As lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week heard testimony depicting Cambodia’s government as dictatorial and lacking regard for human rights, a trade mission led by the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia was pushing a very different agenda.
In Washington on July 9, a congressional subcommittee discussed the possibility of a bill cutting U.S. aid to Cambodia, with rights groups and election monitors calling out Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government on a raft of allegations including corruption, nepotism and a flawed voter list ahead of the July 28 election.
During the hearing, Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher even called Mr. Hun Sen “a corrupt, vicious human being who has held that country in his grip for decades.”
The very same day—on the country’s opposite coastline—U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia William Todd was overseeing the signing of a deal to bring California-made wines to Cambodia, part of a four-day trip for 50 Cambodian business leaders to the U.S. designed to entice more American businesses to invest in Cambodia.
Hung Hiep Group, which already distributes Mercedes-Benz cars in Cambodia, signed a deal that day to exclusively distribute Ernest & Julio Gallo in Cambodia, the U.S. Embassy said in a statement Monday.
“The reverse trade mission illustrates the growing interest of U.S. and Cambodian companies in forging business ties and increasing trade and investment between the two countries,” the statement says.
The mission took the guests to the Cambodian-American community in Long Beach, California, and to Washington, to meet the U.S.-Asean Business Council, the Department of Commerce and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
The visit highlighted the close economic ties the U.S. is attempting to forge with Cambodia since the administration of President Barack Obama announced a strategic “pivot” to Asia in U.S. foreign policy, widely seen as a response to China’s growing regional influence.
The Obama administration does publicly raise concerns about human rights and free and fair elections in Cambodia, but Mr. Todd has predominantly used his tenure to promote Cambodia as a destination for business.
One of those in the delegation, Rami Sharaf, CEO of RM Asia Cambodia, a company that operates a number of American franchises in Cambodia, said the mission was about “trying to attract as many U.S. investors as we can.”
“It gives us a platform to talk about Cambodia, differentiating it from other Asean countries,” said Mr. Sharaf, explaining that preferential trade terms, low tax rates and free flowing capital meant that Cambodia was the most attractive market in the region.
“We met big investment companies—representatives of Merrill Lynch, representatives of the Bank of America,” he said. “I salute the ambassador, the way he is promoting Cambodia with such passion.”
Mr. Sharaf said criticism at the congressional hearing did not bother the delegation.
“This has always been the case. We know that there are some people that are very anti-Cambodia there. I’m looking at the bright side,” he said.
Daniel Mitchell, the CEO of Phnom Penh-based SRP International Group—who appeared at the congressional hearing and argued against the withdrawal of U.S. support—was also one of those with the trade delegation in California, Mr. Sharaf said.
Acleda Bank CEO In Channy, Lim Heng, Chairman of Heng Mean Investment Group, Brett Sciaroni, Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce, and Sung Bonna, CEO of Bonna Realty, were also there, according to the embassy.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh said he could not immediately provide a full list of those on the delegation, but insisted the timing alongside the congressional hearing was purely coincidental, since the mission was planned far in advance.
“During Ambassador Todd’s discussions on the business climate in Cambodia, he did also recognize some of the challenges that Cambodia faces,” Mr. McIntosh said by email.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said U.S.-Cambodia relations were improving across the board, as indicated by the visits of both Mr. Obama and former Secretary of U.S. State Hillary Clinton last year.
“Last week [in Congress] is just a voice of politicians,” he said. “We [Cambodia and the U.S.] work together toward the human rights and democracy and economics. The goal is the same.”
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