The U.S. Embassy on Wednesday sent out an uncommonly biting retort to the government’s criticism of the U.S.’s presence in Cambodia, the latest salvo in a growing diplomatic rift between the two countries.
On Tuesday, the Foreign Affairs Ministry, no stranger to firing off sharp critiques of the government’s detractors, issued an unusually long and rambling statement defending the long-ruling CPP on a host of issues.
Titled “To Tell the Truth,” it accuses Western governments, NGOs and journalists of secretly plotting and conspiring to bring about the regime’s downfall. While sweeping in its allegations, the ministry singles out a few it identified as the worst offenders—including the U.S.
In response, the U.S. Embassy, which is typically more patient with the Cambodian government’s rebukes, had an acerbic reaction.
“We encourage the government of Cambodia to expend less energy propagating unfounded conspiracy theories and instead devote its resources to addressing the needs of the Cambodian people and ensuring its upcoming elections are free and fair,” said U.S. Embassy spokesman David Josar in a brief email.
Cambodia has stepped up its criticism of the U.S. since Donald Trump won the presidential election late last year, mostly over war-era debt Washington is still calling on the government to repay, and which has since mounted to about $500 million.
In January, Cambodia canceled its routine joint military exercises with the U.S. for the next two years, claiming it needed to focus its resources on the upcoming commune and national elections. Just this month, the U.S. Embassy announced that the government, without explanation, had indefinitely suspended the mission of a Navy unit specializing in humanitarian work in Cambodia.
Analysts say Cambodia’s growing distance from—and vitriol for—the U.S. is a direct consequence of its growing ties to China, which has showered the country with investment, aid and loans free of the human rights conditions demanded by Washington.
Tuesday’s statement from the Foreign Affairs Ministry also criticized the U.N.’s local human rights office, which the government has increasingly accused of interfering in Cambodia’s internal affairs.
Asked for comment, the office’s country director, Wan-Hea Lee, said the government continued to misunderstand the office’s role, and the gulf that exists between controversial new legislation widely seen as targeting regime critics and the standards of international human rights law.
But Ms. Lee said she welcomed the statement in the hopes that “it will allow for discussion on a constructive way forward on the many issues raised.”
She encouraged the government to set up “functional forums” for resolving Cambodia’s problems, including the resuscitation of a special working group between the government and its development partners, focusing on land issues.
“Every country is challenged to continuously find better ways to protect human rights, to remedy violations when they occur, and to institutionalize an effective human rights protection system with proper checks and balances through independent monitoring institutions,” she said. “This applies to Cambodia as well.”