President Donald Trump on Friday approved the nomination of senior Asia diplomat W. Patrick Murphy as his pick to lead the U.S. mission in Cambodia amid soured U.S.-Cambodian relations over Phnom Penh’s handling of a general election last month.
If confirmed by the Senate, Murphy who is currently the State Department’s Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Southeast Asia will succeed Ambassador William Heidt, who will end his three-year tenure in the coming months.
The appointment comes as relations between the two countries have hit a low after Prime Minister Hun Sen accused Washington of sponsoring a plot of overthrowing him by supporting the Cambodia National Rescue Party. The CNRP was disbanded in November and its leader, Kem Sokha, arrested on treason charges, prompting criticism and limited sanctions on some officials.
Cambodia held a general election on July 29 that saw Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party win every seat in parliament in the absence of the CNRP, which previously held a large minority.
Ou Virak, founding president of the Future Forum, a Cambodian think tank, said the decision to nominate Murphy may be a sign of the increasing importance Washington placed on Cambodia given its strengthening alliance with China.
“It’s a sign that the Trump Administration is considering Cambodia as a more important and strategic country as Patrick Murphy is senior and quite respected in Asia-Pacific diplomatic circles,” he said.
“It’s likely due to two reasons: the rise of China and its influence and the growing importance of Southeast Asia.”
While Cambodia-U.S. relations have worsened since late 2016 when Cambodia fired the first warning shot by canceling joint annual military drills and accused the U.S. of supporting the opposition, Cambodia has moved ever closer to Beijing, which has pumped billions of dollars of investment into the country over the past decade.
Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, said it was “too early” to comment on Murphy likely appointment, adding that Cambodia hoped for improved relations with Washington.
“The presence of the new ambassador designated to represent the U.S. here in the Kingdom of Cambodia is a show of good relations and cooperation in the future,” Siphan told VOA Khmer.
“It is natural that we have differences, but the opportunity to improve relations and to sit down and discuss those differences not to provoke conflict between countries: This is diplomacy.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh declined to comment on either Murphy’s nomination or Ambassador Heidt’s next post.
But in a statement posted to the Embassy’s Facebook page on Monday, Ambassador Heidt said: “Patrick is a terrific nominee for the position. He has a distinguished record of service, is very familiar with Southeast Asia and knows U.S. foreign policy in the region extremely well."
Before being stationed at the State Department’s Asia division in 2016, Murphy was a diplomat in Thailand, serving as the deputy chief of mission, and a special envoy to Myanmar during the democratic transition before the 2014 election of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Over the past two years, Murphy has been a frequent visitor to Southeast Asia, including two visits to Cambodia last year.
During his first trip in April last year, Murphy was told by Cambodian foreign minister Prak Sokhonn of Cambodia’s decision to scrap a controversial 15-year-old repatriation scheme for Cambodians living in the United States. The U.S. responded by imposing visa restrictions on senior Cambodian foreign ministry officials and their families.
Murphy was the first senior U.S. official to visit Cambodia after the controversial dissolution of the opposition CNRP in November.
In December, Murphy renewed Washington’s message to Phnom Penh to reverse course, but his comments were dismissed by Cambodian officials, who justified the political crackdown as legal.
Murphy also spent his time meeting Cambodian opposition leaders while visiting Phnom Penh last year. He also met CNRP official Kem Monovithya at the State Department in January this year.
Mu Sochua, Vice President of the now-disbanded CNRP, said she expects the new ambassador to maintain support for democratization efforts in the country.
“With this kind of ... a sham election in Cambodia, there can be serious economic and political impacts on Asean stability. Thus we need now diplomats [like Murphy] with Asean experiences to represent the U.S. here in Cambodia,” she said.