Report: Gov’t Rejects US Riot Criticism Riots

The US State Department has accused the Cambodian government of stoking “anti-Thai sentiment” during the Jan 29 riots and said the government “bears ma­jor responsibility” for failing to stop the violence, Agence France-Presse reported from Washing­ton on Monday.

Citing a confidential State De­partment report that was reportedly delivered to the US Congress late last month, the French news agency said that the question of official collusion in the riots was also raised.

The report is the latest in a line of biting public criticisms of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government by the State Department and officials in Washington.

Cambodia’s Ministry of For­eign Affairs responded Tues­day by inviting news agencies to a meeting to refute the latest attack.

Sieng Lapresse, undersecretary of state for the ministry, said Tuesday that only a “handful” of people in the US administration are hostile to Phnom Penh.

The newest criticisms of the current government comes just weeks ahead of US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s scheduled visit to Cambodia. Powell is due to attend the Asean Regional Forum in June. Powell said recently he would use the visit to express Washington’s concern at the “situation” in Cambodia.

The State Department said in the confidential report that Hun Sen and other senior leaders were closely monitoring the Jan 29 riots but security deployment to protect the Thai Embassy was insufficient, despite a request by Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, AFP reported.

“At this point the evidence indicates that the Royal Government of Cambodia bears responsibility for stirring nationalistic anti-Thai sentiment among Cambodians and for failing to take decisive action to protect the Thai embas­sy and Thai commercial establishments,” AFP quoted the report as saying.

“The RGC has revealed little about its decision-making on Jan 29, but the government clearly bears major responsibility for having failed to prevent or moderate the violence,” AFP quoted the report as saying.

“Was the slow response deliberate?” the report asked, noting the small number of police officers at the Thai Embassy.

“Theories that the slow re­sponse was the result of RGC inter­vention, possibly in combination with other factors have not been definitively refuted,” the report said.

Controversially, the report also said that “eye witnesses” saw the demonstrations, which began peacefully outside the Thai Embassy and turned violent after the arrival of the pro-Hun Sen group know as the Pagoda Boys.

The group was described as an “organization of male students in their twenties from the provinces, that the municipal authorities had previously used to break up anti-government dem­on­strations,” AFP quoted the report as saying.

A US Embassy official Tuesday declined to comment on a report that has not been made public.

Seng Sovannara, president of the Pagoda Children, Intelligentsia and Students’ Association, or Pagoda Boys, denied any connections between his organization to the riots.

“It is their right to write this, but I would like to clarify that no Pagoda Boys [association] members were in the demonstration,” he said Tuesday.

Sieng Lapresse branded the criticism an attempt to destabilize recently restored diplomatic relations with Thailand.

“[The report] does not have the attitude [of] friendship but has the attitude to make a split between Thailand and Cambodia, and continues to remind [people] of the crisis that [both governments have tried to eliminate],” Sieng Lapresse said.

“I regret that [the US government] never provides anything, just the stick. The US government does not help Cambodia, but causes us regret,” he said.

Sieng Lapresse said the criticism was the work of a “hand­ful of opposition” people in Wash­ington who had not re­ceived the “proper report” from the US Em­bassy in Phnom Penh. “Or they just ignore the efforts of the Royal Cambodian Govern­ment to patch up, or repair, its relationship with its neighbor,” he said.

“This is our image. Cambodia’s image [is at stake],” he added.

According to a statement distributed by Sieng Lapresse, the Cambodian government was “alarmed” by comments made last month by US Senator Mitch McConnell to the Senate’s Appro­pri­ations Subcommittee on For­eign Operations.

McConnell, a well-known supporter of the Sam Rainsy Party, cited the anti-Thai riots and the recent killing of a judge as examples of continued “lawlessness and impunity” in Cambodia.

He also called on the State De­partment to strengthen the opposition in the run-up to the July 27 elections.

“It would be helpful for the US-Cambodian relations and cooperation, if the Department of State does not condone the recommendation,” the Cambodian statement said.

“The Royal Government is very cooperative and willing to listen, to hear, and to address the US concerns regarding all situations in Cambodia,” it added.

In March, the State Depart­ment said bilateral relations with Cambodia were “difficult to keep on an even keel in light of the Jan­uary riots and subsequent political killings.”

Last week, a State Department spokeswoman said the recent assassinations in Phnom Penh had bred a “climate of violence

…not conducive” to free and fair elections. The government’s rec­ord on human trafficking and rights have also been criticized by the US.

Om Yentieng, a senior adviser to Hun Sen, also took umbrage at the latest criticism.

“I would like to completely deny all the statements. It is not only exaggerated, it is also ill-willed,” Om Yentieng said.

“[The US] should encourage a democratic government in Cam­bo­dia. We have done everything for democracy and friendly relations with other countries in the world,” he said.

(Additional report­ing by Nhem Chea Bunly)

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