The nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Cambodia told the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee this week that fair elections would be his priority, while a Cambodian government spokesman said he hoped the new ambassador would repair “bad” diplomatic relations between the countries.
“Cambodia’s performance on human rights and democracy issues has been more uneven than its economic progress,” William Heidt told the Senate committee on Tuesday, noting that the Cambodian government had expressed a commitment to reforming the electoral process.
“But despite these negotiated agreements, concerns remain, including with regard to provisions that appear to limit the activities of non-governmental organizations in the democracy area and open the door for increased influence by the Cambodian military and other government officials in election campaigns,” Mr. Heidt said.
“If confirmed, I will make it a priority to…strengthen Cambodia’s democratic institutions and raise the level of public confidence in them. Conducting free and fair communal elections in 2017, and national elections in 2018, will be a key test for the Government,” he said.
During the committee hearing, Senator Timothy Kaine asked if the U.S. should be concerned that, by placing his sons in powerful political positions, Prime Minister Hun Sen was setting the stage for his family to take full control of the country.
“We have seen in other nations around the world, whether it’s Libya or Egypt or Syria, once a ruling structure—a ruling family—starts to be perpetuated, that can lead to really significant internal dissent,” Mr. Kaine said.
“What can the United States do to promote a more vigorous democracy not confined just to a single family?”
Mr. Heidt replied that such an eventuality was not a major concern, as there was healthy competition within the ruling party.
“Of course Hun Sen’s sons, as you mentioned, several are active—very active—in the CPP. Our sense is that, like many political parties, that is a complex structure. There are lots of people, there are lots of people who want to move to the top,” Mr. Heidt said.
“The folks that I have talked to, there is not a sense that there is some preordained path; it is not North Korea. It is a big competitive party with lots of ambitious people in it, so despite the obvious birth advantages the two [Mr. Hun Sen’s sons] have, my sense is there is no guaranteed route to the top for them,” he said.
Mr. Heidt—a career diplomat who is currently the executive assistant to the State Department’s undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment—previously worked at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh in the late 1990s.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Wednesday that the government—which has publicly sparred with William Todd on numerous occasions during his tenure as ambassador—would welcome a new top U.S. diplomat in Cambodia.
“I hope he does not follow William Todd because he leaves a bad diplomatic relationship between Cambodia and America,” Mr. Siphan said, adding that the government welcomed efforts to strengthen elections.
“So we hope the new ambassador will do that, but ensure the next election is the will of the Cambodian people, not the will of foreigners.”
Mr. Todd, who among foreign diplomats in Cambodia is relatively outspoken on issues of democracy and human rights, was most recently chided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for saying that a draft NGO law was unnecessary.
“The words expressed by the foreign ambassador to Cambodia are extremely insolent, even if he is a representative of a big country,” the ministry said in a statement last month.
In his statement to the Senate, Mr. Heidt said the law, which aims to more closely regulate the hundreds of NGOs and associations in Cambodia, would remain a pressing concern if he replaced Mr. Todd.
“NGOs in Cambodia today face deep uncertainty in the form of a draft Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations that is soon to be considered in the National Assembly,” he said. “Provisions in this draft law would appear to limit, in vague terms, the activities NGOs may engage in, and create burdensome registration and reporting requirements for NGOs.”
Political analyst Sok Touch said the notion that the relationship between Cambodia and the U.S. was dependant on the ambassador was misguided.
“Nothing is going to change with the arrival of the new ambassador because the U.S. government has their policies and the ambassador will follow what the government wants,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)