US Spending Bill Ties Aid to End of Government ‘Violence’

A spending bill approved by the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee last week proposes to make U.S. aid to Cambodia in 2017 contingent on an end to the government’s harassment of the opposition and civil society.

It would also suspend aid to the Khmer Rouge tribunal unless the government agrees to “consider” Case 003, which Prime Minister Hun Sen has personally—and repeatedly—vowed to block.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, speaks with Prime Minister Hun Sen at Mr. Hun Sen’s office building in Phnom Penh during a visit in January. (Pring Samrang/Reuters)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, speaks with Prime Minister Hun Sen at Mr. Hun Sen’s office building in Phnom Penh during a visit in January. (Pring Samrang/Reuters)

The $52 billion State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill for fiscal year 2017, passed by the committee on Wednesday, puts $77.8 million in aid to Cambodia on the line at a time when many see a growing crackdown on critics and opponents ahead of coming commune and national elections.

“None of the funds appropriated by this Act may be made available for assistance for Cambodia unless the Secretary of State determines and reports to the appropriate congressional committees that the Government of Cambodia has ceased violence and harassment against civil society in Cambodia, including the political opposition,” the bill reads.

According to a Senate report accompanying the bill, the vast majority of the recommended budget for Cambodia, $69.9 million of it, would go toward health programs and development assistance. Most of the rest would go to military education and training, demining, anti-terrorism and related programs. The remaining $1.5 million is earmarked for the Khmer Rouge tribunal, and comes with its own proposed conditions.

The tribunal would only see the money, the bill says, “if the Secretary of State certifies and reports to the committees on appropriations that the [tribunal] will consider Case 003.”

The Senate report elaborates on the committee’s thinking.

It says the bill would limit U.S. support for the tribunal exclusively to the pending Case 003 against Khmer Rouge navy commander Meas Muth, who is implicated in the 1975 capture of the S.S. Mayaguez, which led to the deaths of 41 U.S. servicemen. It says the committee also supports U.S. State Department plans to end tribunal support if the court ever issues an order to close the case, which is currently under investigation.

The committee goes on to echo the widespread belief that Mr. Hun Sen’s government has lately ratcheted up its suppression of the opposition CNRP and of nongovernment groups typically critical of his rule.

“The committee is concerned that the crackdown by the Government of Cambodia on civil society and the political opposition is intended to undermine prospects for free and fair elections in 2017,” the report says.

The committee also directs the State Department to press the government on conducting a “credible” investigation into a 1997 grenade attack on an opposition protest in Phnom Penh that killed 16 people and injured a U.S. citizen. A thwarted FBI investigation never came to a definitive conclusion as to the culprits but strongly suggested the involvement of security forces loyal to Mr. Hun Sen’s ruling CPP.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said on Sunday that those criticizing the government over its treatment of the opposition and rights groups were effectively asking Cambodia to abandon its own laws.

“It’s up to the United States,” he said of the appropriations bill. “It means we have to stop implementing the rule of law?”

“It’s not proper to put pressure on a sovereign government,” he said. “They use aid to pressure the government to do wrongly according to the rule of law.”

It remains to be seen whether the Senate committee’s proposals will make it out of the U.S. Congress. A version of the same bill working its way through the House of Representatives includes none of the conditions added by the Senate.

But it would not be the first time the U.S. placed restrictions on its aid to Cambodia.

In January 2014, President Barack Obama signed off on a spending bill that suspended some funding to the Cambodian government until it carried out an independent investigation of the previous year’s bitterly disputed national elections or until the CNRP ended its post-election boycott of parliament. The bill targeted only a small portion of that year’s $80 million appropriation, though, and the CNRP ended its boycott months later.

A brief rapprochement has since given way to outright hostilities, however, with the CNRP once again boycotting parliament, this time in protest over the recent arrests of its lawmakers and the government’s legal assault against deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha over a sex scandal.

Other donors have since proposed aid cuts of their own.

Over the past seven months, the European Parliament has passed two resolutions urging the European Commission to make cuts to the $465 million aid package committed to Cambodia through 2020 unless the human rights situation improves. One European lawmaker who supported the resolution said those running Cambodia were nothing short of “gangsters.”

Mr. Hun Sen has met the threats of aid cuts with typical bluster.

In June, a week after the European Parliament’s last resolution, the prime minister challenged the European Commission to follow through, arguing that he had little to fear because nongovernment groups would be the first to suffer.

peter@cambodiadaily.com

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