As its founder Julian Assange faced extradition in London yesterday, the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks published 20 years of diplomatic correspondence from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, spilling a trove of American secrets, criticisms and suspicions out into the public domain.
As they have in other countries, the contents of the 777 leaked cables that were generated by the US Embassy between 1992 and 2010—which were published en masse over a 24-hour period—proved in many instances to be frank and biting.
The diplomatic cables describe Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in 2008 as “aged and increasingly sclerotic”; say Prime Minister Hun Sen once dealt Cabinet Minister Sok An a figurative “slap in the face” over his handling of corruption allegations at the Khmer Rouge tribunal; and say the government subjected Cambodia’s political arena to “an autocratic nip-and-tuck” to silence the opposition ahead of the 2008 elections.
Since WikiLeaks first began publishing the cables in November, the US government has denounced the leaks, declining to comment on their contents. The US Embassy in Phnom Penh said in December the disclosures were “an irresponsible attempt to wreak havoc and destabilize global security.”
Cambodian authorities said in December that the embassy had offered to meet with Cambodian officials to address “confusion” that might arise from the disclosures.
However, while governments including France and China have reacted harshly to the disclosures, Cambodian officials have not publicly expressed alarm so far.
“It’s just information. So far, we still have good cooperation between the two nations,” said Phay Siphan, the spokesman for the Council of Ministers, who is himself a US citizen.
The Cambodia diplomatic cables, which were among the 250,000 such files allegedly downloaded by a US Army intelligence analyst in Iraq last year, are mostly unclassified.
The most sensitive Cambodia record so far released, a cable marked “secret” and not to be shown to foreigners, was sent in the morning of May 17, 2007 to Karen Hughes, then US Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, and concerned largely anodyne observations that press freedoms were suffering in Cambodia but that the US deserved “some credit for helping to foster” a better environment for the news media.
The bulk of the leaked cables were generated after 2005 as US government information systems became increasingly integrated to promote information sharing in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001.
While the record of the 1990s was scant, the earliest records appear to show attempts by US officials to feel out the lay of Cambodia’s political landscape as it transitioned from a one-party state to a transitional democracy after the 1993 elections.
A classified cable of Nov 14, 1995 said Prince Norodom Sirivudh, then Funcinpec Secretary-General, had likely circulated a media rumor of an assassination plot which had caused Hun Sen, then second prime minister, into cutting short a trip to Siem Reap province and denouncing the supposed plot in a speech.
Prince Sirivudh “denied informing the local paper of the alleged assassination attempt but we would not put it past him since he has done similar things in the past,” said the cable, marked Secret and sent in the name of Charles Twining, who served as US chief of mission and then ambassador from 1991 to 1996.
The prince had previously confessed privately that he deliberately “made provocative statements to the press in order to elicit reactions from people and then assess where they truly stand.”
“In any event, Hun Sen has been provoked into reacting and his reaction is in keeping with his increased concern, some here call it paranoia, about his personal security,” the cable stated.
A series of cables in 2004 that followed events after the abdication of King Norodom Sihanouk described the behavior of his son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, as “childish and petulant” and demonstrating “pique at being passed over for a younger half-brother as King.”
However by 2006, when the bulk of the leaked cables began to be produced, the US policy goals in Cambodia appeared more settled, resulting in a stream of communications on corruption, human trafficking and sex crimes, counter-narcotics, regional security and the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
A classified cable of 2009, describing high profile visits by Chinese officials to Cambodia as a “year of China,” said “Chinese money with few strings attached can exacerbate corruption and unbridled natural resources exploitation” an arrangement that “enables the politically connected to benefit from [land] concessions at the expense of the Cambodian people and the environment.”
In describing a wave of defamation lawsuits in 2009, the embassy described efforts to talk to Cambodian officials about the narrowing space for political speech in Cambodia.
“There is genuine fear among Cambodia’s ruling party about the increasing joblessness among a large, youthful population and increased criminal activity because of a lack of opportunities,” said a classified cable of July 14, 2009. “We need to understand and be responsive to Cambodia’s new reality, to listen intently to what the leadership is worrying about and to show that we have a relationship of trust.”