A No Good, Very Bad Year for the US in Cambodia

To Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, it all began with the Arab Spring.

As countries in the Middle East shed longstanding dictators in 2011, the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA) whispered into the ears of Cambodians that it was their turn for regime change in the wake of the disputed 2013 national election, he claimed on Monday.

—News Analysis—

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Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, and U.S. Ambassador William Heidt meet in June, in a photo posted to the U.S. Embassy’s Facebook page

“They have an agenda to topple the government,” Mr. Siphan said.

Since the election—and especially in the last year—Mr. Siphan’s logic has found increasing traction among senior officials of the CPP and on government-aligned Fresh News, which see traces of U.S.-funded conspiracy at every corner.

The government denies any deterioration in U.S. relations, with Mr. Siphan pointing to common ground on fighting terrorism, human trafficking and North Korea’s nuclearization.

But signs to the contrary are everywhere.

In December, Prime Minister Hun Sen urged U.S. President Donald Trump to cancel a longstanding $500 million war debt as CPP-aligned media featured steady scenes of unexploded ordnance turning up across the country.

Just weeks later, the government canceled its annual joint military exercises with the U.S. for the next two years, even as it held similar trainings with China. And earlier this month, Mr. Hun Sen said he was considering canceling an unidentified grandchild’s U.S. citizenship out of fear that the child might be drafted to serve in some future far-flung U.S. war.

The tension has intensified in recent weeks. Government officials and Fresh News have accused RFA, Voice of America (VOA) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a U.S.-funded democracy promotion NGO, of not fulfilling tax and registration obligations. Three local NGOs that have received U.S. funding were also asked to appear for meetings with the tax department.

On Wednesday, Fresh News leaked documents from NDI it claimed showed collusion between the institute and the opposition party. The Daily, whose publisher is a U.S. citizen, was hit with a more than $6 million unaudited tax bill and threatened with imminent closure. Fresh News—reliably the first outlet to carry government documents—posted documents and commentaries claiming NDI, RFA, VOA and the Daily, as well as USAID-funded organizations like Freedom House, were in cahoots to overthrow the ruling party and spill Khmer blood under the pretense of democracy.

Officials have denied any political motives to ongoing tax and registration disputes—“You don’t cheat your Uncle Sam,” Mr. Siphan told a foreign reporter on Monday—and the U.S. Embassy declined to comment on the relationship.

But Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, traced the crackdown to the June commune elections and benefactors in Beijing.

“I’ve formed the opinion that it is the result of the way the elections went and how they see foreign intervention in it, real or imagined,” he said. Thanks to outlets like RFA, “any complaints from the election or whatnot are going to be amplified.”

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Former US President Barack Obama greets Prime Minister Hun Sen on the first day of the US-Asean summit in Rancho Mirage, California in 2016. (Reuters)

Chinese cash had untethered Cambodia from hearing out half-hearted and frequently-changing U.S. policies like the Lower Mekong Initiative piloted by then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to strengthen cooperation between Cambodia and its neighbors.

“There’s no rebalance, there’s no pivot,” Mr. Thayer said, referring to past U.S. policy attempts to rebalance foreign policy to focus on Asia. “At this point, it looks like the U.S. is losing leadership by default and China’s gaining it by design.”

Mr. Thayer and CPP stalwarts agree that history places a role in the distrust, too. Then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk long suspected U.S. involvement in a 1959 assassination attempt, and Mr. Siphan compared the contemporary RFA to alleged covert U.S. support for Khmer Serei, or Free Khmer, Radio aimed at unseating the prince during the same period.

During the 1980s, the U.S. backed the Khmer Peoples’ National Liberation Front, a group that included the Khmer Rouge and whose explicit aim was to overthrow Mr. Hun Sen and his Vietnam-backed cohorts.

In a 1999 essay, historian Ben Kiernan noted that the group was “neither a real coalition, nor a government, nor democratic, nor in Cambodia.”

“Thus the Khmer Rouge flag flew over New York until 1992,” he wrote.

Nonetheless, Mr. Hun Sen made overtures to the U.S. as the relationship thawed in the early 1990s, according to Mr. Thayer, sending his defense minister to Washington and setting up other diplomatic and military ties.

“But then on this newer timeline, you get China stepping in and doing much, much more,” Mr. Thayer said. At the same time, U.S. President Donald Trump and D.C. swamp-dwellers seemed to have little interest in Cambodia—certainly not enough to bother pushing for regime change, according to Mr. Thayer.

Sophal Ear, author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy,” said the change in the government’s tone seemed to have few ties to U.S. foreign policy.

“If anything, the view from Phnom Penh should be celebratory—the U.S. is less in their hair than ever before—but instead, it seems that the US has become a kind of bete noire or perhaps boogeyman,” he wrote in an email. “I guess as the election nears, it’s time to beat the drum.”

Mr. Siphan said as long as the U.S. stayed out of interfering with Cambodia’s domestic affairs and organizations played by the rules, all would be well.

The spokesman said that he, for one, would be sad to see the likes of the Daily close shop over the tax dispute, claiming the government valued the feedback it got there.

“I‘ll miss you if they close it,” he said.

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