By lifting its near decade-long ban on direct aid to the Cambodian government, the US may be seeking to counter China’s sphere of influence in the region and improve access to the country’s oil reserves, a Cambodian rights official said this week.
On Feb 21, the US Embassy announced that the Cambodian government will likely receive approximately $56 million this fiscal year, without restrictions on direct government assistance, according to a 2007 US budget resolution.
The US cut direct funding to Cambodia in 1997, after forces loyal to then-second Prime Minister Hun Sen ousted then-first Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
Lao Mong Hay, senior researcher for the Hong Kong-based Asia Human Rights Commission, said that since the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the US, Cambodia has cooperated well with the US on counter-terrorism and, “with the resumption of bilateral aid, the US could probably achieve more” in its dealings with the government.
Washington’s relations with Phnom Penh have also been warmed by US oil giant Chevron exploring for oil off the Cambodian coast, and in a reaction to China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia, Lao Mong Hay wrote in an e-mail.
“The US has an eye on the Cambodian oil and the lifting of sanction will further its access to this important source of energy. The lifting also will, to a certain degree, draw Cambodia away from China’s sphere of influence in Southeast Asia,” he wrote.
“The US has been even less serious about human rights in Cambodia and elsewhere after September 11 and its war against terrorism. The Cambodian government has cooperated very well with the US in this war,” he added.
The resumption of US aid will likely provide a degree of diplomatic recognition long sought by Phnom Penh and a degree of leverage for Washington, SRP leader Sam Rainsy said.
“Past experience has proved that the Cambodian government doesn’t take into consideration donors’ demands to implement reform,” Sam Rainsy said Sunday.
But the approval from Washington implied by the resumption of funding may have a particular appeal to the CPP, he said.
“The Cambodian government is craving legitimacy and wants to reconnect with the US,” he added.
National Assembly President and CPP Honorary President Heng Samrin said Sunday that the government, for its part, welcomes the US’ move, though he added that he will believe it when he sees it.
“I welcome the aid,” Heng Samrin said.
“The US should give the real aid, not just promises. So far they have promised, but we have never seen the aid,” he added.
Thun Saray, president of local rights organization Adhoc, said the US’ move might enable it to push for greater democratic reform in Cambodia by working more directly with the Cambodian government.
“I get the idea that the US government thinks…that there has been a lot of progress compared to 1993 to 1994, and compared to neighboring countries,” Thun Saray said Monday.
But he expressed doubt that the Cambodian government would willingly reform just because it has become closer to the US.
“There may be changes in terms of anti-corruption, and in the judiciary, but…democratic institutions are still weak, and the [government] won’t reform itself absolutely,” he said.
On the ground, the policy shift is unlikely to effect any major changes in US-backed development work in Cambodia, according to US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle.
This will, however, “allow [the US] more flexibility in executing future projects by letting us work more directly with the [Cambodian] government,” he said.