Wikileaks was supposed to sink American diplomacy. When the first batch of US embassy cables was released in November 2010, the unvarnished commentary and political secrets contained within was expected to cause unfathomable repercussions across the globe. As each set was rolled out, embassies held their collective breath as local governments eyed them warily. This ended in, more often than not, a sigh of relief from both parties at the relative benignity of the contents.
Here, the game appears to be playing out no differently.
Earlier this week, nearly 800 cables from the US Embassy were published by anti-secrecy organization Wikileaks. The cables cover everything from land titling to China’s growing influence to the state of the opposition parties. They opine on the king and premier, tycoons and officials. But even a cursory glance at the cables confirms the following: both governments are pretty lucky at what was not included.
As the dust begins to settle on the cables, both the US Embassy and the government have spent the better part of a week avowing their strong ties.
Spokesman for the US Embassy, Mark Wenig, yesterday called the relationship between the two countries “strong” and “based on common interests and shared goals.” Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, echoed Mr Wenig’s statement denying that relations had taken any hit.
Though there are many, the cables published on WikiLeaks reflect just a fraction of diplomatic communique. In a large part this is due to system limitations. The vast majority of cables were pulled from a centralized US Department of Defense Internet network rolled out in embassies across the globe in the years following 9/11. In Cambodia’s case, tagging on the cables indicates that the linkup to this new system probably was not completed until 2006.
The paucity of pre-2006 cables from Cambodia means there is little-to-no insight into the political violence, party-driven machinations, and questionable electoral tactics that have made the headlines over the past two decades in Cambodia.
In 1997, for example, there is a single cable related to bi-lateral military cooperation. It predates both the grenade attack on an opposition party rally in May that year, and the factional fighting in July. There is no cable from 1998, which means there is no mention of the highly disputed national election that year, nor the political maneuvering by the CPP, nor reports of threats and murders that took place in the run-up to the vote and in the mass protests afterwards.
In the two cables from 2003, there’s no mention of that year’s anti-Thai riots, the election that year, nor several high-profile killings. Four cables from the subsequent year discuss only the events surrounding King Sihanouk’s retirement. None appear that mention the 11-month political deadlock following the 2003 election.
One can only wonder what the US Embassy had to say on these topics.
There are hints of their view in later cables referring back to the events in question. In 2007, for instance, Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli concludes a cable about Sam Rainsy’s request for help in saving the grenade attack memorial stupa with the following:
“Post believes the Royal Government of Cambodia’s (RGC) proposed plan regarding the 1997 grenade attack memorial stupa is a trial balloon to gauge the level of response from civil society, the SRP and donors. The RGC is aware that the attack’s unresolved status evokes persistent sensitivity in Washington.”
And in an aside to coverage of an October 2006 forum on democracy, then-Ambassador Mussomeli offers some insight into his views of CPP election tactics. Pointing out that Funcinpec secretary Nhek Bun Chhay was sitting behind Hun Sen as an invited guest, Mr Mussomeli writes: “The Funcinpec official, once a Funcinpec military leader who opposed the CPP during the 1997 coup, and later facilitated the reconciliation between Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh following the 2003 elections, has most recently worked quietly with the PM to remove Ranariddh as head of Funcinpec. The PM’s win-win strategy against the Khmer Rouge is virtually the same one used successfully against Funcinpec today.”
Doubtless, cables from that turbulent period in Cambodian history would prove intriguing, but whether they would be damaging is harder to predict.
Historian Sonn Soubert noted that the relatively supportive tone of the cables suggested earlier ones may have read similarly. “The US has an interest in maintaining a positive relationship with Cambodia,” he pointed out. And, as in the case of countless other countries, had derogatory information surfaced, quite possibly it would not make a dent in diplomatic ties.
“As far as the content, it’s not damaging of the image of Cambodia,” said political analyst Chea Vannath. “In the relationship, there is a lot of taking and giving for the interests of the two countries…one way or another, it doesn’t affect the relationship.”