Experts from the worlds of academia and politics, including three former US Ambassadors to Cambodia, came together yesterday to discuss US-Cambodian relations in Phnom Penh’s Chaktomuk Conference Hall.
The apparent general consensus among the speakers was that the two countries had forged strong ties over the past 60 years in spite of seemingly continuous upheavals.
Carol Rodley, the current US Ambassador, opened the symposium, which was to conclude today before Cabinet Minister Sok An gave the keynote speech.
In his address, Mr Sok An touched briefly on the issue of human rights, which has more than once since 1993 chastened US enthusiasm for Cambodia, saying he believed the two countries should “respect each other’s positions.”
Historians David Chandler and Kenton Clymer and former Cambodian Ambassador to the US Sereywath Ek spoke at a morning session focused on the historical relationship between the two countries.
Former ambassadors Kent Wiedemann, Charles Ray and Joseph Mussomeli were joined in the afternoon by Prince Norodom Sirivudh, former Co-Interior Minister. Their session concentrated more on the present and on the US’ role in encouraging development and the growth of democracy in Cambodia.
Responding to a question from a reporter, the former Ambassadors sought to play down the significance of Cambodia’s controversial decision to return 20 asylum-seeking Uighurs to China in December last year.
Mr Mussomeli said the US had been “disappointed” by Cambodia’s decision, but said he understood that Phnom Penh had been “caught, as they always are, between various other powers that have various interests.”
Mr Mussomeli speculated that Cambodian officials may have made their decision based on which of their two “friends” they thought would be more disappointed. However, he believed the Cambodian government underestimated the strength of US feeling on the issue.
“I think they may have been surprised by our reaction,” he said.
Mr Ray said he did not believe the deportation of the asylum seekers signaled a shift in Cambodian foreign policy away from the US and towards China.
“I don’t think you can say that represents…an end to, or limits on, US involvement and our influence on the direction events take,” Mr Ray said.
“We dealt with it in a way that the countries involved considered appropriate at the time, and we moved on,” he said.
In response to the deportation of the Uighurs, the US government stopped the delivery of 200 military trucks to the Cambodian army. In a kind of pas-de-deux, the Chinese government quickly announced that it would supply the withheld trucks to Cambodian military.
Mr Mussomeli said that in terms of foreign relations, Cambodia needed “an active neutrality.” He said it was important for Cambodia to build good relations with all other world powers.
“One of my favorite Cambodians likes to say that he prefers friends who help Cambodia with no strings attached,” Mr Mussomeli said. “I like those friends too, but they really don’t exist.
“Everyone has an agenda…the strings attached just differ,” he said.