Government Pans US Ambassador’s Call for Less Suspicion, Threats

U.S. Ambassador William Heidt yesterday praised the commune elections but denounced pre-election threats, saying the Cambodian government was too suspicious of U.S. intentions, comments that were dismissed by one government spokesman as characteristically manipulative and duplicitous.

Speaking on the weekly “Let’s Chat” show on the U.S. Embassy Facebook page, Mr. Heidt said the embassy had sent 40 teams across 14 provinces to observe Sunday’s vote.

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US Ambassador William Heidt leaves the CNRP’s headquarters in Phnom Penh in2016 after a meeting with deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The election, he said, went “very well.” But “there was some very hard rhetoric before the election.”

“Some of the government ministers said some very strong things. I think that would have been better if that didn’t happen,” he added.

Defense Minister Tea Banh said he would “smash the teeth” of anyone who dared to protest the election results. Numerous senior officials warned that an opposition victory would spark war, with Prime Minister Hun Sen himself saying that he was willing to “eliminate 100 or 200 people” to prevent that outcome.

With Cambodia canceling annual military drills with the U.S. in January and bristling at perceived criticism from the U.S. Embassy as it cozies closer to China, Mr. Heidt said one of the most challenging parts of his job was selling U.S. cooperation to a “suspicious” Cambodian government.

It was difficult explaining that “some of the things we’re trying to do, we’re doing for very logical reasons that make sense for both countries,” he said.

But Cambodia has every reason to doubt “manipulative” U.S. intentions, according to Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan.

The government appreciated U.S. President Donald Trump’s vow not to interfere in other countries’ affairs, he said. But the local embassy continued to meddle by issuing statements and sowing anti-government sentiments in the population, according to Mr. Siphan.

“One hand they shake hand with the government, the other they interfere with the internal affairs of the government,” he said.

Mr. Siphan added that the “strong things” said by the ministers were just warnings, not threats, made in the name of law and order.

“We don’t want anyone [to] cause any trouble during…or after the election,” he said.

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