Over the past decade the United States has been torn between "righteous indignation" and "democratic backsliding and pragmatic engagement," in its dealings with Cambodia, according to a recent report that criticizes Washington for issuing sanctions on Cambodia as a way to reverse its deteriorating record on human rights and return the country to a democratic path.
Experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank, argue in their report, Pariah or Partner? Clarifying the U.S. Approach to Cambodia, that sanctions have the opposite effect on Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985, as he turns toward China for aid.
The United States began sanctioning senior Cambodian officials in connection with systemic corruption, undermining democracy in Cambodia, and continued violations of human rights and union rights after the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017.
The U.S. Treasury Department has targeted military generals and businesspeople close to Hun Sen, including General Hing Bun Heang, Hun Sen's chief bodyguard; General Kun Kim and his family, and tycoon Try Pheap for sanctioning under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (GMA).
This was before the Biden administration began focusing attention on Southeast Asia to counter China's growing influence in the region. In mid-May, the White House hosted leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at special summit in Washington.
A U.S. embassy spokesperson in Phnom Penh, Stephanie Arzate, told VOA Khmer via e-mail that "The United States remains committed to the Cambodian people and their aspirations for a more prosperous, democratic, and independent country where all voices are heard and respected and the Kingdom's sovereignty is protected."
The Cambodian government says its foreign policy is to make friends with all countries, not to choose between China and the United States.
Cambodian government spokesperson Phay Siphan said that misunderstandings between Cambodia and the U.S. are long-standing.
"What I have noticed is that from the 1950s until now we have not been clear and do not understand each other," Phay Siphan told VOA Khmer by phone. "The United States does not fully understand what to do with Cambodia. … The foreign policy is a failure."
The CSIS report urges U.S. policymakers to develop innovative and constructive policies for Cambodia as soon as possible rather than wait for a new generation of leadership because there is no certainty they would turn away from China.
U.S. lawmakers are calling for increased scrutiny of political developments in Cambodia with the introduction of a series of bills that would, if passed by Congress, impose economic sanctions on senior Cambodian officials and those involved in violating human rights.
The U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee passed the Cambodia Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2021 on July 19. It promotes free and fair elections, and a restoration of democracy, political freedom and human rights in Cambodia. The bill also calls for sanctions on individuals who violate human rights by freezing assets in the U.S. and revoking any entry visa issued.
"Prime Minister Hun Sen and his cronies have overseen a nationwide crackdown against political opposition, free speech, and journalism, while embracing endemic corruption at the expense of the Cambodian people," said Democratic Senator Ed Markey, who introduced the legislation. "The promise of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, a representative democracy that reflects the will of the Cambodian people, cannot be abandoned."
The bill also calls on the U.S. administration to monitor Chinese military activities in Cambodia, including new construction at the Ream Naval Base near Sihanoukville and at the Dara Sakor Seashore Resort in Koh Kong Province. Lawmakers fear the Chinese presence could affect the interests of U.S. allies and partners in the region.
A companion bill, the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2021, was passed by the House in September last year and is currently at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Charles Dunst, an adjunct fellow at the CSIS Center and one of the authors of the report, said that the Senate committee took action to fill the gaps left by a lack of focused policy on Cambodia.
"If this bill does become law, it will require the White House to at least consider imposing more limited sanctions and more closely monitor Cambodia's democratic decline – neither of which would seriously worsen already poor U.S.-Cambodia relations," Dunst said in an e-mail to VOA Khmer.
The CSIS report, released last month, says the sanctions imposed by the U.S. are ineffective. The report adds that bills introduced in the House and the Senate, such as the Cambodian Trade Act, which would restrict a trade preference scheme known as the Generalized System of Preferences, are harmful to average Cambodians and would do little to achieve democratic reforms.
"Targeted elites will run further into the embrace of their Chinese benefactors," said the report, adding this would likely bring about wider use of Beijing's authoritarian tactics in Cambodia, further harming average Cambodians.
"If GMA sanctions targeted at elites were going to achieve progress on human rights or corruption in Cambodia, success would have been apparent by now," said the report.