Official Visit Shows Change In US Policy

When US Representative Jim Kolbe, who is scheduled to arrive in Phnom Penh today, held a hearing last May in Washington on funding for USAID programs for fiscal year 2002, he said one of his top priorities was global health.

Kolbe is now in Cambodia to launch a five-year immunization program. Yet his visit is in many ways symbolic of the slowly changing US policy toward Cam­bodia.

Along with Unicef Executive Director Carol Bellamy and Vac­cine Fund President Jacques-Francois Martin, Kolbe spent Sunday with Siem Reap Governor Chap Nhalyvoud and Cambodian Minister of Health Hong Sun Hout at the Poh Mean Chey Cen­ter, delivering the first shipment of vaccinations for children in Cambodia.

Kolbe is scheduled to come to Phnom Penh to meet with Cam­bo­dian and US Embassy officials. He will most likely discuss US economic aid to Cambodia, a US official said.

As the chairman of the Sub­committee on Foreign Oper­ations in the US House of Repre­sentatives, Kolbe is influential in approving foreign aid legislation, observers say.

US embassy officials did not give clear indications they would press Kolbe for an increase in aid to Cambodia, nor is it clear what stance Kolbe will take on granting aid to Cambodia.

But the US position on giving direct aid to Cambodia is already shifting.

In June, the US government announced it was resuming direct aid to Cambodia in the form of about $10 million to fund HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention programs, US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said.

This is the first time in nearly four years the US was granting direct aid to Cambodia. The US government ended direct aid after the factional fighting in 1997 between troops loyal to then co-Prime Ministers Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

The US currently gives an estimated $30 million in direct and indirect humanitarian assistance to Cambodia, which is only $5 million less than what Cambodia received before 1997, Wiedemann said. Most of the $30 million is channeled through NGOs, he added.

In fact, one foreign diplomat said the US suspension of aid hurt less in terms of dollars, but more in terms of expertise. Under the law, the US was also prohibited from providing “technical assistance” to the Cambodian government. That meant, for instance, the US could not help train teachers, since they are Cambodian civil servants.

The debate on whether or not to give direct aid to Cambodia has continued in both the US and Cambodia since 1997. One political analyst admitted lobbying the US to resume direct aid to Cambodia for two years, with visits to Washington at least once a year to discuss the issue with US lawmakers.

“Normalizing relations with the US would create a lot of opportunity for Cambodia. Staying out of the game is not good for the US or Cambodia,” the analyst said.

Kao Kim Hourn, executive director for the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and a government adviser, agreed, saying US engagement in Cambodia would “certainly be better.” The US has a role to play in promoting peace, stability and democracy in Cambodia, he said.

US engagement “is important, not only for Cambodia but for the stability of the region,” Kao Kim Hourn said.

Although the current appropriation of $10 million in direct aid is a significant step in normalizing relations with Cambodia, US officials at the embassy were hesitant to place much significance on the aid, or to attribute it to a change under the new administration of US President George W Bush.

“Our policy has not changed,” one US official said.

The technicalities of direct funding and aid channeled through NGOs causes confusion among US lawmakers in Washington. During a hearing in April 2000 between Robert Randolph, the USAID Assistant Administrator for Asia and the Near East, and US Senator Craig Thomas, a Republican from the state of Wyoming, Randolph attempted to clarify the difference between giving direct aid and funneling aid through NGOs, according to a transcript.

“We have restrictions on direct aid to the government of Cambodia. We don’t have restrictions on actually doing work in Cambodia with NGOs on humanitarian and democracy issues,” Randolph said. “We’re giving aid because the [US] State Department has determined that it is important for US national interests to ensure that Cambodians who were so traumatized during the Pol Pot years have access to appropriate medical care and begin working with other countries who want to see the creation of a civil society.”

“Isn’t it a bit of a contradiction to restrict aid on the one hand and then say we’re going to help you on the other?” Thomas asked according to the transcripts.

“No,” Randolph said. “It wouldn’t be a [contradiction] because we’re working with NGOs who want to promote democracy in—in reaction or in opposition to a government which wants to suppress democracy.”


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