exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy. The U.S. has thus far refused to designate her as “wrongfully detained,” despite the United Nations making a similar determination. Cambodian officials this week announced her move from a remote detention facility to a prison closer to the capital.
Durbin is among a bipartisan group of lawmakers who earlier this year introduced the Cambodian Democracy Act, which would sanction Cambodian leaders involved in the deterioration of democracy and human rights abuses. It would also increase US monitoring of Cambodia’s relationship with China.
Kem Monovithya, a senior public affairs official for the Cambodian National Rescue Party, which has been outlawed in Cambodia, said the decision to unfreeze the development aid highlighted President Biden’s misguided strategy in Cambodia.
“The US just gave an opportunity for the undemocratic Cambodian government to do a PR spin off this very small aid amount that we all know is more symbolic and is about legitimacy lending than about concrete project impacts because it’s such a small amount,” she said in an email to VOA Khmer.
“In that sense, this is again another policy mistake from US on Cambodia, the ‘chasing dictator’ policy without strength for the last two years has not worked for Cambodia’s democracy or US interests. This administration needs to reevaluate its Cambodia policy.”
While the U.S. spoke out following July’s election, Cambodia has been part of Biden’s broader charm offensive toward Southeast Asia to counter China’s influence in the region. Then-Prime Minster Hun Sen, who handed power to his son in August, made his first official visit to Washington in May 2022 to take part along with other SE Asian national leaders in the first US-ASEAN Summit to be held at the White House. Biden held a bilateral meeting with Hun Sen a few months later while attending regional summits in Phnom Penh.
During that meeting, Biden urged Hun Sen to “reopen civic and political space ahead of the 2023 elections” and release political detainees, including Theary Seng, according to a White House readout at the time.
None of those things happened. Weeks before the election, the main opposition Candlelight Party was barred from competing due to an administrative technicality, while many of its leaders were subject to threats, pressure and dubious legal cases. Its supporters were warned that protests would be met with force. Voice of Democracy, one of the last remaining independent news outlets with reporters in Cambodia, was shut down in February over a report that angered Hun Sen.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which won 120 of 125 seats in parliament, approved a generational change in power in August. Hun Manet became prime minister with a slate of new ministers under him — with many being the progeny or relatives of the party’s old guard.
Yet the new government has given rise to some hope of a reset in US-Cambodia relations, which have soured as Phnom Penh has become increasingly cozy with China over the past 10 and 15 years.
Em Sovannara, a political science professor in Phnom Penh, said the step of resuming aid is “a positive sign” for US-Cambodia relations, adding in order to improve relations between the two countries, “it is necessary to provide warmth and understanding from each other.”
“We hope that the Cambodian government will respond to the US’s concerns,” Em Sovannara told VOA Khmer.
Hun Manet met with U.S. Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy on Sept. 27. Murphy noted the “productive engagements with U.S. officials” during the prime minister’s trip to New York, and “emphasized the importance of human rights and the protection of fundamental freedoms,” according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy.
Rim Sokvy, a research fellow at Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace in Phnom Penh, said Hun Manet, who studied at the U.S. military academy in West Point, was better positioned than his father to facilitate improved relations with the Western superpower.
In a press conference last week following Hun Manet's trip to the US, Tain Jean-Francois, a minister attached to the prime minister, offered a positive assessment of bilateral ties with Washington.
“I think we should be optimistic about Cambodia-US relations,” he said.
Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, the New York-based international human rights group, slammed the U.S. for giving Hun Manet such an easy diplomatic win, leaving USAID to issue “pathetic, after the fact explanations that no one really believes.”
“In what has to be one of the most hamfisted moves in recent diplomatic history in Cambodia, the US government first took the aid away and then suddenly handed it back after a high level meeting in NY, giving a clear propaganda win to Hun Manet which he will be crowing about for some time to come,” Robertson said in an email to VOA Khmer.
“If the Biden Administration expects anyone in the region to take them seriously, they need to articulate their principles and stick with them.”