US Passes Bill to Suspend Some Aid to Cambodia

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a spending bill that would suspend some funding to Cambodia until the government carries out an independent investigation of July’s disputed national election and reforms its electoral system, or until the opposition ends its boycott of parliament.

The bill also instructs the World Bank not to “reengage” with Cambodia until the election dispute is settled and to report to U.S. lawmakers regularly on what the Bank is doing to help the thousands of families evicted in recent years from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood.

The bill, if approved by the U.S. Senate in the coming days, would follow through on threats some U.S. lawmakers had made to cut aid funding over Cambodia’s flawed election, which returned Prime Minister Hun Sen to power but tainted the ruling CPP’s win due to evidence of widespread irregularities.

While the U.S. hasn’t rejected the results of the election, it has conspicuously avoided endorsing them.

The spending bill may carry more force as a symbolic gesture than as a financial burden, however. The text of the bill does not specify just how much aid Cambodia could lose out on, and includes exceptions that would prevent much of it from being withdrawn.

Of the more than $1 billion in aid foreign donors shower on Cambodia each year, less than $80 million comes from the U.S., and most of that goes directly to nongovernment groups. The new spending bill targets only those funds that would go straight into government coffers for anything other than humanitarian aid. It also protects any funds for human rights training for the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, units of which have recently implicated in violently putting down a protest for higher garment factory wages.

Whatever modest aid is left, the bill would have it suspended until “a) such government is conducting and implementing, with the concurrence of the political opposition in Cambodia, an independent and credible investigation into irregularities associated with the July 28, 2013, parliamentary elections, and comprehensive reform of the National Election Committee [NEC] or b) all parties that won parliamentary seats in such elections have agreed to join the National Assembly, and the National Assembly is conducting business in accordance with the Cambodian Constitution.”

The opposition CNRP won nearly half the Assembly’s 123 seats in the July poll and claims it would have won a majority had the voting been free and fair. The party has refused to take its seats since the Assembly convened in September and is calling for an independent investigation and reforms to the NEC. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government is refusing to do either.

Negotiations between the opposition and ruling CPP are still stalled, while mass protests against Mr. Hun Sen came to an abrupt end early this month after government thugs raided a camp of opposition supporters in central Phnom Penh.

CPP lawmaker and party spokesman Cheam Yeap said he was deeply disappointed by the bill’s passage and accused the U.S. of unfairly singling out Cambodia.

“I very much regret that America passed the law only on Cambodia; why doesn’t America implement this on other countries?” he asked. “I study the law a lot, I know about international law and common law. According to procedure, the Western countries should not do things like this.”

Mr. Yeap lamented what he felt was an American bias toward the opposition. “America cannot control Cambodia,” he added.

As for Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood, from which the government has in recent years illegally evicted some 3,000 families to make way for a CPP senator’s real estate project, the spending bill calls for more accountability from the World Bank.

In early 2011, an independent investigation concluded that a World Bank project in Cambodia that was meant to furnish Cambodians with land titles had actually helped to strip the Boeng Kak families of their land rights. Later that year, the Bank confirmed that it was suspending all new lending to Cambodia until the government and families reached an agreement to compensate the evictees.

The spending bill would have the U.S. treasury secretary direct the World Bank’s American executive director to report regularly to the House Appropriations Committee on what the Bank was doing to “provide appropriate redress” to the Boeng Kak families harmed by the Bank’s land titling project. The Bank director would also have to tell the Appropriations Committee what he was doing to “postpone reengagement” with Cambodia until the election dispute was resolved.

Evictees and human rights groups have accused the World Bank of not doing enough to help the displaced families.

Tep Vanny, a Boeng Kak resident who has protested against the evictions for years and paid for it with jail time, welcomed the provision in the new bill by the House of Representatives.

“We are very glad for the solidarity of the American people and we hope that the World Bank will take notice. It is time to resolve our case once and for all because our people have suffered long enough,” she said in a statement circulated by rights groups.

The bill would also suspend any U.S. funds appropriated for the Khmer Rouge tribunal until the Cambodian government provides or secures funding for the national side of the hybrid, U.N.-backed court.

The government is obliged to support the chronically under-funded national side of the court under its agreement with the U.N. but has largely failed to do so.

The U.S. is the court’s third- largest donor, behind Japan and Australia. Of the $200 million provided by donors to the court as of September, the U.S. has given $16.1 million, or about 8 percent.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh declined to comment on how much aid the bill could actually cost Cambodia.

“In general we do not comment on pending legislation,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy)

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