The US government has committed $1 million to the Cambodian military and is prepared to give money directly to the Cambodian government for the first time in nearly a decade.
This marks a sea change in the policy of the US, which banned military aid and direct government funding after forces loyal to then Second Prime Minister Hun Sen ousted then First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh during the factional fighting of 1997.
In the proposed budget for the 2007 fiscal year, the US Senate, whose foreign appropriations subcommittee is chaired by longtime Hun Sen critic US Senator Mitch McConnell, recommended that the ban on direct funding to the Cambodian government be lifted. This would open the way for a proposed $55.8 million in general aid to be delivered over the year, in addition to the $1 million already earmarked for the Cambodian military.
This shift is taking place even as members of the international community, including US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli, are calling attention to shortcomings in the Cambodian government, particularly on corruption and human rights. US officials, from both the State Department and Congress, say this is a way to add a few carrots to their repertoire of sticks, which has been driven, in part, by the exigencies of the so-called war on terror.
“When the restrictions are lifted, we look to support the government where there is demonstrated political will for reform,” said Erin Soto, Cambodia Mission Director of the US Agency for International Development.
One congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “I don’t think anyone thinks Hun Sen has had an epiphany and suddenly woken up and become a democrat. Cambodia has significant problems that need to be addressed by him.”
The war on terror has created a new set of priorities for the US, he added.
“If we don’t engage the government, the Hambalis and the criminal elements will get worse,” he said from Washington.
Riduan Isamuddin, an Indo-nesian better known as Hambali, was believed to be al-Qaida’s top operative in Southeast Asia and operations chief of Jemaah Islamiyah. He took refuge in Cambodia between September 2002 and March 2003.
“The Cambodian government won’t do anything unless it’s in its interest. If we can engage them on counter-terrorism, then we’re doing ourselves a favor,” the congressional aide said.
Cambodia welcomes the possibility of change in the relationship with the US, said government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith.
“It would be great if we can resume a normal diplomatic relationship,” he said. “We don’t want to see Cambodia have relationships with governments from countries like China and Japan, but not the United States.”
Defense Minister Tea Banh said that the funds for the military, which were committed in September, have not yet been received but are welcome.
“Any assistance is useful for us,” he said.
US officials say their main priorities are delivering non-lethal equipment and training to the Cambodian military, especially its border security units.
But this has alarmed critics, who charge that the human rights record of military officials should preclude RCAF from all US aid.
“You should not give a dime to the Cambodian army,” SRP leader Sam Rainsy said. “They are the worst perpetrators of human rights abuses. They take land, burn houses, and evict poor farmers from their land.”
Local rights group Licadho found that nearly 40 percent of the 172 human rights abuses it documented in the first half of 2006 were perpetrated by the military, military police, or the police.
Hak Savuth, a secretary of state at the Defense Ministry, denied that the military is guilty of systematic abuses.
“Every unit is trained about human rights,” he said. “The mistakes are done by individuals.”
Officials in Congress are aware of the military’s poor rights record.
“We think US assistance to the Cambodian military should be subject to explicit conditions related to human rights, but the Republican majority apparently felt otherwise,” Tim Rieser, a top aide to Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the foreign appropriations subcommittee, wrote in an e-mail from Washington.
Mussomeli maintains that human rights concerns are a reason to engage the military.
“It would be akin to having an adolescent who is committing crimes and refusing to put him in a training center to learn how to be a better person,” Mussomeli said.
“The whole point is to make them a more responsible, trustworthy organization,” he said.
By law, the US is prohibited from funding units of foreign security forces that have committed gross human rights violations. Mussomeli said US funds would not go to units of the Cambodian military guilty of such violations. “There are specific groups we are concerned about,” he said, but declined to specify which ones.
Sam Rainsy said that given the pervasiveness of corruption within the Cambodian government, giving aid directly to it would require extreme caution.
“I think aid should be resumed to the government, but on one condition: That the anti-corruption law be adopted first,” he added.
Khieu Kanharith said that although corruption is a hot topic with donors, the greater threat to effective funding may lie in high overheads for donor projects.
“The assistance can be supervised by the donor country. But don’t give Cambodia $10 million” and then spend 70 percent of this on experts, he said.
Most nations choose engagement when it comes to the politics of giving foreign aid.
France, for example, pledged $35 million to Cambodia in 2006, only about 5 percent of which was to be delivered through NGOs. Japan, historically the country’s most generous donor, has long delivered direct assistance to the government. More recently, China has swept in with hundreds of millions of dollars in unrestricted funds.
But some say that Washington’s stance gave it a special moral authority, which it should not squander.
“The United States is the most important donor concerned about human rights and democracy in Cambodia,” said Chea Vannath, former president of the Center for Social Development.
The decade-old ban in the wake of the 1997 fighting, she added, proved a powerful loss of face for the Cambodian government; reversing it might be taken as a tacit approbation of the status quo.
However, she said, engagement would likely help further US objectives and influence in the region, especially in the face of competing interests from China and, to some extent, Japan.
Some critics charge that the cost of making a direct bid for influence is too high in a country like Cambodia.
“It’s almost a probability that you would have to accept that in the course of re-engaging [with the government], only a portion of your investment will have the impact you hope,” said Tony Knowles, the Canadian director of SME Cambodia, which encourages small and medium enterprises.
“The rest will be siphoned off and help the few rather than the many. You are going into partnership with a group that has demonstrated neither sincerity nor competence,” he claimed.
SME Cambodia stopped receiving USAID funding last year because the agency had changed its priorities, he said.
Over the years, a series of exceptions have been introduced into the ban on direct US assistance, and the Cambodian government can already receive money for things like health, education, cultural preservation and combating human trafficking.
Even today, Congress is not entirely at ease with delivering unrestricted funds. In its recommendations for the 2007 budget, the Senate requests that the State Department and USAID consult with it prior to allocating funds directly to the Cambodian government for activities not included in the 2006 list of exceptions.
“The flood gates won’t open,” said the congressional aide. “A check is still in there.”
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)