A group of American lawmakers is seeking to maintain the US policy of avoiding giving money directly to the Cambodian government and instead funneling aid through NGOs.
Al Santoli, an adviser to controversial US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, said this week there was support in both the House of Representatives and Senate for ensuring that no aid is given directly to the Phnom Penh government.
“We don’t trust the government as a central repository for money,” said Santoli, Rohrabacher’s special assistant on foreign affairs, during a phone interview early Tuesday morning.
US Senator Mitch McConnell, in a letter last week to US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, said Cambodia does not qualify for direct assistance because controversy over the July election remains unsettled.
The US has generally not given money directly to any Cambodian government in the ’90s, instead funneling aid to NGOs and providing materials and expertise to help the government. After the factional fighting in July 1997, however, most of these donations were cut off.
World donors including the US are meeting in Tokyo on Feb 25 and 26 to consider Cambodia’s request for $1.3 billion in aid.
The US State Department in general determines President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy, but Congress can change these policies by setting conditions through legislation.
In a letter dated Feb 12, McConnell said the Cambodian government has not met three conditions required by law before resumption of direct aid: that all election disputes be resolved; political violence against journalists and opposition politicians ended; and the government formed through credible, democratic elections.
The State Department considers all election issues settled, McConnell wrote, but he disagreed. “Cambodian opposition parties have filed more than 800 complaints with the National Election Commission, none of which have been seriously considered or addressed,” he said.
Rohrabacher, who holds a seat in the 436-member House of Representatives, has been one of the US government’s most vocal and constant critics of Prime Minister Hun Sen. He last year won passage of a resolution in the House labeling Hun Sen a war criminal. He also has met with former rebel leader Nhiek Bun Chhay.
Santoli included Representative Benjamin Gilman and Senator Jesse Helms, Republicans who lead foreign policy committees, as among those with whom Rohrabacher has been working to block direct aid.
Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs Sieng Lapresse said it was the Congress’ right to determine funding, but added that he hopes the US will begin to direct aid to the government and help this “infant democracy.” The election is settled, he said, and noted that the government may have better ideas where to put funding and build the country than a group of NGOs.
“I think the US should move on this issue,” Sieng Lapresse said. “Everyone realizes what a mistake the last five years have been.”
Santoli also said Cambodia’s action with a Khmer Rouge tribunal would have an impact on the amount of American foreign aid. “The whole premise not to rock the boat was that Hun Sen’s gang, the [National Police Chief] Hok Lundy crowd, were going to help bring the Khmer Rouge to trial,” he said. “The whole emphasis for the State Department’s policy is the Khmer Rouge.”