The U.S. State Department said in congressional testimony on Thursday that its involvement in ending the political deadlock following the 2013 election was “diplomacy at its best,” and also claimed partial credit for this year’s raise in garment worker wages and the release of activists from prison.
In the testimony, which was posted on the State Department’s website and titled “Retreat or Revival—A Status Report on Democracy in Asia,” U.S. diplomats said they have continued to prioritize democracy and human rights in Cambodia.
“Throughout the year-long political standoff that [followed the July 2013 election], the U.S. government, especially through our Embassy in Phnom Penh, advocated tirelessly and effectively for nonviolence and direct dialogue between the Cambodian government and the opposition,” the report said.
“These efforts were diplomacy at its best, with the U.S. government serving as a critical interlocutor and bridge, while consistently advocating democratic principles both privately and publicly in Phnom Penh and from Washington,” it continued.
The report from the U.S.’ top diplomats in the region says that the U.S. played an important role in increasing the wages of garment workers and securing the release of imprisoned activists.
“In part due to advocacy by the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia, garment worker unions negotiated a 28 percent increase in the minimum wage that was approved in November 2014,” and came into effect in January, the report said.
“USAID has provided legal representation, trial monitoring and advocacy support to 1,154 jailed activists, and U.S. government assistance was instrumental in securing the release of dozens of activists,” it added.
Ou Virak, a political analyst and rights advocate, said the report was accurate to the extent that the U.S. continues to fund many of the organizations working on the ground to promote democracy and defend human rights.
“Some of the most prominent voices in Cambodia are funded by the U.S.,” Mr. Virak said. “Are they the only funder and actually making those things happen? No. But are they helping? Yes.”
“I don’t know if ending the political deadlock is a good thing to be claiming credit for,” Mr. Virak said of U.S. diplomatic efforts following the 2013 election. “But were they involved in the process at the highest levels? Yes.”
However, Sok Eysan, a spokesman for the ruling CPP, said the U.S. had only a marginal role in post-election politics in the country.
“I really don’t know what they have contributed. Maybe they contributed in advising the opposition party to take office at the National Assembly to settle the political issue,” Mr. Eysan said.
Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour also said the U.S. was overstating its role in the government’s decision last year to raise the minimum wage for garment workers from $100 to $128.
“Cambodia doesn’t raise [wages] because of the United States of America, but Cambodia did it based on the existing policy…in accordance with the situation, especially to serve the interests of brothers and sisters that are garment workers,” he said.
But Mr. Virak said that regardless of what government officials might say publicly, the U.S. continued to wield significant clout.
“The U.S. does still continue to have a lot of leverage: The Cambodian officials are desperate to get any legitimacy and the ultimate legitimacy is if the U.S. backs any moves by the government.”
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